Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Politicization of Science

Further to the humiliation of Professor Nutt by the neocon New Labour government of the UK for giving it proper scientific advice as he had been appointed to do, it turns out that similar politicization of science has been going on under the neocon Bush administration. Policymakers within the federal government were trying to suppress objective scientific evidence, to distort scientific findings, and to put people in positions, notably in environment and public health, where they could promote a political and ideological agenda.

Objective science should not be subverted to serve political or ideological goals.

Science is being misused—through efforts to suppress or distort scientific findings, through the appointment of scientists and researchers who meet certain political and ideological rather than professional criteria, through funding politically self serving scientific studies, and through the intimidation of scientists. Newspapers, congressional hearings, and reports from respected scientific organizations such as the National Academy of Sciences and the Union of Concerned Scientists, have expressed concern. Politics is undermining the integrity of the scientific method.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) conducted an investigation into the politicization of science within the government. It found a systematic effort to suppress and distort scientific findings to promote political ends. For example, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) replaced a web site fact sheet containing information on proper condom use, the efficacy of different types of condoms, and a study showing that condom education does not lead to an increase in sexual activity, with information on condom failure and the value of abstinence. Also, information suggesting a link between breast cancer and abortion was posted on the National Cancer Institute’s web site against the objection of CDC staff who denounced such information as long refuted and unsubstantiated.

The same report indicates that the Bush administration delayed for nine months an EPA report (eventually leaked) that indicated that 8 percent of women between the ages of 16 and 49 have blood mercury levels that could lead to reduced IQ and motor skills in their children. When new rules of mercury emissions were finally released by the EPA, at least 12 paragraphs were included, sometimes verbatim, not from scientific sources but from a legal document prepared by industry lawyers.

Reports commissioned by Henry Waxman documented many distortions of science by the executive, on a par with the suppression of Professor Nutt by the UK government, such as the widespread incorporation of erroneous, politicized information in federally funded “abstinence only” curricula. Some of these misrepresentations include inaccurate statistics about contraception, a false linkage between abortions and breast cancer, the labeling of a 43 day old fetus as a “thinking person” and the notion that “sweat and tears” can transmit HIV.

There is also growing use of political criteria for scientific appointees. Applicants have been asked about their political affiliations rather than their professional credentials. The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine released a report entitled “Ensuring the Best Presidential and Federal Advisory Committee Science and Technology Appointments”. Among their recommendations was that “it is no more appropriate to ask Science and Technology experts to provide irrelevant information—such as voting record, political party affiliation or position on particular policies —than to ask them other personal and immaterial information, such as hair color or weight”.

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