Sunday, December 21, 2003

What If The Canary Stops Singing, But No One's Listening

You all know the story of the canaries that miners used to bring down into the mines to warn them against explosive methane gas. The canaries were more sensitive to the gas than humans, so when the canaries stopped singing, the miners knew something was wrong and they'd better get out -- fast.

That was then. This is now. After new regulations by the Office of Management and Budget go into effect, the scenario will change. Intead of the miners evacuating when the Canary drops dead, mine owners will tell them to stop until a peer reviewed study can be done proving that the canary was killed by the gas, and not old age, cancer, smoking or illegal drug use. And the peer review -- which might take years -- could not be done by anyone who had ever worked for a union or the federal government. In fact, only scientists hired by the mining industry would be able to peer review the miners' theory of why the canary died. After all, who better to know the real conditions in mines than the mine owners?

In the real world, workers are the canaries of modern industry. No possible workplace health hazard has been regulated by the federal government -- or intensively studied by scientists -- before workers noticed that their health was being affected and made a stink about it.

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about a number of scientists and fellow bloggers who warning of the Bush Administration's proposed guidelines under the little-noticed "Data Quality Act that would abuse "peer review" to stifle the regulatory process. Now the news is starting to break into the regular press with an article in the Baltimore Sun.
On its face, the idea sounds utterly unassailable: Who would oppose a government rule to increase expert discussion of key scientific research?

But a new Bush administration proposal to increase peer review for many scientific studies has alarmed public health and environmental groups, as well as many scientists.

They call it a back-door attempt to stifle new health and environmental regulations by burying them under mountains of discussion and analysis. Critics contend the process is also designed to produce conclusions slanted toward industry.