The Why Files The Why Files --

Politics vs science: round 2


A summing up
Despite a few informed skeptics, the mainstream view is that warming represents the most serious example of science being forced through a political strainer. "Climate change is probably the purest example of politics intruding on science," says Daniel Greenberg, a veteran Washington reporter who published Science and Government report for more than 25 years.

The Why Files was shocked, shocked! to learn that such interference has happened before. "It's on a different scale, but we had some of these issues arise during the Clinton Administration," Greenberg says. "Some people in the Department of Energy were raising questions about global warming. [Vice-president] Al Gore wasn't terribly happy about that, did not adopt a particularly tolerant point of view of 'let the scientists do their thing'."

Three photos of same shrinking glacier's edge. Dark band of melting gets wider from 2001 to 2003
Does this show the approach of summer on the edge of the Greenland ice sheet? No, it shows summer melting has increased in recent years. Photos: NASA

Despite the recent publication of "The Republican War on Science" (see bibliography), nobody has a monopoly on special pleading. For example, the long debate about the toxicity of low-level mercury should rest in large part on three key studies, but unfortunately they produced conflicting results -- which you might not know from listening to environmental groups.

As Greenberg notes, Republican domination of the Oval Office has given them plenty of time to politicize science. "During the Reagan Administration there was a lot of deception, inventiveness, about how effective star wars [missile defense] could be. During the Nixon Administration, scientists were told to shut up on the SST [supersonic transport, a civilian jet that raised environmental concerns]. It's not a rare event for politicians to say 'We have made our mind up about something, and we don't want scientists getting in the way.'"

Jeff Ruch, head of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, agrees that tampering goes way back. "To some extent, it happens all the time; we were tracking the same kind of cases in the Clinton Administration, but in the Bush years it has just become routine. It's the same practice as before, but on steroids."

Map shows that over 50 years, temps will rise dramatically, especially in the Arctic and Antarctic
Annual average global warming, based on past data and computer projections. Image: NASA

Getting what you pay for?
We asked Michael Dombeck, former head of the U.S. Forest Service, why government should fund research when the results might not accord with its political interests. "That is the head-in-the-sand approach," says Dombeck, now a professor of global environmental management at University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. "Not wanting to hear it doesn't mean it's not true, or that it doesn't represent the best science of the day. The responsible policy maker ought to seek out the best science, because ultimately that will yield the best result."

To put things in perspective, Dombeck says, "Science should not be the only driver of policy; there are economic, social and political concerns, but ... scientists can provide information that informs policymaking; 'If we adopt this policy, this will be the outcome,' and that certainly does not appear to be happening."

We can't leave the mishmash of political science without enjoying one irony: The U.S. government remains the world's biggest funder of science -- which is even probably true of climate science. As Greenberg says, "Most science goes on untouched. The scientists are given the money, and do their work without any political interference."

Would it always were thus.

Read more in our bibliography.


Megan Anderson, project assistant; Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

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