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Friday, October 20, 2006

It was just a matter of time

Casmall informed me of this bullshit article from the Scientist about a week ago, and I figured it was just a matter of time before someone picked it up and mocked it, or worse yet praised it as Jake Young at Pure Pedantry did. Don't let Jake's Scienceblog status fool you, he's a sucker for any inversion - that is any article that seems to throw a commonly held belief on it's ear - and was similarly suckered by the H2 superior to Prius nonsense being peddled as science by a PR firm a few months back.

Anyway, this article is entitled "Sizing Up Bush on Science: Is the 43rd President of the United States really science's worst-ever enemy?" and is a pathetic apologia for the vehement anti-science of the Bush administration. I think, after reading it and based upon Casmall's suggestion, we should approach it as a denialist argument. After all, the data is in, this administration is the worst for science, ever.

Let's do it!

On a typical day in the Oval Office, the US president, tired of simply watering down reports and testimony that contradict something he supports, decides to simply disband his scientific advisory positions. Along the way, he eliminates the office of presidential science advisor.

To many of the scientists who have been bemoaning what they call an attack on science by the current administration, led by George W. Bush, this may sound like a scenario from the not-so-distant future. It's not. Richard Nixon declared "war" on cancer and established the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), but he also severely punished scientists who didn't share his views.

The author, McCook, starts with a red herring that is so bad it actually hurts her argument. Are you really trying to justify the current president's behavior because Nixon did it too? And Daddy Bush? This is a pretty silly way to begin an article designed to make people think more highly of Bush on science, unless you were to say that Nixon was worse, which she doesn't.

But the next bit is even better, what's usually the best thing most people can think of to distract from legitimate criticisms of Bush? A diatribe against Clin-ton of course:

Even Bill Clinton - now admired by many scientists for overseeing a doubling in the NIH budget, among other measures - appeared to ignore science for his own political gain. In 1997, the EPA's science advisory board recommended that Congress immediately consider ways to reduce emissions of mercury because of its effect on health and the environment. The Clinton administration delayed release of a scientific report about the dangers of mercury for more than a year, and didn't issue recommendations to reduce emissions from coal-fired plants (the largest source) until three years later, the day after then-vice president Al Gore conceded the 2000 election to current president George W. Bush. However, the EPA set forth a proposal to cut emissions by a drastic amount, which Clinton perhaps knew Bush would have to loosen, enabling his opponents to decry his environmental record. Clinton also publicly denounced the creation of embryos for research.

So, Clin-ton's dodge of a political hot-potato until he was a lame duck is now the equivalent of George "the jury is still out on evolution" Bush's anti-science agenda? Let's think of how many things are wrong with this. First, it's a bit of an ad populum argument, or "every president does it" as a justification for Bush's behavior. Second, I think this justifies a "Selectivity" criticism, as they're pulling incidents from Clin-ton's administration out of context and making them sound evidence of an anti-science bias in Clin-ton. In reality, Clin-ton dodged these things because they were politically explosive, and once there were no political consequences, he let the science out because Clin-ton believed in science. I think that's hugely different than suppressing data, packing advisory panels, and loading scientific commissions with false-experts while suppressing data on global warming from James Hansen just because you're in bed with the oil industry. Clin-ton probably always wanted to release those results, but because of political consequences in an election year, didn't want to create another fight. Finally the worst instance of quote-mining and selectivity yet? Saying Clinton's stance against the creation of embryos for research is the same as being against hES research. That's not the same thing as using IVF embryos that already exist, which Bush opposes, and Clinton supports.

Oh, but McCook doesn't have a problem with industry experts, and actually finds an expert that tells us that panels entirely composed of experts with conflicts of interest isn't abuse of science.

