How science disinformation campaigns may backfire this November.

The mercury used in this photograph was disposed of in accordance with EPA guidelines. Much of what appears to be mercury was in fact replicated using digital imaging techniques.  Credit: Mark Weiss

—From the AUG/SEP issue of Seed:

Jim Gibbons and I go way back. Not that we’ve ever met—but we’ve been slamming each other for some time now.

Gibbons is a Republican congressman from Nevada and, more recently, a leading gubernatorial candidate in that state. He’s a conservative war veteran and former combat pilot who has played a prominent role on the House Resources Committee, where he has pushed a “sound science” agenda on matters of pollution and environmental protection. All too often, unfortunately, this has amounted to doing what industry wants and then finding a scientific-sounding justification for it.

But there’s more to say about Gibbons: He’s actually a scientist. He has a master’s degree in mining and geology and has worked as a hydrologist and as a mining and exploration geologist. So perhaps more than most politicians, Gibbons has a certain stake in having his rhetoric about sound science match the truth.

It most emphatically doesn’t.

Back in early 2004, I wrote an essay for the Washington Post in which I criticized Gibbons’ rhetoric about using sound science in political decision making—which often amounts to Republican doublespeak for weakening environmental and public health regulations. Gibbons and his fellow sound science guru Chris Cannon (R-UT) responded with this swipe: “Recently, a freelance journalist named Chris Mooney, an English graduate with no background in science…” Ouch. Gibbons plays hardball.

“For too long, too many politicians have felt that they can simply say whatever they want about matters of science, running roughshod over expert opinion and spewing talking points drawn up by corporate-funded PR firms.”

But lately, I seem to have been getting back at him—and Gibbons, with his name likely on the ballot this coming November, has more to lose. In early 2005, Gibbons and House Resources Committee chairman Richard Pombo released a truly staggering report on the subject of mercury pollution from coal-fired power plants, which essentially argued that it’s nothing to worry about. So all of the regulatory gear-grinding at the EPA, investigations of methods to reduce mercury levels in fish, and all of the advisories for pregnant women to watch their levels of fish intake—according to Gibbons and Pombo, it amounts to little more than a big scare. They had the gall to write that “current, peer-reviewed scientific literature does not show any link between US power plant emissions and mercury in fish.” The only problem: The EPA has said otherwise, while the National Academy of Sciences has very prominently underscored the dangers of mercury intake through fish consumption. So in online commentaries and in my book The Republican War on Science, I heavily criticized the Gibbons-Pombo report.

And then something extraordinary happened: The Nevada media caught on. An anti-Gibbons blog written under the pseudonym “Nevada Scandalmonger” had been regularly plugging my critiques of Gibbons for some time; then in January, a journalist with whom I’d been in touch, Dennis Myers of the Reno News & Reviews, wrote a lengthy cover story about Gibbons’ incredible mercury report. “If its authors didn’t argue that mercury is good for you, they didn’t stop much short of that,” Myers noted. In his piece, he went on to quote University of Nevada, Reno, environmental scientist Glenn Miller, who, sure enough, confirmed that the Gibbons-Pombo report amounted to utter scientific nonsense. “Mercury is an incredibly problematic material, and whatever we can do to minimize the amount of mercury exposure is appropriate,” Miller pointed out.

Before long the issue became even bigger: On Earth Day, both Democratic candidates in the Nevada gubernatorial race, Dina Titus and Jim Gibson, released statements challenging Gibbons’ environmental record and mercury contrarianism. The Las Vegas Review Journal, the state’s leading paper, did a major article on Gibbons’ increasingly controversial report, while Nevada News Makers, a public-affairs television program, quoted criticisms of the report to the candidate himself and asked him to respond. Gibbons once again professed that he was a scientist—and then, in a kind of Ronald Reagan moment, suggested that the real source of mercury danger was from volcanoes rather than from human activities. “One volcano in Hawaii, one volcano in Indonesia, produces enough gases in the atmosphere, which include those natural elements that are in the Earth’s crust, that, uh, kind of make all the, you know, the science that we have about what we produce, moot,” Gibbons said. The truth is that mercury, a potent neurotoxin, has both natural and human sources. Just because it comes from volcanoes doesn’t mean we shouldn’t also worry about its coming out of coal-fired power plants and other industrial sources. Gibbons was continuing to mislead the voters of Nevada.

And mercury, it turns out, is a big issue in his state. According to Glenn Miller, Nevada is one of the top mercury polluters in the West. It’s not just power plants. Controversial gold mines in Nevada produce a great deal of mercury, and Nevada’s Carson River Superfund site is polluted with mercury. Should he become governor, Jim Gibbons would be making decisions about how to deal with these problems—so it’s of some interest to Nevadans that he views mercury risks in roughly the same way that the tobacco industry once viewed smoking risks.

It’s too early to tell whether Gibbons’ mercury denial will truly damage his campaign (he’s the front-runner in the August 15 Republican primary), but it is safe to say that it has become a significant campaign issue. And that’s what is so heartening: For too long, too many politicians have felt that they can simply say whatever they want about matters of science, running roughshod over expert opinion and spewing talking points drawn up by corporate-funded PR firms or think tanks, in the process egregiously distorting accepted knowledge and effectively misleading the public.

Well, guess what—it is never acceptable for a politician to mislead the public, about science or anything else (the causes for war, for example, or the percentage of a tax cut that reaches the middle class). It’s all disinformation, and politicians need to be held accountable for engaging in such activity—even if, as in the case of mercury pollution, the issues are scientifically complex and therefore harder to convey to the public.

So maybe, just maybe, Jim Gibbons will become the new poster boy for the following slogan: “Disinformation has consequences.” At the very least, perhaps he’s wishing he hadn’t put out that silly, denialist report on mercury pollution. Here’s hoping that in congressional and gubernatorial races across the United States this November, other politicians have a similar experience. ∞

— Chris Mooney

Originally published August 21, 2006

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