Michael Gerson’s strange and evasive spinning on the Republican war on science


In how he dismissed the conclusion that there has been a Republican war on science, Michael Gerson, former speechwriter and senior policy advisor to President Bush, struck an ethical pose in his May 7 Washington Post op-ed column but showed that he is still a spin doctor covering up for his former boss .

Michael Gerson’s op-ed column, “A Phony ‘War on Science’” (Washington Post, May 7), wanders off into some very strange territory that bears no empirical relationship to what serious Bush administration critics have documented in characterizing what has been termed the Republican war on science.

There is a mountain of evidence that political manipulation and censorship by the administration, starting in 2001 and continuing today, has undermined the integrity of the relationship between science and policymaking. This manipulation has been most apparent in cases when the scientific research and assessment bears on policy decisions and public debate and is communicated to nonspecialist audiences. But it involves, not just policy and normative issues, but direct pressure on scientists, interference with science communication, and misrepresentation of scientific intelligence itself.  A willingness to misrepresent intelligence reports to serve political ends has been a modus operandi of the Bush-Cheney administration — as Gerson should well know, having played a key role in the White House spin machine — and the war on science intelligence on climate change and other issues has been a component of that fundamental problem.

Gerson’s column completely ignores the evidence and arguments that the administration’s critics have put forward. At the same time, he seeks to divert the reader’s attention, starting with his lead sentence, dismissing the critics — among whom are many leading members of the science community —as “irrationally ideological” and “fanatically faith-based.” This assertion is breathtaking in the way it turns reality upside down in the service of what appears to be Gerson’s own “faith-based” ideological agenda.

The column goes downhill from there. He says: “Does anyone really believe in a science without moral and legal limits? In harvesting organs from prisoners? In systematically getting rid of the disabled?” Does anyone who has been paying attention to the administration’s critics really believe that that is what the “Bush war on science” charge is about? Does he, really?

He says: “Nazism largely discredited the old eugenics. But a new eugenics—the eugenics of … abortion—is alive and well.” This, in a column that purports to rebut the widely-shared conclusion among intellectually serious people that the admninistration has politically interfered with science. Does anyone honestly believe that that is what the “Bush war on science” charge is about? Does he?

It’s hard to believe that he has actually read anything of what the administration’s critics have uncovered and what they are saying. His writing is ungrounded in and seemingly indifferent to the reality of what has happened with the relationship between science and policymaking under the current regime. I won’t try to write here the lengthy piece that would be required even to summarize it properly. But here are just a few of the kinds of sources that Gerson should have familiarized himself with before taking up valuable real estate on the Post’s columnist page:
Chris Mooney, The Republican War on Science
To write about the Bush admninistration and science without coming to grips with this detailed and well-documented examination is to fail even to begin to engage the critical analysis of the administration and its allies.

Chris Mooney, “Yes, Virginia, There is a War on Science,” Science Progress, May 14, 2008
Specifically apropos of Gerson’s own “irrationally ideological” and “fanatically faith-based” musings.

The surveys by the Union of Concerned Scientists of government scientists within the Environmental Protection Agency, Food and Drug Administration, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Marine Fisheries, and climate-related agencies, documenting that political interference with science has become widespread at the agencies. Most recent:

Interference at the EPA: Science and Politics at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

See also the UCS report, Federal Science and the Public Good

There have been several illuminating Congressional oversight hearings on the problem. Most recently:

Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, Subcommittee on Public Sector Solutions to Global Warming, Oversight, and Childrens Health Protection, Hearing on Science and Environmental Regulatory Decisions, May 7, 2008. See especially the excellent testimony by Francesca Grifo, Union of Concerned Scientists, and David Michaels, George Washington University.

On climate science:

Union of Concerned Scientists and Government Accountability Project, Atmosphere of Pressure: Political Interference in Federal Climate Science (February 2007)

Government Accountability Project, Redacting the Science of Climate Change: An Investigative and Synthesis Report (March 2007)

Rick Piltz, Climate Science Watch, Testimony to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Hearing on Allegations of Political Interference With the Work of Government Climate Change Scientists, January 30, 2007

House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Majority Report, Political Interference With Climate Change Science Under the Bush Administration, December 2007

These are a few examples of what Gerson would have to address honestly if his writing on this subject were to have any relevance or merit. We’re not holding our breath.

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