Don’t Listen to Those Pesky Scientists

Chris Mooney

Well, John Marburger has gone and done it. In an action that will probably come to define his tenure as presidential science adviser, he’s released a detailed report attempting to debunk highly publicized charges by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) that Bush administration has systematically abused science. Marburger’s report is labeled a “Response to Congress,” so I doubt we’ve heard the last of this matter.

As I’ve argued previously, Marburger had little chance of succeeding in this attempted rebuttal. And sure enough, now that we can read the document that his office has produced, it clearly leaves a great deal to be desired.

This is going to be a long analysis, so here’s the bottom line. In my view, there are serious problems both with Marburger’s strategy for rebutting the barrage of scientific charges against the administration, and with his specific rebuttal itself. Granted, Marburger scores a couple of points against the administration’s critics. But these tend to be glancing blows. For the most part, the UCS document still stands relatively intact.

Part I: Marburger Minimizes the Scope of the Problem

The first weakness in Marburger’s response is that it’s unjustifiably narrow in scope. He has singled out the UCS report for refutation, but the UCS only discussed a relatively small number of alleged cases of science politicization by the administration. The group didn’t even take on the high profile issue of stem cell research, where it’s very clear that the President exaggerated the number of lines that would be available for research.

In fact, if you compare the UCS report to a previous report on the same subject by Congressman Henry Waxman’s office, you’ll find that they’re actually quite different documents. The following case studies from the Waxman report go entirely un-discussed by UCS: “Arctic National Wildlife Refuge,” “Condoms/International Negotiations,” “Drinking Water,” “Education Policy,” “Environmental Health,” “Food Safety,” “Global Warming/Chair of International Science Panel,” “HIV/AIDS,” “Missile Defense,” “Oil and Gas,” “Prescription Drug Advertising,” “Stem Cells,” “Wetlands,” and “Yellowstone National Park.” The administration has never bothered to respond to Waxman’s report in any substantive way, instead simply dismissing it as a partisan document.

And not only does Waxman’s report remain unanswered. There are myriad cases of apparent science politicization, reported in the media and in scientific journals, that don’t appear in either the UCS report or the Waxman report. Let me just cite four recent examples: 1) the administration’s decision to replace two pro-stem cell research members of the President’s Council on Bioethics with three anti-research members; 2) a recently reported case involving the Fogarty International Center Advisory Board at HHS; 3) the charge that the National Marine Fisheries Service dropped the views of six leading marine scientists from an analysis of salmon recovery methods; and 4) the administration’s dubious attempt to challenge the obvious link between junk food consumption and obesity in a document submitted to the World Health Organization.

Had they come to light earlier, any of these recent cases would have provided fodder for the UCS or Waxman reports. And there are numerous other examples as well. So by singling out the UCS alone for refutation, Marburger is essentially slapping a single Band-Aid on a gushing wound.

Part II: UCS Bests Marburger on Climate Change

And even in attacking this Mini-Me version of the problem, Marburger largely fails. Here’s why.

In order to paint a picture of a series of scientific abuses by the administration, the UCS report relies heavily on previously published media exposes and interviews with disgruntled scientist-whistleblowers (many of them from within the government). By contrast, Marburger presents the government’s official line on each incident, which of course tends to minimize or ignore the whistleblower accounts.

But by proceeding in this way, Marburger pretty much automatically loses the argument. He accuses the UCS of failing to “seek and reflect responses or explanations from responsible government officials,” but he never gives us any good reason why we should trust the administration, instead all the scientists who have risked retribution by going public with their charges. Indeed, the mere fact that there are so many whistleblowers out there points to something systematic going on—namely, an unprecedented level of science politicization by the administration (precisely what UCS is alleging).

Let’s take a specific example from Marburger’s response to show how it fails. The discussion of climate change is typical. In response to charges by the UCS that the administration has “consistently sought to undermine the public’s understanding of the view held by the vast majority of climate scientists,” Marburger stresses that Bush has “clearly acknowledged the role of human activity in increased atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases.” Marburger also claims that the National Academy of Sciences’ recent review of the administration’s global change research program gave it a hearty thumbs up.

But this puts an unjustifiably rosy spin on a much more troubling picture. Even if Bush did once cop to the scientific consensus on climate change, he has also selectively hyped remaining scientific uncertainties in order to stave off policy action. Furthermore, as the Washington Post‘s Rick Weiss notes, the National Academy panel review cited by Marburger wasn’t entirely positive. The group, Weiss reports, “also expressed deep concerns about whether and how the plan would be implemented, and confessed to concern that it would not be adequately insulated from political pressure.”

More pointedly, the UCS report discusses a case, originally reported in The New York Times, in which the White House allegedly force-edited an Environmental Protection Agency draft report’s treatment of climate change, distorting the underlying science in the process. In an appendix, the UCS report provides an internal EPA document relied upon by the Times, in which agency staff note that the White House deleted references to an accepted temperature record of the last 1,000 years and findings by the National Academy of Sciences, and instead emphasized “a recent, limited analysis [which] supports the administration’s favored message.”

