Katrina, Science, and Politics

08/28/2006 11:01 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011


In the satellite image above, we can see the weak but still very
troubling Tropical Storm Ernesto just coming ashore over southeastern
Cuba. Some very vulnerable parts of storm-scarred Florida remain under
the gun, but speaking strictly from a cosmic perspective, it appears
that Ernesto could have been slightly crueler. On the day before the
August 29 anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, we could have found this
storm ready to barrel towards the Louisiana gulf coast. We were lucky;
reliving Katrina is going to be harrowing enough as it is.

The Katrina tragedy combines together so many, many storylines. Race,
poverty, and recovery efforts. Appropriately or otherwise, global
warming. But as August 29 approaches, I've found myself thinking about
how Katrina and its aftermath bring into sharp focus the question of
whether we can rely upon our government to use scientific information
properly, promptly, and in the long-term public interest.

The concern springs from my own experience: My first book href="">The
Republican War on Science
, came out in hardcover amidst the
unprecedented destruction caused by Katrina. Even as I went on tour
and spoke to crowds deeply worried about political attacks on science,
my own family had fled New Orleans and my mother's home in the city's
Lakeview neighborhood had been destroyed by ten feet of floodwater. It
was a difficult time, and yet also a crucial one for speaking out
about the importance of good scientific information to public policy.
My audiences repeatedly asked me to interpret recent events in light
of my "war on science" thesis.

What was the connection? At the time, I confess I didn't really see
one. To a New Orleanian like myself, and a fairly cynical one at that,
Katrina seemed to exposed a pattern of incompetence and neglect that
stretched back decades and sprang from multiple failures at the
federal, state, and local level. It wasn't a Republican or Democrat
disaster; and moreover, no special interest that I could identify had
actively worked to obscure the truth about just how much New Orleans
was inviting catastrophe. Rather--and admittedly often out of
convenience--everyone had simply ignored that truth.

But I have since looked at the broader picture. First of all, there
was distortion of science on the part of the president, who
absurdly declared, "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of
the levees..." Once again, Bush had proven that, when it really
mattered, he couldn't be counted upon to receive and process
information reliably.

But the broader evidence of government incompetence brought out by
Katrina--especially on the part of FEMA and the U.S. Army Corps of
Engineers--counted for far more than Bush's misstatement. We stood
witness to a systematic inability on the part of these agencies to use
the best available information to assess risk and then respond to it,
whether in the immediate face of disaster in the case of FEMA, or
years before it struck in the case of the Corps. It is this, I'm
convinced, that made so many readers link The Republican War on
and the Katrina tragedy.

Granted, I wasn't writing specifically about agencies like FEMA and
the Corps. I was highlighting how agenda-driven attacks on key morsels
of scientific information--like the evidence demonstrating a human
role in global warming--had infiltrated our government via the potent
vessel of today's Republican Party.

The general principle, however, was much broader: Decision-makers need
the best available information, at their fingertips, to make the right
choices. They've got to take that information seriously; and they've
got to treat it with respect. Moreover, there has to be a system in
place so that the information can be properly vetted, and so that the
handoff between the experts and the policymakers is a smooth one.

Finally, all of this has to be done in a time sensitive fashion so
that risks can be averted before they happen, and tragedies can be
responded to quickly. Rarely, if ever, can the science-policy complex
wait for perfect information--it has to act, and do the best that it
can with the knowledge at hand. Frequently, it will have to err on the
side of caution.

Katrina showed the magnitude of the consequences that can ensue when
such a delicate system breaks down; even as The Republican War on
showed that such a system was currently under vigorous
attack in the Bush administration and in the Republican Congress. And
therein lies the connection: Between present day failings to use
science to protect the public and future ones that are even now being
set in motion. Between suffering in the present and suffering
somewhere down the line.

It has often been pointed out that science isn't the only important
element when it comes to making a good decision in the public
interest. I wholeheartedly agree. But no one can convince me that
science isn't an absolutely crucial part of the decision-making
process. For me, that's the lesson of Katrina--and it's one that we
still, sadly, act as though we haven't learned.