Sierra Magazine

Strategic Ignorance

"See no evil" as a political game plan.

by Carl Pope and Paul Rauber

This spring the United States was racked by a debate over whether George W. Bush’s administration twisted intelligence reports on Iraq’s military capabilities to justify going to war. Critics in Congress urged that the commission appointed to investigate "intelligence lapses" also examine whether the administration started with an ideological goal, and then went in search of the facts to fit.

Such a modus operandi would be in keeping with the Bush administration’s approach to the environment. For this president, facts are endlessly fungible, whether about weapons of mass destruction or the threat of global warming. His administration declares scientific studies that support its position to be "sound," while those that oppose it are "junk." Reports with inconvenient findings are sent to rewrite, and come back with the opposite conclusions. Government researchers who refuse to play politics find their funding cut off. Distinguished scientists are bounced from advisory panels, replaced by undistinguished extremists, often with close ties to the affected industries. And policymakers whose actions are supposed to be guided by science find themselves instead taking marching orders from the likes of Karl Rove, Bush’s political consigliere.

Science has not been so intensely politicized since quack Soviet agronomist Trofim Lysenko convinced Joseph Stalin that genetics and evolution were "bourgeois science." Lysenko’s pet theory of "vernalization" held that variations within a plant population were due to environment, not genetics; if seeds were soaked in cold water, he believed, they would grow in cold climates. Lysenko quickly advanced to the top of Soviet science–literally over the bodies of genuine biologists, many of whom were exiled to the gulags or even shot as "enemies of the people." His scientific method was frankly ideological: "In order to obtain a certain result," Lysenko wrote, "you must want to obtain precisely that result. . . . I need only such people as will obtain the results I need." When Lysenko’s theory was put into practice on the collective farms of the Soviet Union (and, later, Maoist China), millions died in the resultant famines. Politicized science is not quite so crude these days, but–especially should the more dire global-warming scenarios come to pass–it could be as deadly.

Bush’s administration signaled its approach early on with a dramatic shift in the flow of federal dollars for scientific research. For example, Bush’s secretary of the Interior, Gale Norton, slashed the R & D budget of the department’s National Water Quality Laboratory by 70 percent–even though the lab had been responsible for ferreting out the biggest drinking-water threat of the past decade, the water-pollutant MTBE. When the administration sought to amend the definition of "dolphin safe" tuna to accommodate Mexico and its tuna fleet, it shut down research conducted by Albert Myrick and Sarka Southern at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center, the regional research wing of the National Marine Fisheries Service in San Diego, California. Their studies showed that some dolphins are chased more than ten times a year and caught in nets more than three times a year, subjecting the protected mammals to dangerous degrees of stress. Southern later described how her supervisor had ordered her to withhold her findings: "He came to my office and said that I have to understand that there’s science and there’s politics, and the politics dictate what sorts of science can be used." Subsequently, U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson blocked Bush’s attempt to relax the dolphin-safe standards. His ruling, as reported by the Los Angeles Times, was that the decision to change the standards "appears to have been influenced more by international trade policies than scientific evidence."

The Bush White House regards scientific findings as the raw material of spin, to be dribbled out, manipulated, or suppressed as suits the political needs of the moment. In south Florida, the EPA’s top wetlands scientist, Bruce Boler, was forced out after objecting to the administration’s use of a developer-funded study that pretended that natural wetlands actually made water pollution problems worse–a finding contradicted by thousands of peer-reviewed scientific studies showing that wetlands are among nature’s major cleanup agents. When the Interior Department was formulating new rules for snowmobile use in Yellowstone National Park, it deleted the comments of its own scientists, who recommended that snowmobile exhaust emissions be reduced. Secretary Norton proposed instead an increase in snowmobile traffic in the park. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan subsequently sent Norton back to the drawing board, declaring that the process she had used to formulate the new rules was "completely politically driven."

Science is supposed to shape policy, not the other way around. Traditionally, presidents rely on the advice of scientific advisory committees, comprising leading experts in a variety of specialized fields. The composition of these committees is governed by the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which requires that they be "fairly balanced in terms of the points of view represented" and not "inappropriately influenced by the appointing authority or any special interest."

Bush’s federal advisory committees are fairly balanced in the same way that Fox News is. Bush nominated as chair of the Food and Drug Administration’s Reproductive Health Drugs Advisory Committee Dr. W. David Hager, a conservative religious activist most known for his opposition to the abortion pill RU-486 and his advice that women suffering from premenstrual syndrome should pray and read the Bible. (Hager ultimately was not appointed chair but does serve on the committee.) Bush dismissed all but 3 of the 18 members of the Advisory Committee to the Director of the National Center for Environmental Health, which had been assessing the effects of low-level exposure to environmental chemicals. Among the replacements were the former president of the Chemical Industry Institute of Toxicology, a vice president of the right-wing Heritage Foundation, an academic risk-assessor who disputed links between pollution and cancer, and the California toxicologist who appeared on behalf of Pacific Gas and Electric when Erin Brockovich sued it for poisoning groundwater with chromium. (PG&E lost.)

