Undermining Science: The Altercation Book Club

››› ››› ERIC ALTERMAN

Thanks to Eric B for yesterday. I had to catch an early, post-Halloween plane to Ithaca to give a talk at Cornell, which I hadn't seen in over 20 years, but I was thrilled to be asked to speak in a lecture series endowed in honor of Walter LaFeber and Joel Silbey. There's a friendly account of the talk here, and the diavlog I did with Byron York the day before is here. My 150th "Think Again" column, "This Election, We All Lose," is here, and there's a short "Comment is Free" entry here on the midterms.

The Goateed Librul Man is back, too, here. We do appreciate it, but we're still kinda disappointed he disappeared right in time for the cover of TAP.

From Joshua Murachik:

U.S. soldier in Iraq killed herself -- after objecting to torture techniques, here. Good God. Thanks, Ralph and liberal hawks.

Former federal prosecutor Elizabeth de la Vega wonders why there are no peace "action figures" to join the G.I. Joes, Star Wars figurines, and other characters that engage in battle on children's floors all across America. She wonders because she recently met Sgt. Ricky Clousing, a "peace action hero," who, on seeing his unit in Iraq shoot a teenage boy who happened to take a wrong turn in his car, protested -- and continued to protest that and other crimes he witnessed all the way back to the U.S. where he refused to return to Iraq. Now, Clousing finds himself in the brig at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.

De la Vega concludes her TomDispatch piece on the spirit of resistance to war crimes from within the military in this fashion:

Twenty-four years old, Clousing told the world in simple declarative sentences why he had to give up his college money, receive a dishonorable discharge, and go to jail to take a stand against the invasion and occupation of Iraq. He'd make a very cool action figure. Come to think of it, Sgt. Ricky Clousing -- tattooed arms, Laguna Beach t-shirt, and all -- would make an awesome shepherd in that manger scene. Han Solo and Luke Skywalker are just going to have to move over.

William Styron was a brave man, a great writer and a real gentleman. He was also a real liberal, in almost every good sense of the word. He also probably saved Philip Roth's life, and I'm guessing, that of many others. He didn't save mine, but he made my world a better place.

I am working hard to put food on my family. (Reminds me of that German thing. Anybody got a URL for that?)

Better advertising than money can buy:

Diebold demands that HBO cancel documentary on voting machines
Film saying they can be manipulated 'inaccurate'

By MICHAEL JANOFSKY
BLOOMBERG NEWS

Diebold Inc. insisted that cable network HBO cancel a documentary that questions the integrity of its voting machines, calling the program inaccurate and unfair.

The program, "Hacking Democracy," is scheduled to debut Thursday, five days before the 2006 U.S. midterm elections. The film claims that Diebold voting machines aren't tamper-proof and can be manipulated to change voting results.

Does this remind anyone of any Aaron Sorkin-written plotlines lately?

Why write of this sexual abuse? Why proceed with the memoir? More than just wanting to provide readers with firsthand accounts of the historical movements in which I participated, I wished to contribute to the ongoing collective reconstruction of women's history in which the intimate oppression of women and children is revealed because it is part of the historical record.

I wanted people to know that reconciliation is possible, healing is possible. Breaking silence, I bear witness, and the child is at peace.

Here.

Quote of the month: "Let's not blame what's happening in Iraq on Rumsfeld," here.

America, the band, not the country.

I bought one: "Eric Meola's exhibition of Born to Run photographs opens at Snap Galleries in the UK shortly, and Eric's still got his eye on good causes. In October, he donated 25% of his earnings on all print sales to the Community FoodBank of New Jersey. In November, Meola's beneficiary will be a non-profit group started by Terry Magovern to support poeple with ALS. The Joan Dancy and PALS (People with ALS) Support Group will receive 25% of all of Meola's earnings from the sale of his limited edition prints throughout the month. Prints are available for sale now; the exhibition runs from November 11 through January 20."

Twenty-five percent? What a great guy this Eric guy is, huh?