Marburger responds that an “ordinary review process indicated that the complexity of climate change science was not adequately addressed in EPA’s draft document,” but that’s hard to believe. Why would EPA scientists have leaked this document if they thought the process was “ordinary”? In fact, it’s clear from the EPA memo that the agency’s scientists considered the White House’s changes an attempt to skew the discussion away from good science to favor the administration’s positions. In a recent letter that includes the now notorious memo as an attachment, the National Wildlife Federation challenges Marburger for failing to respond to the document.

In this case, we can either opt to trust Marburger’s word as he defends the White House (of which he’s part), or we can trust the word of unhappy EPA experts. Unfortunately for Marburger, I don’t think that’s a very difficult choice.

Part III: UCS Bests Marburger on Most Other Issues, Too

Marburger’s response on this incident fits a broader pattern. Where the UCS presents the accounts of unhappy government insiders, Marburger brushes those charges aside and presents an official version of events. That’s true of his discussion of several other charges related to the science of climate change;
it’s also true of his response to charges by UCS, based on a report in the Wall Street Journal, that the administration sat for nine months on an EPA report discussing mercury pollution and children’s health. Marburger says the report was undergoing a standard interagency review process. But if so, why did an EPA official feel the need to leak a draft to the press? Marburger’s response in yet another case concerning air pollution, in which an EPA draft analysis was yet again leaked to the press, fits a similar pattern. So do many of his other responses.

Concerning claims that scientific information has been misrepresented on government websites, Marburger fares no better. UCS makes two charges: 1) that a scientifically accurate Centers for Disease Control fact sheet on condoms was removed and replaced by one that raised unjustified doubts about condom efficacy and praised abstinence; and 2) that scientifically inaccurate information suggesting a link between abortion and breast cancer went up (albeit temporarily) on a National Cancer Institute website. In each case Marburger claims the government was simply providing more updated information. But scientists themselves—including a CDC scientist interviewed by UCS concerning the condoms fact sheet—have severely questioned the accuracy of that “new information” in each of these cases.

In other cases, Marburger fails to respond to the actual charges made by the UCS. For example, the group claims that the administration, and specifically Colin Powell in his speech to the United Nations, downplayed analyses from its own scientists suggesting that aluminum tubes sought by Iraq were not intended for uranium enrichment. Marburger responds with a quote from CIA director George Tenet that isn’t really on point. Similarly, the UCS charges that the administration has supported proposed legislative changes that would severely weaken the role of science in Endangered Species Act implementation. But in a several paragraph long discussion of the administration’s ESA policy, Marburger fails to address this charge at all.

The UCS also charges that the administration has used political litmus tests to screen appointees to scientific advisory panels, and has packed many of these panels with sympathetic voices. In response, Marburger once again essentially asks us to ignore all the complaints from disgruntled scientists about what really happened. Marburger’s suggestion that the administration did not apply a political litmus test in the case of Dr. William Miller of the University of New Mexico, who was not appointed to the National Institute for Drug Abuse advisory panel, is particularly stunning. Here’s a reported account (one of several) of what happened to Miller:

a liaison staffer interviewed Miller by phone. According to Miller, the staffer told him that he needed to determine whether Miller held “any views that might be embarrassing to the president.” He began by asking Miller’s views on drug legalization and needle exchange; when Miller responded that he was opposed to the former and in favor of the latter, the staffer replied, “You’re one for two.” The staffer then asked a series of questions that had no apparent relevance to Miller’s qualifications to serve on the council: Did he favor capital punishment for drug kingpins? (No.) Was he opposed to abortion? (No.) Had he voted for Bush? When Miller replied that he had not, the staffer asked him to explain why he “hadn’t supported the president.”

Miller says he was “surprised and aghast” by the questions. After the interview ended, the staffer told Miller that he would get back to him after checking to see if his views were “acceptable.” Miller never received a second call.

Why should we trust Marburger’s blanket denial instead of Miller’s version of events?

Part IV: Marburger Lands a Few Glancing Blows

Granted, Marburger does score a few points in his response. The UCS claimed that text written by industry lawyers was inserted into an EPA rule for regulating mercury from power plants; Marburger states that “the text in question is in the preamble, not the proposed rule itself.” The UCS also cited an instance in which the Department of the Interior replaced a team of experienced scientists working on the Missouri River ecosystem with a scientific “SWAT team” that was expected reach a different conclusion concerning needed actions to protect several endangered species. But Marburger notes that the new team’s conclusions aren’t actually so different from those of the replaced scientists. Fair enough.

In the end though, Marburger’s rebuttal is extremely limited in its scope, and at best provides a series of official administration responses to charges from a chorus of unhappy scientists. In my reading, Marburger doesn’t provide a single clear, factual knockdown of any of UCS’s claims. Instead he repeatedly asks us to believe one account of events instead of another.

This leaves readers of the UCS report and Marburger’s rebuttal with a stark choice. Either a slew of government and university scientists, who have gone public with their complaints, are wrong, or else Marburger is. Unfortunately for Marburger, he happens to be a government official engaged in damage control. Moreover, he’s part of an administration that didn’t even bother to respond substantively to claims of science politicization (i.e., by Henry Waxman) until they were being blared all over the media. So I don’t think this is a very difficult decision at all.

Chris Mooney

Chris Mooney is a science and political journalist, blogger, podcaster, and experienced trainer of scientists in the art of communication. He is the author of four books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science and The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science and Reality. He blogs for Science Progress, a website of the Center for American Progress and Center for American Progress Action Fund.