Sunday, February 29, 2004

Not-So-Sound Science

Chris Mooney, who can be found listed on my "Blogroll" over there on the left, has written an article in the Washington Post about "sound science," "peer review" and the evil use to which the Bush Administration and its allies are putting these terms.
It all sounds noble enough, but the phrases "sound science" and "peer review" don't necessarily mean what you might think. Instead, they're part of a lexicon used to put a pro-science veneer on policies that most of the scientific community itself tends to be up in arms about. In this Orwellian vocabulary, "peer review" isn't simply an evaluation by learned colleagues. Instead, it appears to mean an industry-friendly plan to require such exhaustive analysis that federal agencies could have a hard time taking prompt action to protect public health and the environment. And "sound science" can mean, well, not-so-sound science.
"Sound science" has been used to undermine attempts at makign good policy behind global warming, second-hand cigarette smoke, oil and gas drilling in Alaska, stem cell research, missile defense, ergonomics and early childhood development, to name just a few.

And I've written several times before about the Bush administration tampering with government science panels for political reasons
Normally, agencies like the EPA use such committees to bring expertise into their decision-making processes. But under the Bush administration, full committees were disbanded, while others were stacked with nominees who have pro-life and pro-industry stances. One prominent scientist told the Los Angeles Times that during a screening interview for committee membership he was asked his views on abortion and whether he'd voted for Bush. "What's unusual about the current epidemic is not that the Bush administration examines candidates for compatibility with its 'values,' " wrote Kennedy. "It's how deep the practice cuts."
Science and politics have always been somewhat intertwined in the process of making policy, but the Bush administration has taken it to a completely new level. So what does Mooney suggest the proper relationship between science and politics should be?
For a healthy relationship between the two spheres to exist, science shouldn't dictate political choices; it should underpin them, much as good intelligence can inform national security decisions. Policymakers should consult with scientists, then factor what they learn into their decisions -- especially today, when it's hard to find a political issue, from Medicare reform to Iraq's nuclear program, that lacks a core scientific component.

Under Bush, however, this crucial relationship has been upended. Instead of allowing facts to inform policies, preexisting political commitments have twisted facts and tainted information. If Bush insists on calling this "sound science," so be it. The English language will probably survive. But the once-cooperative relationship between politicians and scientists in this country seems to be in serious jeopardy.