Bush Administration Fails Science, History, Logic

Election 2004 | Lexicon
If you go to sleep with the radio on, you may find yourself waking up at 6am to the delightful strains of This American Life Ira Glass’s remarkable show which “documents everyday life in this country.” The show has apparently been broadcast on in this early-morning timeslot on WGBH 89.7 for the last year. (Previously it had been on in a comfortable afternoon slot, where WBUR 90.9 has it).

Part of the genius of This American Life is assembling shows based on themes (not unlike The New Yorker occasionally does), and also running pieces about twice as long as the longest stories on All Things Considered (ditto). This week, the theme is “Fake Science”: “Stories of people trying to use science in ways it was never intended.” The first story was scary enough for 6am, a piece about “ghost hunters”, the hobbyists and entrepreneurs who seek to capture image or audio recordings of spirits. The second story was scary for any hour of the day– the casualty of science within the Bush administration. (RealAudio for the program)

Here’s the background:

Three months ago, the Union of Concerned Scientists issued a 49-page report on Scientific Integrity in Policymaking: An Investigation into the Bush Administration’s Misuse of Science. One particular area of interest for producer Alex Blumberg was the the appointment of new members for the CDC Advisory Committee on Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention. In 2002, the CDC nominated several leading researchers in the field of lead poisoning. Shortly before the committee was to meet, the CDC nominees were dimissed– something which had never done before.

One of the replacements was Dr. William Banner, a toxicologist in Oklahoma. Banner’s notoriety in the field of lead poisoning is that he has been called as an expert witness for paint manufacturers in lawsuits. His testimony generally is used to dismissive of the entirely field of epidemiology– the science that suggests statistically studying whether certain factors (such as paint in lead) can have effects on diseases (such as stunted mental development). To Banner these are just statistics and coincidences.

What’s really fascinating, and I felt revealing enough to transcribe (having caught the afternoon broadcast on WBUR) was the response of HHS Spokesman William Pierce to questions about the wisdom of the selections for the advisory committee:

“All the claims made by the naysayers out there, and conspiritorial theorists: ‘If these people are appointed, somehow bad things are going to happen’… haven’t come true. These committees are serving; these peoples are on the these commitee serving, these committees are meeting! Advice is being provided. So I ask them, Where’s the beef? as the old cliche is from the old commercial. Where’s the beef? There is no beef. I ask and challenge the media. I ask and challenge all of you. Do this! Take a look! What’s the point here.. What is the point of this, these arguments being made?”

One might wonder how someone is able to keep his job making statements like this to the press, but if Don Rumsfeld can, so can Bill Pierce. It doesn’t matter. What is the point. Even if bad things do happen, and are even recognized as such by the Bush administration, the pattern to deny that the causes of bad things are the rooted in decisions made in the administration.

And if history is any lesson… well, what does history matter either? Here’s President Bush’s thoughtful observation to Bob Woodward on how history would judge his Iraq war: “We won’t know. We’ll all be dead.” Might as well just ask the ghosts.