15 June 2010

Obama's War on Science

There is no "war on science." There was not a Republican war on science under the Bush Administration and there is not a Democratic war on science under the Obama Administration. What every administration has are efforts to cherrypick and massage evidence in support of their political preferences and sometimes these efforts are judged to go too far. The Bush Administration was particularly ham-handed in its handling of expertise, to be sure. The Obama Administration seems to be having its own problems as well.

Consider how the Obama Administration handled scientific advice that it solicited from the National Academy of Engineering (part of the NAS), as reported by the WSJ.

In the wake of the oil spill, President Obama asked Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to produce a report on new drilling safety recommendations. Then on May 27 Mr. Obama announced a six-month deep water drilling ban, justifying it on the basis of Mr. Salazar's report, a top recommendation of which was the moratorium. To lend an air of technical authority, the report noted: "The recommendations contained in this report have been peer-reviewed by seven experts identified by the National Academy of Engineering."

That would be false, sir. In a scathing statement this week, the seven experts explained that the report draft they had reviewed did not include a six-month drilling moratorium. That was added only after they signed off.
Seven authors of the NAE report wrote the following in a letter complaining that their advice had been altered after it had been provided (pdf, emphasis in original):
A group of those named in the Secretary of Interior’s Report, “INCREASED SAFETY MEASURES FOR ENERGY DEVELOPMENT ON THE OUTER CONTINENTAL SHELF” dated May 27, 2010 are concerned that our names are connected with the moratorium as proposed in the executive summary of that report. There is an implication that we have somehow agreed to or “peer reviewed” the main recommendation of that report. This is not the case.

As outlined in the attached document [pdf], we believe the report itself is very well done and includes some important recommendations which we support. However, the scope of the moratorium on drilling which is in the executive summary differs in important ways from the recommendation in the draft which we reviewed. We believe the report does not justify the moratorium as written and that the moratorium as changed will not contribute measurably to increased safety and will have immediate and long term economic effects. Indeed an argument can be made that the changes made in the wording are counterproductive to long term safety.

The Secretary should be free to recommend whatever he thinks is correct, but he should not be free to use our names to justify his political decisions.
Of course politicians should be responsible for decision making and advisors for advice, but politicians should not change advice to fit more comfortably with their preferred course of action. Such behavior would represent a highly pathological politicization of science.

If you are opposed to the political agenda of the administration then you probably will be less forgiving about such transgressions than someone who supports that political agenda. Because of these political dynamics it can be hard to maintain a focus on issues of scientific integrity.

That the Obama Administration has been caught out politicizing science is not a surprise. As I have often said, such behavior is in the DNA of political behavior. However, the only references to the episode that I can find in the media and the blogosphere (and I have not made a comprehensive search, so please add references in the comments) are from the WSJ and Fox News and also on some conservative blogs.

If the politicization of science is only something that your political opponents engage in, then it is easy to see how issues of scientific integrity easily get lost. But scientific integrity should be a nonpartisan issue, shouldn't it?


  1. Roger- I think "scientific integrity" may be an interesting concept but not well defined.

    To some, if you don't follow a given scientists' opinion, you are violating "scientific integrity" (or a group of scientists, or 500 signing a letter as in my previous post). I would take a narrower view as perhaps tampering with specific reports; however in some reports scientists make policy recommendations outside their expertise without appropriate caveats (so perhaps they should be "tampered with"). What is "quality review" compared to "tampering"?

    Not saying that this example isn't more or less egregious. There might be a need for a book exploring some key concepts and using those concepts to explore gray areas.

  2. -1-Sharon

    I agree. I don't even use the concept in The Honest Broker.

    Perhaps the overdue Obama Administration guidelines on "scientific integrity" will offer a way forward.

  3. While I think Chris Mooney's thesis was overwrought, none of what you've said undermines his argument. I don't think Mooney said that Democrats never politicize science. His argument, as I understand it, was one of degree. That is, since Bush et al. politicized science so much more than everyone else, they deserved a commensurate level of criticism. We can accept that Obama misused the drilling report for his own ends while also accepting that Bush's transgressions were worse.

    That said, I disdain (as you do) the "war on science" rhetoric, and also believe that Mooney didn't make a particularly good argument.


  4. -3-Praj

    Thanks for your comments ... let me first make clear that the "war on science" notion was not just Mooney, of course.