The Altercation Book Club:

Undermining Science: Suppression and Distortion in the Bush Administration by Seth Shulman (University of California Press, 2006)

An Affront to Science and Democracy

It is easy enough to understand why the politically motivated censorship and distortion of scientific and technical research would be of overriding concern even to apolitical scientists: a doctrinaire allegiance to one set of conclusions violates the central premise of the scientific method. As the conservative philosopher Karl Popper famously explained in his classic work The Logic of Scientific Discovery, science achieves a deeper understanding of the world precisely by vigorously challenging hypotheses, a process Popper dubbed as "falsification." For scientists, Popper wrote, the method of research is not to defend previous findings but "using all the weapons of our logical, mathematical, and technical armory" to "try to overthrow them." As Popper put it, "Those among us who are unwilling to expose their ideas to the hazard of refutation do not take part in the scientific game."

In this context, the reaction within the scientific community to the administration's actions is unsurprising. Pseudoscientific or "faith-based" interventions, in contradiction to observable evidence, are being promoted and funded with taxpayer money, while valuable lifesaving innovations are stifled or neglected. Many researchers now find their work censored by the administration, while others engage in self-censorship as a defense against losing their jobs. Many other scientists and technical specialists have left government service in despair or protest. The Centers for Disease Control have been hit particularly hard. As many as forty top CDC managers -- in career positions -- have left the agency since the start of the Bush administration, according to the Washington Post.

As serious as these effects are for scientists and the scientific community, the impact is even more grave for the health of the nation's democratic processes. Consider, for instance, the assessment in 2004 of Rep. Brian Baird (D-WA), a member of the House Science Committee: "In countless subtle and not so subtle ways," Baird contends, "the administration and Republican majorities who control the House and Senate are deliberately and systematically suppressing discussion and criticism and distorting the scientific process. The modalities of such distortions are manifold and collectively constitute nothing less than a coordinated attack on virtually every stage and aspect of the science/policy interaction."

In a campaign spanning virtually every federal agency, the Bush administration has employed an arsenal of tactics to undermine scientific integrity.

Subverting the Work of Government Scientists

By vesting unprecedented power in a small cadre of White House loyalists, the administration has censored and distorted the work of agency scientists throughout the government. As detailed in chapter 2, one of the clearest examples of this strategy has been to allow a close-knit group of industry-friendly nonscientists at the White House's Council on Environmental Quality to tightly control all scientific research conducted throughout the federal government on the issue of global warming. The administration has required that virtually every piece of scientific research and assessment on climate change funnel through this small, politically motivated group. In so doing, the White House has subverted the independence of federal agencies by making sure any scientific assessments released by the government conform to predetermined administration policy positions.

Suppressing Analyses That Diverge from Preferred Policy

Whether in science or other technical arenas, when dissenting analyses have surfaced within the federal government, the administration has frequently squelched them. This happened, for example, in November 2003, just before Congress voted in favor of the administration's massive Medicare reform bill. Richard Foster, the chief actuary for the federal Medicare program, sought to release to Congress his analysis showing that the bill would cost $500 billion to $600 billion over ten years, as much as $200 billion more than the White House's official estimate.

Thomas Scully, the administration's Medicare chief, threatened to fire Foster if he released his analysis. As a result, Congress passed a bill that was based on numbers the administration knew to be inaccurate. After the story broke but before Congress could complete its feckless investigation of Scully's behavior, he resigned to work as a lobbyist for the pharmaceutical industry. As an editorial in the New York Times lamented after the deception came to light: "it is a terrible policy to deprive legislators of information they need to make informed choices."

Injecting Politics into Scientific Determinations

In many scientific arenas, the Bush administration has made a habit of injecting overtly political considerations into decisions that are normally debated on their scientific merits. As discussed in chapter 4, for example, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is required by law to approve drugs that are found to be safe and effective. In an almost unprecedented repudiation of governmental scientific expertise, however, Steven Galson, acting director of the FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, overturned the recommendations of his own staff and two FDA advisory panels and refused to approve over-the-counter access to the emergency "morning-after" contraceptive pill levonorgestrel, sold under the brand name Plan B.

