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Saturday, February 10, 2007

the war on the war on science

I still have one more night of David Byrne's Carnegie Hall concert series to write about, but I do recognize that a lot of my readers come here for politics (or at least variety), so I'll switch gears for a bit and get to day four a little later on. Believe me: there was some hot new music to talk about, but you'll have to check back later to read about it. Today's topic is, The war on the war on science, or, The difference a Democratic Congress makes.

Bush's war on science has been widely covered in the six years since he usurped the presidency. The Bush White House has altered and supressed data on everything from global warning to sex education. I'm sure my readers know all that, and I don't want to be in the business of telling people what they already know.

But Reader, did you also know that the backlash against the backlash against science has entered the halls of Congress thanks to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, chaired by Henry Waxman of California? On January 30, 2007, the committee held hearings on 'Political Interference with Climate Change Research' and the testimony was damning indeed.

Since the topic is science, let's look at the numbers. The Union of Concerned Scientists surveyed over 1,800 federal scientists. According to Francesca T. Grifo, Senior Scientist at UCS, here is what they found:

GRIFO: In a nutshell, here is the problem we face - political interference is harming federal science and threatening the health and safety of Americans. UCS has surveyed more than 1,800 federal scientists and found the following:
-- 145 FDA scientists reported being asked, for non-scientific reasons, to inappropriately exclude or alter technical information or change their conclusions in an FDA scientific document.
-- Nearly half (44 percent) of all FWS scientists whose work is to evaluate endangered species reported that they have been directed, for non-scientific reasons, to refrain from making findings that would protect a species.
-- And, from the report we are releasing today, 150 federal climate scientists report personally experiencing at least one incident of political interference in the past five years, for a total of at least 435 such incidents.

When it came to climate change in particular, the interference was acute.
GRIFO: Yet unacceptably large numbers of federal climate scientists personally experienced instances of interference over the past five years:
-- Nearly half of all respondents (46 percent of all respondents to the question) perceived or personally experienced pressure to eliminate the words "climate change," "global warming," or other similar terms from a variety of communications.
The more frequently a climate scientist's work touches on sensitive or controversial issues, the more interference he or she reported. More than three-quarters (78 percent) of those survey respondents who self-reported that their research "always" or "frequently" touches on issues that could be considered sensitive or controversial also reported they had personally experienced at least one incident of inappropriate interference. More than one-quarter (27 percent) of this same group had experienced six or more such incidents in the past five years.

The UCS has compiled a helpful A to Z Timeline of every instance of political interference in science that has een reported in the press. It is an impressive and depressing document.

My personal favourite anti-data instance was not part of the hearings and did not involve scientists at all but, incredibly, cattle ranchers. As reported in the New York Times for April 10, 2004, the feds used the Animal Virus, Serum, Toxin, Antitoxin Act of 1913 to prevent Creekstone Farms Premium Beef from voluntarily testing its own cows for mad cow disease. So much for the free market. This beef producer lost its Japanese market because Bush's Department of Agriculture compelled it not to test its cows. One wonders what the feds were afraid to find.

What Republican government cannot compel, the private sector has tried to bribe, as the Guardian reported on February 2:
'Scientists and economists have been offered $10,000 each by a lobby group funded by one of the world's largest oil companies to undermine a major climate change report due to be published today.
Letters sent by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), an ExxonMobil-funded thinktank with close links to the Bush administration, offered the payments for articles that emphasise the shortcomings of a report from the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).'

ExxonMobil has reportedly given AEI $1.6 million. Why exactly do people refer to the AEI bribe-o-rama as a think tank? What thinking is alleged to go on there?

Bush and Cheney's attitude towards science is no different than their attitude towards intelligence. What we've witnessed is, in short, the politicization of everything: not just every government agency but every fact, every word, every punctuation mark. The federal government can no longer produce or publish information that does not serve partisan Republican ends.

I earnestly hope the new Congressional leadership will persist in its oversight obligations. Science should not be a dirty word. Reader, raise your fist in the air and shout for all to hear, 'Science Power!'


Anonymous anonymouse said...

You're American, why 'favourite'?

12:44 AM, February 11, 2007

Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

Good question. I tend to oscillate between British and American spellings. Most of what I read, both as a literary scholar and as reader of news, comes from the UK. My professional focus is British and Commonwealth literature. I don't read much American writing. The only stateside printed sources I read regularly are the New York Times, the New Yorker, and the New York Review of Books.

But that's not why I vary my spelling. It's not a matter of identification or influence. Eighty pages of my dissertation covered attempts to standardize English in the eighteenth century: its grammar, rhetoric, orthography, lexicography, and pronunciation. (The rest of the dissertation is on the vernacular revival and how that influenced the development of British literary forms, meters, and genres.) What I found was that the standardizers shared a desire to eliminate differences of dialect and region among English speakers in Britain. My research opened my eyes to standardization in general.

The result is that I no longer feel bound to stick to a single spelling of words that have multiple spellings. I write 'favorite' or 'favourite' depending on my mood at the time. Lately, British orthography suits my mood, but it will soon change back. I'd rather leave room for whimsy and caprice than obey Johnson and Sheridan.

3:48 AM, February 11, 2007

Anonymous David said...

It is a pity no politician has the balls to legislate population reduction. Our numbers are the prime cause for all the social and environmental problems. 150,000 years ago the human ability to think of a future and plan allowed a physically weak creature to eventually dominate the earth. Now this ability seems to have evaded us and because it will take 1% of our GPD which politicians think is too expensive especially as there is a 10% chance predictions are wrong we head to catastrophe. What about the 90% assurance they are right?
David www.esotericarts.org

10:03 AM, February 11, 2007

Anonymous David said...