The Centers for Disease Control’s Advisory Committee on Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention met a similar fate. In October 2002, the panel was studying whether to toughen federal standards for lead exposure, last set in 1991. Since then, many new studies had shown that even very slight exposure to lead could cause developmental damage in children. Shortly before the committee took up the issue, the Department of Health and Human Services rejected five nominations to the committee by CDC staff scientists. Those named in their places included a consultant to a lead-smelting company, a toxicologist who served as a paid defense witness in lead-paint liability trials (who once denied any connection between lead exposure and cognitive problems in children at all), and a hematologist recruited by the lead industry who had opposed the 1991 standards.

The brazenness of these efforts prompted a revolt by the traditionally apolitical scientific journals. "Scientific advisory committees do not exist to tell the secretary [of Health and Human Services] what he wants to hear but to help the secretary, and the nation, address complex issues," insisted an editorial in Science. "Regulatory paralysis appears to be the goal here, rather than the application of honest balanced science." The magazine went on to recount how a nominee to the National Advisory Council on Drug Abuse was asked if he had voted for Bush, and when he said that he had not, he was asked, "Why didn’t you support the president?"

"What’s unusual about the current epidemic is not that the Bush administration examines candidates for compatibility with its ‘values,’" concluded Science. "It’s how deep the practice cuts; in particular, the way it now invades areas once immune to this kind of manipulation."

Despite the criticism from actual scientists, the Bush administration has long maintained that it is motivated solely by "sound science." At her January 2001 confirmation hearing, soon-to-be Interior secretary Gale Norton made this pledge: "I am absolutely committed to the idea that the decision-making should be based on the best science, on the best analysis of environmental issues that we can find."

It soon became evident that the "best science," in the secretary’s view, was that which best agreed with the business plans of her boss’s corporate sponsors. Speaking perhaps more candidly than he intended, Thomas Sansonetti, a member of the Bush-Cheney transition team for the Interior Department, had this praise for the incoming secretary: "She understands the system. She is very good on national park issues and on Endangered Species Act law. There won’t be any biologists or botanists . . . to come in and pull the wool over her eyes."

Norton lived up to that encomium by repeatedly refusing to let the facts get in the way of her policy goals. Almost immediately after her confirmation, she reversed the Interior Department’s long-held position, confirmed by studies in 1995 and 1997, that oil drilling in the Arctic would contravene a 1973 international treaty to protect polar bears. "Despite the earlier reports," the Associated Press blandly noted, "Fish and Wildlife scientists more recently concluded that the risks to polar bears are minimal if oil development in the refuge is properly regulated."

Science turned political again on the Klamath River in Oregon and California. In April 2001, using criteria and standards established by the Endangered Species Act, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) determined that additional releases of freshwater into the Klamath were needed to protect threatened salmon and endangered sucker fish. When farmers protested and illegally diverted water supplies to irrigate their fields, the Interior Department asked the National Academy of Sciences to review the issue, but to apply weaker standards and criteria. The academy found that there was incomplete information on the subject. The department took this as a go-ahead to divert more water to irrigation. "No longer is junk science going to be allowed to destroy the lives of working families in Oregon," said the state’s Senator Gordon Smith (R). The families of salmon fishermen were not included in Smith’s compassion. In the warm, stagnant waters left by the diversion, 33,000 salmon died, the biggest fish-kill in the river’s history.

In October 2002, a month after the fish kill, government biologist Michael Kelley came forward to say that the Bush administration, through the Bureau of Reclamation, had tried (unsuccessfully) to get the NMFS to override its own scientists. "We are under pressure to get the right results," Kelley said. "This administration is putting species at risk for political gains." Several further scientific reports on the Klamath are also being bottled up, apparently because of their inconvenient conclusions. "This government does a better job of hiding data it doesn’t like than Saddam Hussein does of hiding his weapons," said Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations.

It turned out that the Bureau of Reclamation had some expert assistance in managing the science on the Klamath. Three months before the headgates were opened to release water for irrigation instead of fish, presidential advisor Karl Rove had made a PowerPoint presentation to "50 top managers at the U.S. Interior Department," the Wall Street Journal reported. Rove had just returned from a swing through Oregon with the president and was worried about the reelection prospects of Senator Smith. He spoke not of temperatures or water quality but of "poll results, critical constituencies, and water levels in the Klamath." A subsequent investigation by the Interior Department’s inspector general found that Rove’s comments had not influenced the Klamath process–not, it seems, for Rove’s lack of trying.