Although members of the two FDA scientific advisory committees had voted overwhelmingly to recommend over-the-counter access and stated that such a decision would present "no issues" of concern to women's health, the normal process of approval was circumvented. Through the intervention of Dr. David Hager, a highly controversial evangelist physician it had appointed to the FDA advisory panel, the Bush administration blocked easier access to this contraceptive and pandered to religious activists who oppose birth control.

Allowing Industry and Other Interest Groups to Interfere in Governmental Processes

The Bush administration has frequently allowed private industry representatives to intervene in -- and even dictate the outcome of -- governmental policymaking. For example, as detailed in chapter 5, reports by both the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the inspector general of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) determined that top officials interfered with EPA scientists to suppress and distort analyses of mercury emissions from power plants. As part of this policymaking process, the EPA's proposed rule on mercury emissions contained no fewer than twelve paragraphs lifted, sometimes verbatim, from a legal document prepared by industry lawyers. Chagrined EPA officials explained that the language had crept into the preamble to their proposed rules "through the interagency process." But the example underscores the lack of public input in the process and the tight and often secret circles of influence that operate routinely in the current administration.

Stacking Scientific Advisory Panels

The Bush administration has dramatically politicized the process through which appointments are made to science advisory panels. Although the appointment process has always involved political considerations, past administrations have historically looked for some political breadth and great scientific depth. Such considerations have been virtually ignored in the current administration. In one well-documented case in 2002, Tommy Thompson, as secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, summarily rejected three well-qualified ergonomics experts from a peer review panel at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). The three nominees in question had been selected to join a study section of the Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health that evaluates research grants on workplace injuries. The committee chair and panel staff had chosen the three based on their credentials and reputations in the field, and the director of NIOSH had initially approved the appointments.

What makes this example so noteworthy is that so-called study sections are responsible for conducting peer review of ongoing research, not for advising on policy matters, and therefore changes of administration have almost never affected them. Traditionally, scientists in such positions are chosen strictly for their relevant expertise, just as their peer review work requires them to assess research solely based on its scientific merit. In this case, however, Thompson rejected at least two of the nominees because of their support for a workplace ergonomics standard, a policy opposed by the administration.

These are just a few examples of how the Bush administration has altered the way scientific and technical information is handled by the federal government. These changes have enormous and widespread effects on the practice of science within the government and in society at large:

They limit what questions scientists and other government staff are allowed to ask.

They place constraints on what methods can be used to seek answers.

They restrict the selection of who is permitted to ask questions, seek answers, or give advice in government agencies.

They suppress findings solely on the basis that they conflict with administration policies.

They sanction misleading and unjustified claims to bolster results that are "approved of" by the administration;

They routinely place ideologically rigid nonscientist supervisors in charge of government scientific research programs.

They have a chilling effect on the scientific community by exacting retribution, including dismissals, against scientists who ask unapproved questions or produce unapproved-of results.

For more, please go here.

Alter-reviews:

In addition to the Stones, I saw George Jones and Kris Kristofferson last week, as well as Derek Trucks and the missus, Susan Tedeschi. This Times review of ol' No Show gets the story of his performance pretty much right. While he was George Jones, which counts for a great deal with yours truly, he really sucked. The band was unrehearsed and the nonstop selling from the stage was outrageous and insulting. His voice had its moments but they were few and far between. Kristofferson, on the other hand, whose voice I've always hated, was just wonderful. Playing Carnegie with just an acoustic guitar is no easy thing, but he was humble, charming, and filled with passion -- and he was really funny about forgetting the lyrics which made his performance all the more winning. It could not have been a more glaring contrast with the slick, soulless performance of Jones and his band (to whose end I did not make it, by the way ...).

Here's a review of an earlier show by Trucks and Tedeschi. She is a pleasant singer with a decent feel for the blues. He is, as we should all know by now, the greatest young(ish) guitarist in the world, at least of those guitarists in the world this blogger has seen or heard, and also perhaps the most ambitious. Take a look at the range of material his band performs and also the ingenuity with which they perform it. Saturday night at the Nokia Theatre, he had two members of the Persuasions backing him up, and they did this expansive, soulful, jazzy "Sugaree" that could have gone on forever as far as I was concerned. Catch them if you can.