For the spelling pundit (pandit) (anonymouse)I have, over the years, noticed many AMERICANS who post on chat sites spelling ‘lose as ‘loose’. I do wonder at what point sloppiness becomes acceptable and then eventually becomes obligatory to those on this continent. I remember being astounded when I immigrated to Canada and watched a Shakespeare play to realise that the majority of those who spoke English didn’t have an ’English’ accent. Soon they won’t spell the same either! At what point does enough become enuf?

3:37 PM, February 11, 2007

Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

I cannot agree with David F. about legislating human reproduction. China should not force people not to have children, and U.S. Republicans should not force people to have children. Even so, population growth is expected to stop later this century on its own.

It is not our numbers but our habits that are causing the earth's surface temperature to rise. Other countries are leading the way in reducing emissions: Brazil thanks to its sugar ethanol fuel, and western Europeans raising consciousness about carbon.

As for language, it is perpetually changing. In recent times, hip hop has been a great engine of innovation in rhetoric, diction, and grammar. It's great that we can speak a common language within our large world language groups, but that does not mean we have to do it all the time. The eighteenth century in Britain was the age of the metrically severe couplets of Pope, the codification of grammar, and Johnson's Dictionary, but it was also the century of the Scots vernacular revival and the poems and ballads of Robert Burns. What can one say to that other than, Boo-yah!

1:24 AM, February 12, 2007

Anonymous Anon said...


You are in part correct about populations: the rate of growth is expected to decline, and perhaps to start showing decreases in overall human population after a peak mid-21st century. Perhaps. This is in part due to choices being made (including political ones, including those in China) that will effect this change in rate. Population growth is not "going to stop on its own."

As they say, "the jury is still out" on the various roles of "numbers" and "habits" in environmental degradation, and one cannot so easily separate the two. A fairly safe general consensus is that the earth can probably tolerate continued growth in human population if that growth shows a decline in the rate of growth and if there is the "political will" to confront the causes of environmental destruction.

2:23 PM, February 12, 2007

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would recommend reading Daniel Quinn, especially “Ishmael” and “The Story of B” which are I think essential reading for a thinking person. I won’t summarise his thesis except it cogently elucidates how only a few thousand years ago in the Mesopotamian triangle hunter/gatherers took that fatal step into becoming farmers. At first a most innovative, sensible move. But each step after that has continued to 2007 where 6 billion humans threaten the existence of countless species, including and, probably fortuitously and happily, themselves. More people, more food, more food more people and all the disaster that includes, including no more pidgeons for candles and maybe no more whales, wolves, grizzlies and wilderness. Our exponential demand for natural resources can not continue unabated. The predicament is not how how we feed more humans but what quality of life can they have and what of the other species that share this planet whose continued existence is, to me, just as important and as Jay Gould pointed out the existence of the ants is more important than humans for the earth. If ants were to become extinct total disaster, if humans a loud cheer from most of the rest.

8:30 PM, February 12, 2007

Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

Perhaps I spoke too emphatically, as when people insist that individual outcomes are due to either nature or nurture but not both. I did not mean to imply that only habits and not numbers are driving up the temperature. If there were still only one billion of us and if that billion burned fossil fuels daily, they would not have the problems we are about to face. Then again, six billion of us running on sugar ethanol and living in green buildings would have fewer problems, too. Obviously, both numbers and habits matter. My own habit—or is it my nature?—is to favor perspectives that favor human action.

As to whether population growth will stop 'on its own', I hope it is reasonable to expect that ongoing development in India and China will lead to more female education and, thus, lower fertility. Yes, those governments will have to make choices. I hope they choose school construction over reproductive coercion. Governments have ample choices other than the barrel of a gun.

12:06 PM, February 13, 2007

Anonymous Anon said...

You're backtracking. If women are better educated and have fewer children, then population growth is not ending "on its own." It is ending because of specific government policies (accompanied by other social factors) that, for example, promote education and facilitate homecare. You are also being naive when you associate measures designed to restrict population growth with "the barrel of a gun": a government that actively promotes and rewards smaller families may not necessarily be doing so "under the barrel of a gun." But hey, I'm otherwise with you 100%: "School construction, not fascism!" is my motto.

12:47 PM, February 13, 2007

Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

There are 'specific government policies' and then there's blunt coercion. India experienced blunt reproductive coercion during Indira Gandhi's emergency rule in the 1970's. My readers may recall Salman Rushdie's treatment of the period towards the end of Midnight's Children. China, too, has been accused of coercive non-reproductive policies.

David F.'s call for 'the balls to legislate population reduction' struck me as akin in wording to the coercive form of addressing population growth. (I'm not accusing David F. of anything other than unfriendly word choice.)

As for development leading to female education and lower fertility, surely such consequences can be said, in part at least, to happen 'on their own' and not as part of government master-planning. To put it another way, capitalism happens.

And as for the 'barrel of the gun', one will hopefully recall the famous saying of Mao.

1:28 PM, February 13, 2007

Anonymous Anon said...

"capitalism happens"? Capitalism makes things happen "on their own"? Please.

So any mention of government policy must instantly be equated with jackboot fascism? Where is your link to Grover Norquist's blog?

2:30 PM, February 13, 2007

Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

Anon has a tin ear for common sayings. Perhaps other readers are familiar with 'Shit happens'? One can only hope.

The reference to Grover Norquist was surely unnecessary. I don't know if I would call forced sterilizations 'jackboot fascism', but I would call it coercive government policy.

3:48 PM, February 13, 2007

Anonymous Anon said...

Oh, I see! You were making a reference to "shit happens"! Of course. That explains everything!

8:04 PM, February 13, 2007


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