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Bush majors in suppression of science

by Stephen Hesse

It comes as no surprise that U.S. President George W. Bush is calling for a constitutional amendment limiting marriage to heterosexual couples. He is simply using the age-old tactic of picking on others to save his own hide.

Quite simply, and simplistically, if the Bush administration can raise a spirited, nationwide debate on gay rights it has a much better chance of obscuring its most vulnerable flanks, such as its failure to base environmental policies on sound science.

Ironically, from the beginning this administration has called for sound science in policymaking. Government scientists and the scientific community quickly learned, however, that the Bush definition of “sound science” is science that sounds good to the corporate interests financing Bush’s White House.

“The Bush Administration has so violated and corrupted the institutional culture of government agencies charged with scientific research that it could take a generation for them to recover their integrity even if Bush is defeated this fall,” said Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, writing in last month’s issue of The Nation magazine. The NRDC is a U.S. nonprofit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists working to protect public health and the environment.

“The Bush Administration . . . [is] engaged in a campaign to suppress science that is arguably unmatched in the Western world since the Inquisition. Sometimes, rather than suppress good science, they simply order up their own. Meanwhile, the Bush White House is purging, censoring and blacklisting scientists and engineers whose work threatens the profits of the administration’s corporate paymasters,” asserts Kennedy.

“The administration’s first instinct when it comes to science has been to suppress, discredit or alter facts it doesn’t like,” he explains, noting several cases that would be humorous if they were not so frightening.

In October 2001, for example, during a Senate inquiry into how oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would affect caribou, Interior Secretary Gale Norton “falsely claimed that the caribou would not be affected, because they calve outside the area targeted for drilling. She later explained that she somehow substituted ‘outside’ for ‘inside,’ ” says Kennedy.

Of course, changing a few words is easiest, but tracking down data that fits your needs is almost as easy, and less likely to raise eyebrows. In another instance, Norton “substituted findings from a study financed by an oil company for some . . . that the [government's] Fish and Wildlife Service had prepared for her,” Kennedy notes.

All this fudging of science is done primarily to influence and enrich political allies. Citing The Wall Street Journal, Kennedy relates one particularly tragic example of environmental loss for political gain. Again Norton was involved, this time with White House political adviser Karl Rove. To stroke local Republicans and agribusiness supporters, Norton and Rove pushed for a large diversion of water from the Klamath River in northern California. As a result, “some 34,000 endangered salmon were killed after National Marine Fisheries scientists altered their findings on the amount of water the salmon required. Environmentalists describe it as the largest fish kill in the history of the West,” according to Kennedy.

Sadly, this was not an isolated incident. Kennedy writes that, according to a former director of the National Park Service, “the alteration and deletion of scientific information is now standard procedure at Interior.” The same individual told Kennedy “it’s hard to decide what is more demoralizing about the administration’s politicization of the scientific process, its disdain for professional scientists working for our government or its willingness to deceive the American public.”

Meanwhile, even as I wrote this column, more Bush shenanigans surfaced. Last year, the Pentagon commissioned a report on the potential impacts of climate change. Peter Schwartz, a CIA consultant and former head of planning at the Royal Dutch/Shell Group, and Doug Randall, of the Global Business Network in California, wrote the report, entitled “An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and Its Implications for United States National Security,” and handed it to military planners last October.

Immediately the report was quashed. Apparently the Bush Defense Department did not want Americans to hear the Schwartz/Randall conclusion that “because of the potentially dire consequences, the risk of abrupt climate change, although uncertain and quite possibly small, should be elevated beyond scientific debate to a U.S. national security concern.”

For anyone who has been following the climate-change debate, this is pretty mainstream stuff. Warming has been documented and is accepted by objective scientists. The potential risks posed are great. Therefore, proactive caution is necessary. But Bush has no ear for analysts bearing unprofitable news. He prefers corporate sycophants promising jobs and religious-right toadies eager to bring on the apocalypse.

As truth will, however, the report came to light Feb. 22 in an article by Mark Townsend and Paul Harris in The Observer. And, true to form, the White House quickly swung into gear. The Pentagon immediately dismissed the report as speculative, saying it “reflects the limits of scientific models and information” (i.e., we don’t like these findings so we will ignore them. At which point, millions of eyes across the globe rolled in unison, as the Bush administration consigned yet another piece of informed analysis to the dustbin.)

This spring, Kennedy will publish a book on Bush’s environmental policies, titled “Crimes Against Nature” (HarperCollins). Assuming his piece in The Nation is just an appetizer, the book should be a lively, and disturbing, read.

In his Nation article, though, Kennedy gives the final word to Princeton University scientist Michael Oppenheimer: “If you believe in a rational universe, in enlightenment, in knowledge and in a search for the truth, this White House is an absolute disaster.”