Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Harold Evans strikes again

You may remember that last week Harold Evans, the BBC’s man with an eye on America, weighed in with his thoughts on the intelligent design debate, in the process declaring that President Bush has a “disdain” for science. This week he’s dedicated an entire article to Bush’s “chilly indifference” towards science, and the “furious bewilderment” it is apparently causing in scientific circles.

Painting a picture of the US as a nation in technological decline, Evans cites as evidence the distressing fact that fewer Nobel prizes are being awarded to American scientists these days, “down to about half”, he says, from a peak in the 90’s. Frankly, even 50% doesn’t sound like too shabby a showing to me, but a quick look at the Nobel archive shows that Evans is playing a bit fast and loose with his facts. It is true that, out of the 12 prizes awarded last year, “only” 7 were awarded to Americans, which I suppose could be characterized as “about half”, although it is just as true to say that it is more than half. That, however, wouldn’t leave the audience with the appropriately sinking feeling Evans desires. Even more interesting, however, is the fact that two of the awards, the Peace prize and the Literary prize, are not awarded for scientific achievement at all, and both of those went to non-Americans. So it turns out that, of the 10 prizes awarded specifically to scientists, Americans won 7. And one of the remaining 3 winners, Economics prize winner Finn E. Kydland of Norway, actually lives in the US and won the prize for his work at a US university. So in fact when Evans says “down to about half”, what he really means is “nearly all”. This, no doubt, is what the BBC would call an honest presentation of the facts.

For Evans, of course, Bush is to blame for this, er, dreadful decline in scientific achievement. Castigating Bush for making budget cuts, he laments the fact that “this is the first time in a decade that federal funding [for research] has failed to keep pace with inflation.” Which means simply that even under Bush’s predecessor, Bill Clinton, the same thing happened. But again, putting it in such terms doesn’t quite supply the spin Evans is looking for.

Needless to say, Evans does not rely simply on his own assertions. He backs it up by seeking the opinions of SCIENTISTS. He cites “brave” Vinton Cerf (pioneer of the internet) who “risked disfavor” by daring to criticize the miserliness of Bush’s research budget. Cerf is brave because, as we all know, Bush “does not take kindly to anyone who has drawn a federal dollar being critical.” Whether this means Cerf can expect a midnight visit from Bush’s black ops agents, or simply no more White House Christmas cards, Evans leaves ominously unstated. And of course Cerf’s judgment on budgetary matters is considered by Evans to be impeccable. He is, after all, a SCIENTIST, and a renowned one at that.

(A point to ponder: Why is it that when corporations feed at the public trough, it is derided as corporate welfare, but when science researchers do the same, it is considered essential investment in the future of the country?)

Of course, not all SCIENTISTS are concerned with budgets. Evans tells us that many are also disturbed by Bush’s “well documented” readiness to “manipulate and suppress scientific finding” on a whole litany of subjects.
This is not just on global warming and stem cells, currently in the news, but on a whole range of issues - lead and mercury poisoning in children, women's health, birth control, safety standards for drinking water, forest management, air pollution and on and on.
Unfortunately, despite the “well documented” nature of Bush’s manipulations, Evans can’t himself be bothered to document a single one, making it rather difficult to check out for ourselves just what it is he is talking about. But that’s OK because Evan gives us the word of Professor Neal Lane that it is so. And, lest the fact that Lane happened to be an advisor to President Clinton raise questions about his objectivity, Evans assures us that, as “a former director of the National Science Foundation he cannot be dismissed as partisan.” Ah, of course. As we all know, SCIENTISTS, especially those who rise to prominence in professional organizations, are automatically above petty politics.

Evans also quotes Russell Train, a former administrator in the Environmental Protection Agency under Nixon and Ford, who is distressed by the fact that under Bush “we have moved away from regulation based on professional analysis of scientific data regulation controlled by the White House and driven by political considerations.” I guess, Ronald Reagan and his EPA chairman James Watt would certainly be happy to hear that the criticisms aimed at them during the ‘80s for, well, playing politics with environmental regulation, was unwarranted.

But really, who can take Train seriously anyway. Regulation has always been driven by political considerations. In considering any given piece of regulation, a president cannot ignore the social, economic and other such implications and focus strictly on the science (or the policy prescriptions of SCIENTISTS). Nor would he be doing his job if he did. Regulation, by its very nature, is political. If it wasn’t, it wouldn’t require politicians to implement it. Train is fooling himself as much as he has fooled Evans if he thinks regulation prior to Bush was not largely driven by politics. What Train really means is that it is not being driven by what he would deem the correct politics.

Perhaps sensing that the opinions of a couple of SCIENTISTS might not be quite enough for his audience, Evans concludes by breaking out the big guns. Claiming that these two speak for “a considerable body of alarmed and angry scientists,” Evans cites the calls of the “nationally well-regarded” Union of Concerned Scientists, which wants Bush to “restore scientific integrity to policy making.” Of course, what Evans does not tell you is that the “Concern” in the title of this group pre-dates the Bush administration by some 35 years, it having been formed in and pontificating on policy since 1969. Its original “concern” was the military uses to which scientific research was being applied. Those “concerns” have since morphed into largely environmental ones, although as its website documents, UCS has at various times professed “concern” over nuclear power, nuclear weapons, the strategic defense initiative, the B-2 stealth bomber, and SUVs. The group proclaims itself to be an “advocate” for the environment and acts to “shape” and “alter” government policies. It professes to have “advocates” not only in Washington but in state capitals across the country. It is, in short, a political lobby, with a political agenda, which operates under the guise of a scientific organization. (And, at least according to some, its “science” is not always what it is made out to be.) But Evans, either ignorant of all this himself or simply assuming that his audience will be, has the cheek to assert –with emphasis – that the UCS is “non-partisan”.

Yes, this is what passes for sage and forthright analysis on America at the BBC.