Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Turning Research Into Lies

I can tell you exactly when I quit watching the “West Wing.” It was an episode in which somebody handed then White House Chief of Staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer) ordered revisions to a report (I think it had something to do with coal) to have it reflect administration policy.

For four years, I considered “West Wing” to be the best television series ever. It’s not that I agreed with everything they said. Rather, when I disagreed, the writers did a good job of showing me how a person of good moral character could have come to a different conclusion. This series-ending event took place in the fifth season, after series creator Aaron Sorkin left the series and the new writers showed no concern with portraying the Bartlett Administration of trying to be the good guys.

Rather than offering a quick and telling argument explaining why it was right or good for the Administration to rewrite reports, McGarry simply dictated that this was how things were going to be done.

Of course, they could not come up with a way to morally defend such an act. It is entirely indefensible.

Imagine that you are a passenger in a car in which the driver asks for directions. The person asked says, “You should turn left at the second light.” The driver then thanks the man, then asserts, “He said that I should turn right at the third light.” Then, he blames the man who gave him directions when he ends up getting lost.

These rewritten reports are lies. They are flat out, unmitigated, uncompromising pamphlets of deceit that you and I, the taxpayers of America, are being forced to finance.

To get a hint of what the Bush Administration is doing, I would like to direct your attention to the transcript of a recent “60 Minutes” episode called “Rewriting the Science.” (Note: “Crooks and Liars” has the (almost) complete video of the segment.)

This episode demonstrates how the Bush Administration is rewriting scientific reports on climate change, changing what the original authors have said, and banning government scientists from speaking at all.


Much of the episode concerned the efforts of James Hansen, director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies. After establishing James Hansen’s credentials as the top scientist in the field of climate change, 60 minutes detailed how the government is preventing him from speaking on the topic of climate change. The Bush Administration allowed 60 minutes to have one interview with Hansen with an Administration official present to tape the interview. Once they discovered that Hansen actually gave his opinion to the 60 minutes reporter, they prohibited all further interviews.

Scientists who dare to protest are silenced and censored by whatever means the Bush Administration has available. With few exceptions, the only government scientists willing to give honest reports of their findings to the Bush Administration are those who are preparing to resign or retire. They are those who do not have a career to worry about, or who do not wish to preserve a career or lying to people about things that affect their health and well-being.


60 Minutes also provided examples of edits that the Bush Administration officials made to scientific reports on climate change. Lobbyists and lawyers, such as Phil Cooney; former lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute who became Bush’s appointed Chief of Staff of the Council on Environmental Quality," who later quit the Bush Administration to take a job at Exxon Mobile.

60 Minutes reported oil industry lobbyist would make edits like the following:

• “earth is under going change” changed to “earth may be undergoing change”

• “uncertainty” becomes “significant remaining uncertainty”

• A sentence that says, “energy production contributes to warming” is deleted

• Sentences that discuss the adverse health effects – our health; the quality of the life you and I will live – are deleted. We are not supposed to find out that the government policies might kill us and make us sick.

• Cooney adds a statement that says, “the uncertainties remain so great as to preclude meaningfully informed decision making.”

Ultimately, Bush’s science policy is to spend a wad of taxpayer money to generate a report, then give that report to an industry lobbyist, who then rewrites the report into a a pack of political lies supporting that industry’s political objectives, after which the Bush Administration presents the report to Congress and the American people.

If the Bush Administration actually had an interest in using taxpayer money efficiently, it would save the expense of actually creating a scientific report that it will later turn in to a pack of lies. If they are going to create a piece of science fiction, they should just write it, and forget the expensive step of creating a scientific report and altering it. Except, they want the legitimate scientific report to rewrite as a type of smokescreen -- so that they can provide their pack of lies with a smoke screen – an illusion of legitimacy – that every pack of lies desperately needs.

A Larger Pattern

This is, of course, a part of a larger pattern. There is little reason to doubt that the Bush Administration followed the same policy regarding information about Saddam Hussein having weapons of mass destruction or aiding Al Queda – passing those reports through a government filter that created the fiction on which Bush Administration policy is built.

The legitimate avenue for review for scientific findings would be the peer review used in scientific journals and other presentations. The purpose of peer review is to make sure that the research conforms to available evidence. However, peer review means that people who know and understand science review the product to make sure it conforms to those standards.

There are many people who report that when they think of George Bush, the word that comes first to their mind is 'honest.' These rewrites of scientific reports are not the work of an honest man. An honest man would be furious if he found out that these lies -- lies that threaten the lives, health, and property of the American people -- were being propagated in his name. In light of this, the person who associates Bush with the word 'honest' is showing the same mental capacity of the person who associates a baseball with the word 'cube.'


Having a lawyer and industry lobbyist review a scientific journal and alter its findings is like having an insurance company accountant review a patient’s medical files and altering the diagnosis – or a general rewriting military intelligence to fit his battle plan, rather than rewriting the battle plan in light of available intelligence.

It is a short road to (yet another) very tragic result. Ultimately, the people who would do this type of thing are people who do not care about the lives and health of the people they put at risk for the purpose of putting money in their own pockets.


Anonymous said...

I have been following your blog for several months and want to thank you for your thoughtful, well spoken, reasoned posts.

Ed Darrell said...

Have you read Chris Mooney's book, The Republican War on Science? You probably should.