Wednesday, December 8, 2004

Beware when policy trumps science

Scientists are meticulously objective when it comes to their work. Research is a culture in which the one who discovers the truth first—good or bad—wins.

In a disturbing trend, however, the Bush administration has taken the approach that policy trumps scientific findings. That bodes ill for issues as disparate as sage grouse populations, global warming and abortion rights.

Consider the case of the sage grouse, which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been considering for the Endangered Species List. The agency was given two reports on the state of the grouse, one written by federal biologists, the other by Julie MacDonald, a senior policy maker with no background in wildlife biology.

MacDonald took issue with the fact that before settlers arrived in the 19th century there were millions of the birds, calling it "simply a fairy tale, constructed out of whole cloth." She denied that sage grouse are dependent on sagebrush during the winter. "They will eat other stuff if it is available," she wrote.

The sage grouse's dependence on sagebrush in winter is uncontested among scientists.

When biologists summarized the population declines in their report, MacDonald added, "all of these data are badly flawed in some manner." She even asked that one study be deleted because the steep population decline in one Utah valley was too "extreme."

One of President Bush's first term campaign pledges was to reduce power plant discharges of carbon dioxide, one of the bad actors in global warming. Climate experts at the Environmental Protection Agency in March recommended to the White House that the pledge be kept, writing: "The science is strongest on the fact that carbon dioxide is contributing ... to global climate change."

Nonetheless, the president then executed a U-turn and urged senators to reconsider the carbon dioxide cuts "given the incomplete state of scientific knowledge of the causes of, and solutions to global climate change."

The most recent and egregious blurring of scientific facts has insinuated itself into the abortion issue.

The much-heralded abstinence-only education programs provide "false, misleading or distorted information" about contraception, abortion, sexually transmitted diseases and sexual stereotypes, a recent Congressional report said. Among the misinformation in the program are assertions that touching another person's genitals causes pregnancy and that condoms fail to prevent HIV 31 percent of the time.

Distortion of scientific facts in the name of policy is not only wrong, it's dangerous. And, the price of being wrong in science can be deadly.

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