The UCS Web site has also compiled a list of reported Bush administration abuses, ranging from adding information linking breast cancer to abortion on a National Cancer Institute Web site (despite scientists' objections), suppressing reports about climate change and publicly misrepresenting the data, and dismissing from advisory panels scientists whose views oppose those of the administration. "When you get to the 10th, or 20th incident [of politics interfering with science], and they're in six or seven different areas," it starts to feel pervasive, says Sidney Shapiro of Wake Forest University. The current administration has been "egregious in cherry-picking information, distorting information, and withholding information" in a way that has "far exceeded" previous presidencies, according to Jane Lubchenco, former president of both the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the International Council for Science.

In general, however, the word "abuse" is sometimes overused in this discussion, Sarewitz notes. The list of examples of abuse of science gathered by the UCS includes an incident involving a panel charged with setting safe levels of lead in drinking water, when staff-picked scientists were replaced by people with ties to the lead industry. According to Sarewitz, there is a big difference between altering scientific conclusions and putting someone from the private sector on an advisory board. The first instance is a clear manipulation of science and the scientific process, he says, while the second is not.

Sorry Dr. Sarewitz, packing a board with industry-hacks that will refuse to operate in the public's interest for the sake of protecting the economic interests of corporations is a textbook manipulation of science. It's the old "false expert" tactic. It is a clear manipulation of science to pack advisory board with interested parties, that's a total no-brainer.

In case you thought McCook was done with red herrings, next we have this beauty:

And it's not just 20th and 21st century politicians who've been tough on science: In the later 19th century, some politicians (including southern Democrats) argued that funding of basic science that had no direct public benefit to the nation's farmers was a misuse of federal dollars and best left in the hands of private funders, which led to significant cutbacks in federal funding. Imagine trying to do basic research in that climate, says Daniel Kevles, a science historian at Yale University in New Haven, Conn. Anyone who believes that political interference with American science is worse now than ever before has "some degree of historical ignorance," Kevles notes.

The 19th century? Are you fucking kidding me? Government was a miniscule fraction of the size it is now with nothing even resembling the scientific agencies we have now like FDA, NIH, NASA, EPA etc. There was no scientific infrastructure to undermine. But even so, what is the relevance of this claim that some southern farmers didn't care much for basic science over 110 years ago, is she trying to imply a rich history of anti-scientific anti-intellectualism is a justification for it now?

What else can we say, how about molecular biologists are whiners?

What may be adding to the perception that the Bush administration is harder on science than ever before is that in recent years, biology has borne the brunt of political interference in science, which is a decidedly unfamiliar experience for many life scientists. "So far, most of [biologists'] experience with Congress has been showing up and asking for money and going home," says Henry Kelly, president of the Federation of American Scientists. Now, politicians spend less time talking about atomic energy and space exploration, and more time debating issues related to climate science, biodiversity, reproduction, and molecular biology. So for biologists, it's natural to wholeheartedly believe that politics is interfering more in research, because it's something they largely have not encountered for years, says Kevles. Especially for young scientists, who have only the NIH boom of the 1990s as a comparison, what's going on "is kind of a shock."

That's why we have a problem with Bush. It's not the promotion of abstinence in Africa to fight AIDS, or the banning of meaningful hES cell research using federal dollars, or his unwillingness to accept evolution, it's that we're just pissed that we have a harder time getting grant money. It's true, we are pissed about that, but what does that have to do with Bush's general anti-science approach to governance? What does that have to do with suppressing research on global warming? Like forcing NASA to invest in idiotic moon missions rather than focusing on climate (and even removing the study of earth from their mission statement)? Or putting a lackey in charge of NASA who suppresses or Blodgerizes scientific reports? What does that have to do with his wretched public health policies? Clearly nothing, we're just whiny biologists, and when we don't get paid we apparently just generate a battery of anti-science policies out of thin air.

If all this wasn't bad enough, here's what McCook thinks is good news:

The private sector has kept its R&D funding flowing in recent years, reaching its highest estimated level of close to $40 billion in 2005, only among companies that are members of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA). The current administration has encouraged this growth by continuing an R&D tax credit that lets companies write off a portion of their R&D expenses. (The credit expired last December, however, and was also in place for much of recent administrations.) "The President has a very strong record of support for private sector science," according to the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), led by Marburger.