Nowhere does science line up more solidly against the Bush administration’s desires than with global warming. Desperate to forestall action, the administration has attempted to minimize the threat and maximize the appearance of controversy. In a memo sent to GOP insiders that was subsequently leaked to the press, Republican pollster Frank Luntz warned, "Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate. . . . The scientific debate is closing (against us) but not yet closed. There is still a window of opportunity to challenge the science."

Accordingly, Bush commissioned further reports to study supposed "scientific uncertainties," while avoiding any meaningful action. In response to increasingly strongly worded reports from the world’s top scientists, Bush tried to stifle the scientists. The foremost international body addressing global warming, for instance, is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which was chaired by Dr. Robert Watson, a top scientist at NASA and the World Bank. Under Watson’s leadership, the IPCC produced a groundbreaking report attributing warming to human activity. After the report came out, ExxonMobil sent a memo to the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality asking, "Can Watson be replaced now at the request of the U.S.?" The answer was yes: The State Department declined to support Watson’s reelection, and he lost his chairmanship.

In May 2002, the EPA issued its "Climate Action Report," a document required under the Rio Convention on Climate Change, an agreement signed by Bush’s father. The report concluded that recent changes to the climate "are likely due mostly to human activities" and that "continuing growth in greenhouse-gas emissions is likely to lead to annual average warming over the United States that could be as much as several degrees Celsius (roughly 3 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit) during the 21st century." Such temperature increases, it warned, might be accompanied by "rising seas, melting ice caps and glaciers, ecological system disruption, floods, heat waves, and more dangerous storms." Bush’s reaction was to summarily dismiss the results of years of work by federal scientists as "the report put out by the bureaucracy."

The most prominent feature of the administration’s global-warming plan turned out to be denial. In September 2002, the White House removed the global-warming section from the EPA’s annual assessment of air pollution trends, even though the agency had reported on the topic in each of the previous six years. In June 2003, an EPA study billed as "the first-ever national picture of environmental quality and human health in the United States" had to first pass by West Wing censors, who, internal documents showed, insisted on making "major edits" to the global-warming section. According to the New York Times, "The editing eliminated references to many studies concluding that warming is at least partly caused by rising concentrations of smokestack and tail-pipe emissions and could threaten health and ecosystems." Blue pencils "also deleted a reference to a 1999 study showing that global temperatures had risen sharply in the previous decade compared with the last 1,000 years. In its place, administration officials added a reference to a new study, partly financed by the American Petroleum Institute, questioning that conclusion." An internal EPA memo warned that, as edited by the White House, the section "no longer accurately represents scientific consensus on climate change." To its credit, the EPA simply deleted the section rather than publish spurious information.

In its crusade to keep all heads firmly planted in the sand, the administration even denied information about global warming to Congress. Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) asked the EPA for an analysis of a global-warming plan they were proposing. The EPA refused. "Agency employees say they have been told either not to analyze or not to release information about mercury, carbon dioxide, and other air pollutants," reported the Times. Lieberman called the refusal unacceptable: "This is an administration," he said, "that lets its politics and ideology overwhelm and stifle scientific fact."

"Is the analysis flawed?" asked William Ruckelshaus, EPA director under Richard Nixon. "That is a legitimate reason for not releasing it. But if you don’t like the outcome that might result from the analysis, that is not a legitimate reason."

Bush and his backers insist that their actions are based on "sound science," but real scientific inquiry requires conclusions derived from facts, and openness to the possibility that one is wrong. In the words of Eric Schaeffer, the EPA’s head of regulatory enforcement who resigned from his job in disgust over the administration’s "Clear Skies" plan, "‘Sound science’ is a slogan so manipulated that it has lost its meaning. Sound science ought to mean independent, objective research that leads to informed decisions about how best to protect human health and the natural world. Instead, it has come to mean suppressing data that fails to justify desired outcomes and manufacturing data that does."

This is strategic ignorance, the triumph of ideology over science, of desire over fact. For the sake of short-term gain, it drags science into disrepute, and threatens us all with its reckless conclusions. Whether Bush and his advisors acknowledge them or not, the natural laws governing the environment will continue to grind away: Species without habitat will go extinct, children forced to breathe dirty air will get asthma, and an atmosphere pumped full of greenhouse gases will continue to overheat the globe, with potentially catastrophic consequences for us all. Science is our window on an otherwise mysterious world; we can’t let our leaders turn away just because they don’t like what they see.

Carl Pope is the Sierra Club’s executive director. Paul Rauber is a senior editor at Sierra. This essay was adapted from their book, Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress (Sierra Club Books, 2004).

The Union of Concerned Scientists details the Bush administration’s misuse of science at See also, a report prepared for Representative Henry Waxman (D-Calif.).

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