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The "War on Science" Meets Hurricane Katrina

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I have been touring lately to talk about my new book, The Republican War on Science. But frequently -- and quite understandably -- people also want me discuss Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans. That is, after all, where I'm from. As a result, I've had to do some thinking about whether there are any strong, defensible parallels between the tragic New Orleans situation on the one hand, and the political abuses of science that have been systematically perpetrated by the Bush administration, on issues ranging from global warming to embryonic stem cell research, on the other.

The answer, I've decided, is not the seemingly obvious one. Science was certainly ignored in the New Orleans situation, when it could have been used well ahead of time to help avert a disaster by dramatically strengthening the city's hurricane protections, restoring coastal wetlands, and so forth. I and many others wrote about the city's startling vulnerability long before hurricane Katrina first appeared off the coast of Florida. However, I am not aware of any evidence to suggest that science was in any deliberately way distorted or suppressed by those seeking to deny any hurricane risk to New Orleans for political reasons. (Granted, this has happened a bit after the fact, as some Bush administration officials have wrongly suggested that nobody foresaw the possible extent of the disaster -- levee collapses and so forth. Such nonsense, though, seems to be driven by an impulse towards damage control, rather than any nefarious strategy to award the religious right, industry, or other interest groups -- which I believe to be the impetus behind the current "war on science.")

However, on another level, I think there's a much more resonant analogy between the "war on science" that has manifested during the Bush administration and the government's lackluster response to the New Orleans tragedy. In the wake of Katrina, Americans saw their government in action -- "inaction," to use a Jon Stewart pun -- and they were singularly unimpressed. Federal emergency planners seemed shockingly asleep at the switch. The credibility of both the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the newfangled Department of Homeland Security are shot. These are taxpayer funded agencies, and Americans are now, quite legitimately, questioning how their money is being spent.

Something very similar has happened as a result of the "war on science." Agencies ranging from the Environmental Protection Agency to the Food and Drug Administration have seen their credibility steadily eroded as they have become founts of agenda-driven misinformation. These are expert scientific agencies, and their decisions are supposed to be science-based; but again and again, we have seen them ignoring and distorting scientific and other forms of information in transparent attempts to appease political constituencies favored by the White House.

The White House has tried to meddle with the language of an EPA global warming report, even as the agency has been plausibly accused of rigging its analyses to support the administration line on mercury pollution. A distinguished expert just resigned from the FDA to protest continual politicking over whether Plan B contraception should be approved for over the counter availability. And then there's the famous case study in which the National Cancer Institute temporarily humored the dubious claim that abortion might increase the risk of breast cancer. If women can't get reliable information about breast cancer risks from the National Cancer Institute, where can they turn?

Under the Bush administration, our government seems a miasma of incompetence and misinformation. What's lacking in this mess is a respect for expertise, professionalism, an ability to rise above politics and get the job done--to be responsible and effective public servants worthy of the title. Not only does the government fail to function properly -- i.e., it doesn't use science to protect the public interest -- but it often doesn't even put out credible information in the first place.

The sum total, then, is this: We Americans fund a huge federal government, and we are watching as it fails us. There's a "war on science" afoot, alright, but perhaps it's just part of a larger war on professionalism, expertise, and basic competence.