The Bush administration's prescription drug plan, Medicare Part D, which began in January 2006, has also helped industry science by increasing the number of people who can buy prescription medications, says Jayson Slotnik, the director of Medicare reimbursement and economic policy at the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO). Pharmaceutical companies "are more profitable now; they have more people using the products," says Slotnik. "They have more money and they can spend it more on R&D."

OMFG! She just found an industry hack to say that the biggest bilking of taxpayers of all time, Medicare Part D, which the administration lied to congress about the cost of to get it passed, is good for science? And why? Because it dumps so much money into drug companies pockets (I hope they have extra room) that it may trickle down into more research. Let's see, what are some problems with this argument?

  1. Drug companies spend more on marketing than R&D.
  2. Since the legalization of Direct-to-Consumer Advertising (DTCA) prescription costs have been surging, with drug companies already making an absolute fortune.
  3. Drug companies are not innovators (see Marcia Angell's writings), they mosty make "me-too" or "sibling" drugs, and aren't responsible for the majority of basic research that leads to revolutionary drugs.
  4. This is just so stupid it makes my head hurt.

The next stupidity? Because foundation spending on science has increased, Bush is not anti-science, because he didn't stop charities from spending money on science. I'm not kidding.

Foundation spending on biomedical research has also increased in recent years, from $1.4 billion in 1994 to $2.5 billion in 2003, according to the JAMA report. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which funds biomedical research along with education and other programs, awarded $330 million in grants by 1998; by 2005, that cumulative number had risen to $10.2 billion. The Bush administration has been "neutral to positive" towards foundation spending on research by not "getting in the way," says Hamilton Moses, first author of the JAMA paper, based at the Alerion Institute in Virginia, which monitors research productivity.

Well, isn't that sweet of him. It's also very kind of him for not being disappointed in us lazy scientists for not fully understanding the genome the year after we decoded it. Again, I shit you not.

Even if NIH funding stays flat, there are many signs that the government supports science, and takes scientists at their word. The scientific community has "done very, very well, and the federal government gives them a lot of leeway," notes Greenberg. Marburger says that he can attest from "personal experience and direct knowledge that this Administration is implementing the President's policy of strongly supporting science and applying the highest scientific standards in decision-making."

For instance, biologists have not been taken to task for promising huge, still unrealized benefits to spending taxpayer dollars on decoding the human genome. The two most expensive NIH awards in 2005 went to projects aimed at further decoding the genome, suggesting that, despite the lack of clinical results, the government still believes the advice of scientists who say this is an important project. "I don't have any reason to believe the administration is not committed to building on what the genome has taught us," says Frankel.

Gosh, the generosity. They'll give us another few years to figure out the biggest puzzle on the planet before they take the genome project and scrap it.

Ready for another red herring? Apparently scientists are meanies because they don't believe in a Democracy of facts.

Part of what may be fueling many scientists' distress over the Bush administration's attitude to science is that many scientists don't understand that politicians have to consider more than just science, and take advice from more than just scientists. This is how policy works, notes Lubchenco, now at Oregon State University. "Some scientists seem to imply that 'if the science says X, then the policy should follow blindly.' And I don't think that's true," she says. Scientists often act "as if the science automatically tells you what you should do, which it doesn't," and making a decision that's not responsive to scientific input doesn't necessarily mean a politician is "anti-science," notes Sarewitz.

In politics, certain facts are debated, which is an unfamiliar (and uncomfortable) experience to some scientists, but quite familiar to anyone who has inhabited the halls of Congress, says Kevles. Anyone who presents a view that interferes with a politician's vested interest will receive scrutiny, whether they're talking about science or not, he adds. "Politics is debate, it's negotiation... you can't just expect to issue some kind of declaration from the mountaintop."

Oh yeah, we scientists, we never debate. Our simple little minds can't understand something as difficult as a disparity of ideas.

