Weird science

Thursday, January 29th, 2004

The Bush White House — often appearing in headlines simply as “the U.S.” — is becoming remarkably adept at breaking down the distinction between policy pronouncements and ad copy.

Its all-purpose ruse for opposing initiatives it doesn’t like is to claim they’re based on “questionable science.”

That was the term, for instance, employed the other day by the Department of Health and Human Services, when it stunned the World Health Organization by defending junk food and refined-sugar products, challenging the group’s assertion, and the global initiative based on it, that this stuff makes you fat.

This is the way the world’s only superpower throws its weight around, intimidating every international organization it can’t control. Thus it castigated WHO’s global anti-obesity initiative for recommending that governments advise their citizens to limit intake on what most of us know as crap, using language – so critics point out – almost identical to statements made this past year by the Grocery Manufacturers of America.

You could conclude that W. and Co. function cynically and blatantly as a front for certain industries, e.g.: defense contractors, big energy, pharmaceuticals, insurance companies and agribusiness. And you’d be right.

But what interests me is how they combine their industry shilling so smoothly with what can only be called a hatred for, and attempted rollback of, scientific progress.

That is, they’re fighting the culture war at the same time that they’re running interference for major contributors.

It’s not that our president hates all science. He does want to go to Mars, after all. He loves guy science — anything that thrusts, penetrates and explodes. What he hates is wimp science. You know, hand-wringing, eco-freak stuff, the kind that nags and worries about the rainforest and our lungs and the black-footed ferret.

Any scientific consensus that interferes with God’s mandate giving us “dominion over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the air” is questionable, in the world according to Bush. To roll back the cultural incursions, Bush has had no qualms substituting truly questionable science, which is self-serving and sometimes just plain weird. Consider:

1. Mad cow disease. As recently as last summer, the White House was maneuvering to keep the beef industry unregulated, helping to defeat a proposed ban on the slaughter of “downer” cattle — cows too sick to walk — and adding them to the great American beefstream. Only after bovine spongiform encephalopathy was discovered in a Washington state dairy cow, and two dozen countries subsequently banned U.S. beef imports, did the USDA (talk about contamination — this bureaucracy is riddled with cattle industry executives) propose keeping dying cattle out of the nation’s food supply.

2. Sept. 11. After the terror attacks, the EPA, at White House insistence, assured New Yorkers it was safe to return to lower Manhattan (home of the New York Stock Exchange). Well, it wasn’t. For months the air was contaminated with toxic residue — microparticles of glass, lead, concrete and asbestos — that could wreak havoc on fragile respiratory systems. Thanks, EPA.

3. Energy and clean air. The public still doesn’t know who attended Dick Cheney’s secret, back-room session to hammer out a national energy policy in 2001, but environmental organizations were completely shut out. Since then, the administration has promoted legislation to hike profits for the
mega-polluting fossil fuel industry, stopped enforcing much of the Clean Air and Water Act and pretty much done all it could to keep the country oil-dependent.

4. Global warming. Two months into his term, Bush halted U.S. participation in the Kyoto Protocols, the modest goal of which was to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by 12.5 percent by 2010. It also censored its own EPA report, which sounded the alarm about industrial pollution and global warming.

5. Creationism. Gosh, what do you think inspired the National Park Service to start hawking a creationist version of the formation of the Grand Canyon in the natural sciences section of that park’s bookstore? Surely it had nothing to do with the president’s own partiality to this Old Testament-compatible pseudoscience.

But maybe if you believe the Grand Canyon is 4,400 years old, you can also breathe asbestos-contaminated air without coughing and serve your kids Coke and doughnuts for breakfast without making them pudgy. I guess they call it faith.