    The Bush Administration did deserve criticism, and I was among those criticizing him, e.g., in Congressional testimony.

    That said, the issue is not a partisan one, but about the inter-relationship of science and decision making.

    As to who was worse, Obama or Bush (or Clinton, or Bush, or Reagan ...) ... that is a fun pub game, perhaps to be engaged after debating who can best simulate a foul, Ronaldo or Drogba ;-) Seriously, debates over better or worse don't make for effective policy remedies, just political brawls.

    I am happy to postulate that Bush was the worst ever, now what?

  5. Hi Roger. Thanks for the response. I say Ronaldo wins hands down. As the commentator just said, Ronaldo will fall down at anything, "even a puff of wind!"

    As to debates over better or worse...I would say that not everything related to the topic should necessarily be viewed as a policy remedy. I think that the policy remedies involve slow, long-running changes to change conditions to prevent the pathological politicization of science (as described in your book).

    But while we're working on that front, we can also criticize actions we see as wrong.

  6. Roger, there was a 'war on science' under the Bush Administration. Think of the aim to teach intelligent design at US schools in 2005. Intelligent design is by no means equal to evolution. If that was not a 'war on science' ...

    (see e.g. Nature 436, 761 or Coyne, J.A. "Why Evolution Is True" Penguine Books, NY)

  7. I'm sure there are other examples of "War on Science" charges against the Bush administration, but the two that stand out in my mind were AGW, and especially the supposed silencing of Hansen (as he told several reporters, apparently without irony), and stem cells.

    The stem cell issue seems to have been the bigger of the two, which is pretty ironic, since it always seemed that Bush was pretty explicit in stating that his opposition was ethical, and really was outside the realm of science. It seemed that many with opposing viewpoints were trying to argue that since, scientifically, stem cells provided some hope of cures for various diseases, the science should have dictated a policy of government support.

    Now, as for the Obama administration, the example of AGW seems to operate in the other direction, with the administration trying to claim that the science is dictating policy.

    And now this report, which seems to have tried to achieve the same thing. So I guess I'd wonder, Roger (4), why you would postulate such a thing? :-)

  8. Scientific integrity, if the concept is to have any meaning at all, refers to the behavior of scientists, not to the behavior of politicians or other 'users' of science. It covers such norms as not fabricating data, not 'torture data till they confess', not hiding raw data and methods (including software used to treat the data), not arranging for 'friendly' peer review that keeps your work unscrutinized and uncriticized, not lobbying journal editors to keep others from being published, and so on. The entire edifice of science rests on a fair and transparent debate of all scientific claims. In that sense I think 'scientific integrity' is a concept to preserve.

  9. It's different when we do it. ;-)

  10. I just found this blog today. After reading the first 2 posts, I would have to say these consecutive posts are the most objective pieces of writing I seen on the internet in a very long time. So refreshing!

    As an eco-pragmatist, it seems the politicization of environmental issues have become so absurd that I don't know how the general public choose a side on the matter. Of course Fox News and WSJ are the only 2 sources to report it. It is newsworthy, and each side of the media are just as polarized as country. (positive feedback loop).

    What I don't understand is why Salazar can't have a political opinion to make a moratorium on drilling, even if it isn't backed by scientists. That is so easy to justify with the what is going on in the gulf.

    I just earned a B.S. in economics and environmental science, providing me the knowledge to make an informed decision. But I also don't have strong opinions on health care, because there is too much information, misinformation, and disinformation. I don't have the time to know both these issues well enough.

    As much as this country needs to invest in science and math to compete with China and India for future industry, it also needs to invest in the education of scientific integrity, human rights, philosophy, ethics, etc. (religion too, as long as it is not biased).

    When will saying "I don't know" be viewed with respect? Until that happens scientific, political, and essentially personal integrity will not exist.

    Thank you Roger for making me feel connected to truth. It has been a while. Look for me on the boards, I will try to be a frequent contributor.


  11. Roger: You don't define "war on science," which makes it hard to figure out what you're saying here.

    Are you saying that the term is meaningless other than as partisan invective, or that it's meaningful and potentially useful, but that it doesn't apply to either the Bush or the Obama administration?

    Put differently, is there a line which neither Bush nor Obama crossed, or is there no line at all?

    If there is a line, how would we figure out where it is or determine (in a sufficiently objective way, so as to convince a broad consensus outside one's personal amen corner) whether or not a particular administration crossed it?

