Nov 30, 2003
By Faye Flam
Are humans responsible for global warming ?
How hazardous are certain chemicals to our health? To wildlife? To stop the spread of AIDS , what’s better: condoms or abstinence?
On these questions, some scientists say, the answers fed to the public depend more on politics than they do on science. In an era of ideologues, zealots and culture wars, science is becoming one more tool with which to hammer the enemy.
Earlier this fall, researchers from different disciplines gathered at the American Association for the Advancement of Science to lament the invasion of politics into their world.
They bemoaned the way politicians were putting a spin on scientific results – contorting them to fit political agendas.
Science is likely to become more entangled in politics. Scientists are increasingly asked to make predictions in areas that do not follow simple formulas. Traditionally, scientific ideas were tested by straightforward experiments or observations; even something as touchy as Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution was quickly backed by evidence from the fossil record and subsequent work in microbiology and genetics.
No such straightforward observations can buttress predictions about global climate change, the progress of the AIDS epidemic, or other politically charged issues. Instead, scientists often rely on models – forecasting methods that rely on many variables and don’t promise precision. That leaves science wide open to political spin.
In recent months, editors of major science journals have complained that the Bush administration is distorting science to push an agenda influenced by religion and by industry wishes. The journal Science published editorials accusing the administration of stacking panels on lead poisoning and pollution with people with ties to the lead or petroleum industries, and loading panels on HIV/ AIDS prevention with Christian pro-abstinence groups.
On the other side, conservatives complain that liberal politicians such as Al Gore have ritually exaggerated risks from global warming and pollution. Scientists who question liberal conventional wisdom, they say, are ostracized.
The two sides straddle a growing ideological and religious divide in America.
On one side of that divide is the environmental movement.
“Rachael Carson set out this paradigm when she said humans were altering the environment in a hazardous way,” said Lois Swirsky Gold, a toxicologist from the University of California, Berkeley, who notes that many man-made chemicals do not cause cancer in people.
In her book The Silent Spring, Carson emphasized the harmful effects of DDT on birds. “Who has the right to decide . . . that the supreme value is a world without insects, even though it be also a sterile world ungraced by the curving wing of a bird in flight?” she wrote.
Carson’s writing questioned a traditional Judeo- Christian view that God gives mankind dominion over the world.
On the other side are those grounded in the notion that God gave the Earth to humans to use as they see fit. “I do believe we have been given dominion over the planet,” said William O’Keefe, president of the George C. Marshall foundation, which recently released a book, Politicized Science.
O’Keefe and several prominent scientists who contributed to the book argue that we should rely more on scientific evidence, rather than assuming that human-led change will be harmful. University of Pittsburgh nuclear physicist Bernard Cohen, for example, said evidence suggested that low levels of radiation improved human health.
Several contributors to Politicized Science criticized past administrations for overreacting to perceived threats to human health, be it Alar on apples or global warming or radiation from nuclear power plants.
While science has all but discarded the assumption that cancer is caused primarily by exposure to industrial chemicals, Swirsky Gold said, policy-makers have been slow to grasp the point.
Natural substances are full of chemicals that cause cancer in animals at high doses, she said: “A thousand chemicals have been identified in roasted coffee beans. Of those that have been tested, 21 are carcinogens. ”
Princeton physicist William Happer said the Clinton White House fired him as head of energy research for the Department of Energy because he did not toe its line on global warming : “I didn’t think the science was anywhere close to being settled – whether it was good or bad for humanity if it were to happen, or whether warming in the 20th century had anything to do with humans. ”
In his field of physics, he said, debate and questioning are encouraged and deemed essential. Environmental researchers, he said, took offense at his attempts to question their findings; they had made up their minds that warming spelled disaster.
Not all climate experts say the sky is falling, but nearly all agree that the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is up, thanks to humans, our cars, our power plants. But a few argue that the globe’s warming is a natural trend.
For many, there’s already ample reason to be concerned. Recent studies warn that the world is losing its amphibians, its coral reef dwellers, its songbirds and unknown denizens of the rain forest.
But the science still points to what is ultimately a political question: How much prosperity and growth should we sacrifice to alter the trend?
David Michaels, a professor of public health at George Washington University, said industry was spending huge amounts to foster doubt on global warming despite a growing scientific consensus.
He compares the effort to the tobacco industry, which exploited the intrinsic uncertainty of much medical research to deny links between smoking and cancer.
Last summer, U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman (D., Calif.) released a report on the Bush White House’s uses of science. It accused the White House of deleting sections on global warming from what was to have been a a comprehensive report on the environment.
Environmental Protection Agency spokeswoman Lisa Harrison said the original report’s wording, that “climate change will have global consequences,” was deleted because the agency thought the situation too uncertain.
A typical ploy, GWU’s Michaels counters.
Waxman also complained about the administration tilting public health policy to reflect a religious agenda that stressed sexual abstinence before marriage. For example, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web site on HIV/ AIDS was altered to downplay the use of condoms and their effectiveness, emphasizing instead abstinence and monogamy. Ed Thompson, deputy director of the CDC, said this reflected a rethinking of what was known about prevention of HIV.
More than ever, good science is crucial for making wise policy decisions on public health and the future of the planet, but objectivity is hard to come by – even among scientists.
Most of the scientists who had read Waxman’s report and agreed with it did not bother with the one from the Marshall Institute. Too predictably conservative, they said. Most who contributed to the Marshall report did not bother with Waxman’s investigation, assuming it would be predictably liberal.