We all know that politicians are fond of redefining words and phrases to make themselves and their policies look good. The top award in this Orwellian category, however, belongs to W and his friends with their use of the phrase "sound science". Chris Mooney writing in today’s Washington Post illustrates how this administration is creating “science-based” policy and then finding a study – any study – to support their views, calling it "sound science".
It all sounds noble enough, but the phrases "sound science" and "peer review" don’t necessarily mean what you might think. Instead, they’re part of a lexicon used to put a pro-science veneer on policies that most of the scientific community itself tends to be up in arms about. In this Orwellian vocabulary, "peer review" isn’t simply an evaluation by learned colleagues. Instead, it appears to mean an industry-friendly plan to require such exhaustive analysis that federal agencies could have a hard time taking prompt action to protect public health and the environment. And "sound science" can mean, well, not-so-sound science.
Mooney shows how the phrase "sound science" originated with the tobacco industry who were denying the connection between the use of their products and numerous diseases. Over the years the term has been picked up by other industries, including W’s favorite, oil and gas, who were trying to avoid regulations that would hurt their profits. But "sound science" and "peer review" as adopted by W and friends has been so corrupted that the Union of Concerned Scientists, a peer-reviewed group that includes 20 Nobel laureates, released a statement this month that was scathing in it’s criticism of the misuse of science in policy making by this bunch.
None of these scientists thinks Bush’s science is actually sound — and they ought to know. In fact, if you examine the administration’s record, Bush’s supposed commitment to science unravels in much the same way that the case for war against Iraq did. Instead, an alternative narrative emerges, in which many science policies have been corrupted by political considerations.
The many examples in this piece are very scary – and not just as they relate to the use of science in helping determine public policy. Remember that the population of this country is largely illiterate when it comes to understanding the principles of science and scientific research. W’s corruption of the process for using science to guide government regulation (or the lack there of) is likely to increase that level of ignorance.
Update (2/29): I missed this little related nugget from the Saturday paper. W tossed two people from his Bioethics Council who had the nerve to speak an opinion about research on human embryo cells that didn’t follow the script. The downward spiral continues.