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The Anti-Science President

Former surgeon general Richard Carmona is telling us what we already know: that the Bush administration has, from the beginning, put ideology ahead of science.

The news just gets worse about how politics has trumped science throughout the current White House administration’s tenure. Pick a topic–embryonic stem cells, global warming, mercury levels in the environment–and on each one, this administration has denied science when it interfered with the president’s ideology.

Now the former surgeon general, Richard Carmona, who held office from 2002 to 2006, is telling Congress in considerable detail how he was muzzled on everything from stem cells and sex education to a report on secondhand smoke. He was also told to mention President Bush at least three times on each page of every speech, and was directed to give speeches in support of Republican candidates.

According to a front-page article in Tuesday’s New York Times,

On issue after issue, Dr. Carmona asserted, the Bush administration made decisions about important public health issues based solely on political considerations, not scientific ones.

“I was told to stay away from those because we’ve already decided which way we want to go,” Dr. Carmona said.

He described attending a meeting of top officials in which the subject of global warming was discussed. The other officials concluded that global warming was a liberal cause and dismissed it, he said.

Politicians have always tried to manipulate facts to suit their agendas, and they will again, though the scale attempted by this administration is truly astonishing. So is the hubris that somehow people wouldn’t notice that the administration’s ideology contradicted facts and empirical proof.

Inevitably, facts have a nasty habit of being, well, real–for example, the fact that abortions do not cause breast cancer, despite a government website that kept making this claim against all scientific evidence. Or that carbon-dioxide levels in the atmosphere are rapidly rising. Or that most Americans support embryonic stem-cell research.

Yet there is a curious twist here in the sheer breadth and audacity of the effort. Most presidents manipulate science, or try to, but they keep quiet about it, following T. S. Eliot’s observation that “Between the idea / And the reality / Between the motion / And the act / Falls the shadow.” This White House did not hide in the shadows with its science policies. It stayed firmly in the spotlight.

Almost from the beginning–certainly in August 2001, when President Bush announced his restrictive policy on stem-cell research–George W. Bush made little effort to hide his disregard for science that didn’t agree with his ideology. This is what is revealing about Carmona’s testimony to the Senate yesterday, which paints a picture of a surgeon general who was essentially told to ignore reality on many issues. For instance, he was simply told not to mention scientific studies that questioned a sex-education policy that relies solely on abstinence.

In an area I’m more familiar with, embryonic stem-cell research, the administration’s policies disregarded reality on two issues. First, the president’s core constituency was quite vocal about its wish to ban the use of embryonic stem cells for research and its hope that their use could be criminalized. This is despite the fact that the science is readily accessible to trained scientists around the world and that most Americans want the potential treatments and cures promised by stem-cell research. Second, the president’s policy to allow research only on stem-cell lines created before August 2001 was problematic because the lines in question were fewer than promised and mostly unusable.

Despite the president’s anti-science stances during his first term, George W. Bush was reelected in 2004, in part because science is seldom a determining factor in election outcomes. In 2004, the electorate was more concerned about the threat of terrorism, the war in Iraq, and other front-burner issues.

Perhaps Americans in 2004 should have paid a bit more attention to the science policies of the Bush administration. One can only hope that in 2008 science and facts have a bit more influence with both the candidates and the electorate.

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