July 25, 2006

Bluegrass Politics: Republican war on science

When President Bush used his veto pen last week for the first time in his presidency, rejecting a bill to expand federal support for medical research using embryonic stem-cell research and dashing the hopes of millions of Americans with diseases such as diabetes and Alzheimer’s, it was yet another example of his administration’s disdain for sound science-based policy, and further evidence of the Republican Party’s “War on Science.”The stem-cell veto coincided with a New York Times story about the White House’s decision to remove a phrase from NASA’s mission statement — “to understand and protect our home planet” — a deletion that seems directed at the agency’s work on climate change and greenhouse gases. Not coincidentally, that excision came days after a NASA climatologist repeatedly cited the phrase as he spoke out about the growing danger of global warming.But dismissing scientific concerns is nothing new for Republicans.In 2001, Bush named Philip Cooney as chief of staff for the White House Council on Environmental Quality. Cooney, a lawyer with no scientific training, previously headed the American Petroleum Institute’s fight against government limits on greenhouse gases. He held the title “climate team leader.”But in 2005, after a Times’ exposé highlighted Cooney’s repeated editing of government climate reports in ways that played down links between carbon dioxide emissions and global warming, he was forced to resign. The following day, Cooney was hired by ExxonMobil.Also in 2001, reversing two decades of instruction, when public health agencies urged students to use condoms to reduce the risk of AIDS, the Bush administration’s Abstinence-Only curriculum mandated that teachers may not talk about the health benefits of using condoms — only about how they fail — despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary.And across the nation, including here in Kentucky, right-wing governors are working to force the teaching of creationism into public school science classes, arguing that so-called Intelligent Design is a legitimate scientific theory.But Bush’s stem-cell veto is already showing signs of political fallout, and may further drive a wedge between an angry public and a Republican Party that continues to lose touch with the plight of ordinary Americans. Despite pleas from conservatives such as Nancy Reagan and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), himself a physician, Bush vetoed legislation that the scientific community believes is the most promising path for curing a host of diseases.Instead, the White House shot back with absurdly false claims by Karl Rove that adult stem cells are equivalent to embryonic ones (though he was unable to provide the media with one expert who supported that position). That was followed by the assertion that the president believed research on the thousands of discarded embryos amounted to “murder.” But, demonstrating an audacious level of hypocrisy, the White House indicated that it had no problems with the work of the fertilization clinics that harvest the embryos, or the private companies that conduct the medical research — or murder, as Bush argues.The mainstream media deserve a share of the blame, too, by allowing Republicans to turn science into yet another shouting match, generating uncertainty were none exists. Those at war with science understand this game very well and have learned to manipulate the media to “manufacture doubt,” knowing that the press corps, which woefully lacks specialized science reporters, will default to writing stories that provide a false sense of objectivity.Some argue that Republicans are not engaged in a “war on science” as much as a war on a well-informed electorate, and that the party has nothing against the use of real science so long as it supports its members’ own self-interests.For example, science is good when it allows defense contractors to try to build a Star Wars missile defense shield. It’s unacceptable when it targets global warming; that affects the powerful fossil fuel industry.So, rather than allowing voters to fully understand the issue, they deliberately deceive the public about the science of global warming, much like Rove did last week when he lied about the adequacy of adult stem cells. In this context, the “war” is less about a particular belief system and more about conflicts with their power or wealth or profits.Ironically, previous American administrations were quite critical of old Soviet regimes that kept their citizens in the dark on scientific matters such as the fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Now it seems Republicans have themselves found that such a tactic is a powerful political tool to manipulate the public and stay in power. Mark Nickolas is a former Democratic political consultant and publisher of the political blog BluegrassReport.org. Contact him at Mark@BluegrassReport.org