    And if there's no such line, then should a president approach scientific advice as anything more than an exercise in propaganda, with the Bush administration's great sin being not its lack of integrity, but its lack of skill at presenting a convincing illusion of integrity?

  12. To clarify my previous comment: When I talk of crossing a line, I'm talking about a line that demarcates isolated cases of misconduct from a broad pattern of misconduct that could be described as a "war on science."

    Since all administrations are flawed, it's easy to find examples of bad behavior from any one. The question I'm interested in is whether some administrations exhibit a pattern of such abuses that mark them as qualitatively different from others, rather than merely doing "more of the same."

  13. I've been an active combatant in the creationism evolution wars for a long time, and I'm not aware of any attempt by the Bush Administration to push the teaching of intelligent design in 2005. Perhaps Johannes G. Wilhelm could be a little more specific about what he means?

  14. Here is another, in my opinion equally disturbing aspect of the subject, from a different angle. Some scientists believe they know what is best for the world and would likely be involved in he political process as 'experts'

    Stephen H. Schneider - Professor of Environmental Biology and Global Change at Stanford University 1989

    On the one hand, as scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but — which means that we must include all the doubts, the caveats, the ifs, ands, and buts. On the other hand, we are not just scientists but human beings as well. And like most people we'd like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climatic change.

    To do that we need to get some broadbased support, to capture the public's imagination. That, of course, entails getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. This 'double ethical bind' we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both.

    (Quoted in Discover, pp. 45–48, Oct. 1989.


  15. -14- eric144:

    First, note the take-home message of the bit you quote: "Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both."

    He's saying that it might be tempting to shave the truth to capture the public's imagination, but he thinks that's a false dichotomy---that you can capture the public's imagination while remaining honest about the science.

    Then Read Schneider's account of this interview on pp. 213-214 of Science as a Contact Sport:

    "I was frustrated by the capricious sound-bite nature of the public debate and I expressed my frustration to Jonathan Schell ... for Discover magazine. I guess my first mistake was to be a bit tongue-in-cheek---I painted a stark picture of the opposing viewpoints in the climate change debate.... I complained that even though I always make a point in my interviews to discuss the wide range of possibilities, from catastrophic to beneficial, media stories rarely convey the entire range.

    "I tried to explain to Schell how to be both effective and honest; by using metaphors that simultaneously convey both urgency and uncertainty.... Unfortunately, this clarification is absent from the Discover article, and this omission opened the door to 20 years of subsequent distortions and attacks. Ironically, this is the consummate example of my grievance about problems arising from abbreviated versions of long interviews." (boldface emphasis added)

  16. Jonathan Gilligan

    My take on "I hope that means being both." is that is an irrelevant moralistic fig leaf tacked on at the end, in the manner of

    "The policy is shoot to kill. Let's go in there with guns blazing and hope no one gets hurt".

    I don't think that would have much credibility in court. To take the analogy further, Schneider's defence reminds one of the adage that more or less everyone in prison is innocent, and they will gladly tell you why.

    Rather than repeat my own very negative view of scientists' roles in politics, this is a selective quote from an article by Roger Pielke Jnr.

    "However, for climate science I fully expect things to get worse before they get better, simply because the most vocal, politically active climate scientists have shown no skill at operating in the political arena. The skeptics could not wish for a more convenient set of opponents".


    Here is one very relevant example (which includes a channeled message from the Almighty)

    Sir John Houghton, former co chair of the IPCC and head of the world leading Hadley Centre for Climate .

    In an interview Sir John Houghton gave to The Sunday Telegraph in its "Me and My God" slot on September 10, 1995. As a fervent evangelical Christian, Sir John claimed that global warming might well be one of those disasters sent by God to warn man to mend his ways ("God tries to coax and woo but he also uses disasters"). He went on: "If we are to have a good environmental policy in the future, we will have to have a disaster".


  17. Jonah Goldber has an article up on this issue:

    He Blinded Me with Science

    He talks about some of the issues coming out of the Bush admin, and chides Obama regarding the moratorium paper, and ultimately concludes:

    "Scientists are technicians, not moral philosophers. While they can provide facts that inform good decision-making, they can’t distill morality in a test tube. Politicians shouldn’t abdicate to the guys in white coats their responsibilities to answer moral questions the white-coats can’t answer. "