Suspect Science: Genuine or Junk?

By definition, science is meant to explore and enlighten. The works of Galileo, Newton and Darwin transformed the way we view and interact with our world. Yet, some worry that science is increasingly being used in today's environmental arena not as a means of gaining objective information, but rather as a tool to promote certain political agendas. There is concern that all too often strong political influences are twisting facts, tainting information and reducing science to mere special interest spin.

In particular, critics on both ends of the political spectrum often assert that scientific findings pertaining to controversial environmental issues are based on selective or skewed data and not on solid research. For example, the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), a nonprofit public policy organization dedicated to the principles of free enterprise and limited government, criticizes both the Clinton and Bush administrations over two major global warming reports, the National Assessment on Climate Change and the Climate Action Report 2002, which were published by the respective administrations. CEI asserts that both reports failed to meet the minimal standards required by the Federal Data Quality Act, which is supposed to ensure the use of sound science in the publication and dissemination of science-based reports. Concerning the National Assessment prepared by the Clinton administration, CEI argues that the report violated the legal requirements of objectivity and utility by employing computer models proven unreliable and by incorrectly revising climate history to portray the climate of the 20th century as unusual. For more information, visit www.cei.org.

In much the same vein, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), an independent nonprofit alliance of more than 100,000 concerned citizens and scientists, has found fault with some of the Bush administration's scientific findings. Recently, USC published the study, Scientific Integrity in Policymaking, which alleges that the Bush administration has suppressed or distorted the scientific analysis of federal agencies to bring these results in line with administration policy. According to the UCS report, a growing number of scientists, policy makers and technical specialists both inside and outside government contend that irregularities in the appointment of scientific advisors and advisory panels are threatening to upset the legally mandated balance of federal agencies. Go to www.ucsusa.org to find out more about this report.

Much controversy centers on the definition of sound science. On the face of it, the term sounds straightforward enough. However, some critics of the Bush administration think sound science is being used like doublespeak. In his recent newspaper editorial "How Industry Highjacked 'Sound Science,'" Oliver Houck, a law professor at Tulane University, raises the question of whether the Bush administration and industry are using the concept of sound science as a way of ducking their responsibility for dealing with environmental issues such as climate change, species extinction and ordinary people being harmed by exposure to toxic chemicals. He points out,

"Science turned out to have one big problem: definitive proof. Any standard it set was disputable by other scientists; any theory of causation it posited raised a host of other theories...These challenges are the hallmark of science. They keep it honest and produce constant discoveries. However, to decision-makers who require irrefutable proof, the uncertainty is fatal. In something as controversial as an ozone standard, if you can't fix a numerical level and defend it against all others, the standard is doomed."

Despite what its faultfinders may say, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the Bush administration has made it a priority to promote sound science and develop and apply the best available science for addressing current and future environmental hazards. For example, the National Health and Environmental Effects Research Laboratory supports these EPA goals by conducting research that seeks to produce a systematic and general understanding of biological or environmental processes and the effects of stressors on these processes in three main categories of research: ecosystem protection, human health risk and emerging risks. To learn more about the role of science at EPA, go to www.epa.gov/epahome/research.htm.

When dealing with complex environmental issues, policymakers should consult with scientists in order to be sure that policies are grounded in objective technical information. Lawmakers need to be able to cut through the tangle of special interest analysis and determine what valid scientific data exists and what additional data is needed in order to make informed decisions. As President of the Federation of American Scientists Henry Kelly emphasizes, "Good science is essential for ensuring that choices being weighed (by policymakers) have a foundation in unbiased analysis."

This editorial originally appeared in the April 2004 issue Environmental Protection, Vol. 15, No.4.

This article originally appeared in the 04/01/2004 issue of Environmental Protection.

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