Correspondence Corner:

Sender's name: Barbara C
Hometown: Boca Raton, FL

Dear Eric,

I have a stepson who is 23 years old who lost both of his biological parents before the age of 18. He always wanted to serve in the Army. He needed the college money the Army offers as his biological parents did not leave him or his sister, who is now 24, much money for a higher education.

He is now serving his second year on a base in Afghanistan. I do not want his sister to lose the LAST of her direct blood relatives to an idiotic war in Iraq. He told me the Army will send him there next, on this crazy rotating system they have over there.

God bless John Kerry for telling it like it is. I am living the experience through my stepson. I agree with John Kerry 100% that the War On Terror is a war that cannot be fought with troops on the ground, but through an International Coalition of our CIA, Interpol, Police and any other concerned citizen around the world.

Sender's name: John Cramer
Hometown: Seattle, WA

I understand what Kerry was trying to say, and I agree with it - a more educated, reasoned president would not have made the mistakes of getting bogged down in Iraq, or of even going there in the first place. However, Kerry's statement confirmed for me that Kerry has no business running for president in 2008. Through carelessness, he allowed Bush and the Republicans to go from being on the defensive to being on the offensive with one week to go before the mid-term election. Regardless of the fact that Bush and his cronies are twisting the meaning of what Kerry said all out of shape to make their point, Kerry gave them the opening to change the subject, and as a professional politician, he should know better.

Whoever runs for president in 2008 isn't just doing it for himself/herself, he/she is also doing it for all the Democrats that have suffered under this administration for the 8 years leading up to the next election. If that person can't be trusted to avoid stupid blunders like this, then he/she shouldn't run for president. I voted for Kerry in 2004 and I will vote for the Democratic candidate in 2008 and I truly hope that it isn't John Kerry because I really want to win this time.

Sender's name: Tessa Kraft
Hometown: Healdsburg, CA

Once again you have to ask, what liberal media?? In today's local paper the Bush/Kerry snafu was on the front page; yesterday there was an article referring to Bush saying "if the Democrats take the House, the terrorists win" -- this was buried on page 6 and my paper is owned by The New York Times. So there is the president of the country, in essence, calling the other major political party terrorists and where is the outrage over that one? Can you imagine if some Democrat said the same thing about Bush? Which by the way would be much closer to the truth since his awful war has been a terrific recruiting tool for the terrorists. This country is in the worst shape, has sunk so low that I am almost totally dispirited, but I did vote and I will continue to vote and, please, all of you vote too!

Sender's name: Brian Donohue
Hometown: Daily Revolution

In Memoriam: One of the great lights of American literature has gone out, or rather transformed to the next realm. William Styron was a great, talented, and often troubled man. If you have never read Sophie's Choice, I would urge you to; it is one of the classics of American lit, and you will most likely never forget it. And his tiny "memoir of madness," Darkness Visible is one of those books that every psychotherapist in creation ought to read at least once.

One is tempted to call this a sad day. But pick up one of his books, and read this great man's musical and haunting prose, and you will have cause to celebrate his life.

Sender's name: John S. Ransom
Hometown: Carlisle, PA

You have to blink your eyes several times to make sure you are reading what you are reading. Here's Mark Halperin at Slate: "If Democrats win a big victory next Tuesday, it will be interesting to hear Rove's explanation. But for goodness' sake, as Abramowitz was smart enough to demonstrate, people who live in Bethesda, Chevy Chase, and Manhattan should understand that in much of red America, Rove is beloved and respected, and they should ask themselves why that is." First of all: *beloved*? Why would anyone belove Karl Rove? Second, how does Halperin or anyone know the state of opinion outside the places he mentions? And then, why not reverse the "should"? As in, "people who don't live in Bethesda, Chevy Chase, and Manhattan should understand that in those places, Karl Rove is not beloved or respected"? And: how has this "love and respect" fared in the context of plummeting approval ratings for his boss, President Bush?

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