This is BS. The scientific unwillingness to debate scientific fact is not arrogance or ignorance, it's the age old adage that you are entitled to your own opinions but not your own facts. This conflation of fact with opinion is another old denialist saw. She might as well have said, "It's just a theory, and congress doesn't need to pay attention to any little old theory." Sounds like freaking creationism!

Then there's this lovely chart:

Hey everything is ok because industry is getting more money! Notice, Bush gets credit for the increase in industry R&D even though the slope of that line hasn't changed since the early 90s, while the NIH budget line looks like it got whacked with a frying pan.

Oy. Well, let's see, we've had red herrings, selectivity, and false experts (Marburger and this BIO guy - as well as the justification of packing panels with false experts). What are we missing? Impossible expectations (or magnification of doubt) and ... conspiracy theories! I don't think she whips out the magnification of doubt arguments, but she does end up with a whopper of a conspiracy theory.

Apparently the UCS is just a bunch of hateful Democrats! They're not scientists, just liberal quacks out to get the president!

For instance, most scientists are Democrats and are public about it. In the 2004 election, the group "Scientists and Engineers for Change" endorsed Democratic candidate John Kerry. When scientists publicly align themselves with Democrats, some Republicans may suspect scientists of having an agenda, says Pielke. Furthermore, Democratic scientists are more likely to criticize a Republican president, given that they likely disagree with him ideologically, not just about science, says Sarewitz. An interesting poll would compare opinions of President Bush between Democratic and Republican scientists, to determine how much of an influence party affiliation may have, adds Sarewitz (who voted for Bush's opponent, John Kerry, in the last presidential election, and has donated money to the Democratic Party). [Note this "interesting poll doesn't exist, it sure would be interesting though!]

It's also always in scientists' interest to say there isn't ever enough funding for research, but those cries for money don't necessarily reflect a crisis, says Greenberg. "Anytime [scientists] don't get 110% of what they ask for, they act like doomsday has arrived," he notes. It's an understandable reaction. "No group that receives money from the federal government says, 'we have enough,'" he adds.


In the 1970s, biologists dealt with public and political concerns about recombinant DNA technology, with critics suggesting that the technology could create powerful viruses or resistant bacteria, and also violated ethics by manipulating DNA. However, over years, scientists gradually helped craft a compromise that enabled them to conduct the research, eventually developing a series of life-saving medicines, such as recombinant insulin and erythropoietin. And last August, the FDA approved over-the-counter use of Plan B in women 18 years of age and older. Scientists can convince politicians and the public of their opinions, but it takes time and effort, says Kevles. "This is something [scientists] have to do day after day, month after month, year after year."

You here that? We're a bunch of grant-seeking Democrats that won't let any ethical boundary stop us from getting our precious science done (she makes us sound like mad-scientists). However, I must have lost the anti-Bush Democrat-Scientist newsletter that tells me that Bush is an anti-scientific hooligan because he's a Republican. It's either that or my antenna that downloads instructions directly from Howard Dean at the DNC must be broken.

This is such BS. Scientists didn't form the UCS or the SEA because we hate Republicans, we didn't do it under Reagan, or Ford, or Nixon, or George Sr. We formed these groups because he's an anti-scientific asshole. It's not a political conspiracy you freaking nut. It really is about the science!

Ok, I think she gets a 9 out of a possible 10 on the denialism index since she had multiple BS experts (esp Marburger, what a hack), multiple red herrings and illogical arguments, as well as the selectivity. That last conspiracy theory was the icing on the cake bringing her from 6/10 to 9/10. What a joke.


Anonymous said...

Whoa. That was seriously thorough.
Excellent work.


10:32 AM, October 21, 2006

Another Anonymous Poster said...

Good job on the analysis/rebuttal. One suggestion, though - is it possible in blogger to streamline stuff by putting lots of the text below the fold?

11:14 AM, October 23, 2006

Rev. Dr. said...

I wish.

If there is a way, someone tell me.

4:18 PM, October 23, 2006


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