How the White House misunderestimated the height, width, breadth and depth of a crucial cultural meme.

President Bush’s ignoring the advice of experts has been a common thread to many science stories during his administration.  Credit: Natalie Slocum

From the JUNE/JULY issue of Seed:

When the “eminent NASA climatologist versus 24-year-old Republican apparatchik” story broke earlier this year, America went into yet another round of convulsions about science and the Bush administration. Having just finished touring to discuss my book The Republican War on Science, my initial reaction to the news could be summarized as follows: Here we go again. I was outraged, certainly. But I was also, perhaps, experiencing a bout of issue fatigue as I dutifully filed away yet another case study.

After a while, though, I started to ask myself why this issue can’t seem to stay dormant for more than a week at a time—why it’s showing up in “Doonesbury” strips and even in overseas headlines. And I realized something: Even I, who had written a book about the Bush White House’s conflicts with science, had probably underestimated the heft and political longevity of this particular meme. Perhaps we all did. The White House PR machine itself, I suspect, “misunderestimated” the potency of a science-based critique of President Bush—and even as the James Hansen-NASA scandal hit, had been positioning itself for damage control.

Just days later, there was Bush giving his State of the Union address, trying to reclaim the science issue by announcing a new plan to promote science education and shore up America’s scientific competitiveness. To make the image complete, the president then had himself photographed peering into a microscope at a Dallas high school. (In Texas, at least, Bush and science are still chums.)

If Bush’s handlers thought he needed better marks on science badly enough to make such an appeal—and, moreover, to make it at a time when his poll ratings had taken a considerable plunge—then somebody must have sensed a political vulnerability. After all, never in the history of the United States has good science been so crucial to good policymaking, and never has a presidential administration been dogged by such extensive and persuasive accusations of political abuses of science. The effect of these charges, it seems, may be lingering along with many, many other issues bringing the presidential acumen into question.

The mystery, of course, is how such lingering is possible. It certainly would seem to defy the laws of political arithmetic. When people go to the polls in the United States, few pull the levers based upon how they feel about science policy. And science isn’t typically an issue that affects the political fortunes of presidents.

Nevertheless, we’re seeing a fascinating kind of synergy here, one in which the science policy issue has gained remarkable salience because it is—in a complex but undeniable way—now wrapped up in the larger, more prominent debates about Bush’s handling of central issues like Iraq and New Orleans. Bush’s mistreatment of science has expanded into a story that resonates deeply within his own country, and widely throughout the world, because it’s similar to the greater political narratives already being played out.

For instance, a key case study of this administration’s abuse of science is its promotion of the dubious notion that Iraq’s confiscated aluminum tubes were intended for centrifuges and uranium enrichment, rather than for rocketry—a claim that the Department of Energy’s own centrifuge experts pretty uniformly rejected. Does that sound familiar? If it does, it’s because a similar pattern—ignore experts, favor ideologues—has been followed by the administration on any number of other science issues, ranging from global warming to the morning after pill.

Or consider Hurricane Katrina. President Bush himself grossly misstated the actual state of scientific knowledge when he so confidently declared, just after the storm, that “I don’t think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees.” In fact, every hurricane expert—and anyone who’d read a series of articles in the Times-Picayune years earlier—knew that New Orleans’ levee systems would likely not withstand a direct hit from a major hurricane; in the event, even a sideswipe from Katrina did the city in. If Iraq raised questions of presidential honesty, New Orleans raised questions of basic competence: Had Bush ignored clear vulnerabilities and failed to staff the government with the right experts on emergency preparedness and response?

These days, such concerns are all part of a package, a collection of anecdotes that together speak the same message: The president, for whatever reason, hasn’t shown that he respects what’s going on in what one of his aides so hilariously described as the “reality-based community.” The “Bush is anti science” meme carries political weight because it underscores why so many Americans (including previous supporters) are becoming increasingly disenchanted with Bush: They don’t think he’s fit to lead, and they don’t believe many of his appointees are competent administrators of various branches of the government, virtually all of which require some form of scientific or other expertise. Bush’s recently-exposed decision to meet with television producer and novelist Michael Crichton to discuss global warming—rather than heeding the advice of the National Academy of Sciences on this subject—epitomizes the president’s disregard for the critical role of legitimate expertise in decision-making, whether it’s about global warming, educational policy or nation-building.

When I give talks about what I dubbed the “war on science” that has been waged during this administration, I often get questions asking whether that isn’t too narrow a framing of the issue. Shouldn’t I be talking about a “war on expertise,” or even a “war on truth”? Whenever I hear this, I generally agree with the person asking the question, and then go on to crack a joke about how the attacks on science alone are more than enough for one writer to handle.

But now I realize something more: These questions are proof positive that those who are worried about the politics of science nurture their concern within a much broader context. These Americans are thinking: As science goes, so goes the nation. On some level, the science community has always known that. What’s new is that now, we have a heck of a lot of company.

Originally published June 12, 2006

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