The Intersection

Under the Radar Science Games

Global warming. Stem cells. Evolution. These are high profile scientific topics that are extremely politicized. They get a fair amount of press regularly. One or the other of them is pretty much always in the news in some way. It’s almost like they take turns, or rotate.

But as I and others have pointed out, a lot of the science games in the Bush administration are occurring much more below the radar. George Washington’s David Michaels flags one that has gotten almost zero press:

…the White House is making a run around Congress to change the way the agencies conduct risk assessments, the studies that form the basis for health protections. The Office of Management and Budget has proposed mandatory “guidelines” that would require agencies to conduct impossibly comprehensive risk assessments before issuing scientific or technical documents, including the rules polluters have to follow.

What appears at first blush to be good government reform is in fact a backdoor attempt to undermine existing environmental laws. If this is successful, the uncertainty manufactured by polluters will be written into federal risk assessments, providing the justification to weaken public health protection.

In chapters 6 and 8 of The Republican War on Science, I discussed the Gingrich era “regulatory reform” agenda, which sought to use science itself to create hurdles to stronger government regulatory action. The recent OMB initiative sounds strikingly like a similar “risk assessment” proposal that was folded into the Gingrich Congress’s failed regulatory reform bill–only, it’s now being implemented by OMB action rather than through legislation….and I bet you never even heard this was going on, did you?


  1. #1 Inoculated Mind
    April 17, 2006

    The big issues do tend to get a lot of press, and other things of definite importance tend to slip by. Thanks for watching for those things!

  2. #2 coturnix
    April 17, 2006

    First, nice to see that Incoulated Mind is back online, so Tangled Bank is not in question!

    Second – have you seen the latest essay on the topic of politics of science on PLoS – Biology (I linked to it from my blog)?

    Third, interestingly, Molly Ivins in “Bushwacked” covers a LOT of ground on the way Bush administration morphed various Federal agencies, eliminated ombudsmen and other means of complaint, including in work safet and environmental protections areas. I wonder if you have read it. I often think of your book and Molly’s book as two interlocking pieces of the same puzzle.

  3. #3 Harris Contos
    April 17, 2006

    The “beneath the radar” machinations are unsettling, to put it mildly, especially the pervasive way in which corporate interests insinuate themselves into academia, no doubt to gain some “academic legitimacy” for their viewpoints, which then gets regurgitated by government. RWS has a few pages on John Graham, now currently head of the OMB Office of Information & Regulatory Affairs (; prior to that he was at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis.

    That organization’s existence, with its considerable corporate funding, within the Harvard School of Public Health raises disturbing questions in and of itself as to the unbiased and disinterested academic pursuit vs. shaded interest group advocacy based upon sponsorship. ( says “HCRA [has] a habit of taking large industry grants and producing industry-friendly studies.”

    Public Citizen has a lengthy, heavily footnoted report titled “Safeguards at Risk: John Graham and Corporate America’s Back Door to the Bush White House” at .

    That “under the radar” world is very troubling.

  4. #4 Chris Mooney
    April 18, 2006

    Harris, Graham has stepped down. This risk assessment initiative was his final action.

  5. #5 SkookumPlanet
    April 18, 2006

    I took some flack at PZ’s this weekend, not undeserved. Frustration got the better of me. My single-mindedness on you-know-what is often heard as “Issues aren’t important. Image, mass manipulation, even lying, to achieve ends is where it’s at.” Survivors of my expeditions know otherwise.

    This topic’s a great example of my point. Despite the laudatory, and necessary, efforts of Chris and fellow journos, voters can’t be expected to follow this detailed technical issue and global warming and oil dependency and technology and bioengineering and cloning and stem cells and hydrogen fueled cars and evolution/ID …… THAT’S JUST SCIENCE! We do, but that’s our turn-on. Voters also worry about the economy, schools, China, retirement, PTA, war [Islam, safety, dead G.I.’s, safety, more oil, safety, democracy, safety, car bombs, safety, here?, safety, the French, safety, Iran next, safety, remember North Korea?] and their personal lives full of kids, parents, friends, enemies, job, home values, yadda, yadda.

    When the Dubbers broadcast, “We’re bringing sound science to government,” voters have a pass on a headache so they take it like aspirin. [BTW, “sound science” is not accidental alliteration. It’s engineered psych… phraseology.]

    We must adapt to audience, meaning “campaign” on, adapt issues to, the emotional concerns that drive voting decisions. If we’re smart we also mold those concerns long term. Doing that, this insidious under-the-radar crap, which is critical, eventually foundational, then takes care of itself. Chris still has beaucoup book topics. If we screw up electorally, this happens. All the more reason not to. Likely industry had plans sketched even before Dub tossed his ten-gallon. Seems eons ago how cleverly Dub’s people did that.

    I’m not dissing Chris’ work and focus, quite the opposite. Underlining it. Just voicing frustration, again, at our side’s approaches. In general, not anybody here.

  6. #6 Sylvia
    April 18, 2006

    I posted a trackback that doesn’t seem to have worked but here is the main argument of what I posted:

    …The DQA, a bill that was passed without debate as a “midnight rider” to the 2001 appropriations bill, would in effect institutionalize the manufacture of uncertainty and doubt, and also its abuse, to support arbitrary and capricious behavior by those entrusted to make policy decisions. In other words, instead of being merely a public relations strategy of big tobacco and big oil companies, it would become government policy, to use science to make a case that there is not enough information to make what is essentially a value judgment. In a new development, according to Michaels, “Now, with its risk assessment proposal, the Bush administration is interpreting the DQA as a license to override the Clean Air Act and laws meant to protect the public’s health and environment.” I haven’t entirely read the new proposed risk assessment guidelines but I’ll take his word for it. (see footnote for a digression)

    The only reason this strategy of manufacturing doubt and uncertainty works at all is because of the rampant Low Tolerance for Ambiguity that seems to be endemic to our culture. This is not so much an issue of public myth-understanding of science, but of how policy issues are framed. A narrow technical framing of social problems – and of how risk assessments are conducted, implies that we just need to get the science and the prices right, usually leaves out most of what people who are affected care about, like fairness and actually having clean air and water, i.e., values, which then become merely obstacles to be overcome in the implementation phase. This also creates false and unrealistic expectations of what science can tell us, and essentially becomes a one-way flow of information from scientists to policy makers. Ultimately it polarizes and paralyzes the whole process of making a decision – which seems to be the whole point of the DQA and the proposed risk assessment guidelines.

    (for the full post see:

  7. #7 Fred Bortz
    April 18, 2006

    We must adapt to audience, meaning “campaign” on, adapt issues to, the emotional concerns that drive voting decisions.

    Which is why I think we have a chance to appeal to religious conservatives on global warming. Give the evangelicals credit: They believe in doing “God’s work,” and as we have seen, some of them are now realizing that our planet is really under threat.

    Our problem is that we are letting the “Dubbers,” as SkookumPlanet calls them, lump our position on global warming in with moral and cultural hot-button issues like abortion and gay marriage. Yet I’m sure that readers of this blog — people who care about science in public affairs — are not as united on those issues, or as passionate about them, as the Republican Party makes us out to be.

    We can also appeal to some people who “vote their pocket books.” Climate change poses a serious threat to the stability of the world’s economy, and smart business people see that “green” is the color of money in the long run.

    When I get calls from Democratic fund raisers these days, I tell them that the party is missing an opportunity to attract religious conservatives and people who take the long-term view of economics by not promoting climate change on the list of major political issues.

    Anti-abortion politicians speak of killing babies and anti-gay marriage politicians rail about destroying the institution of marriage. As distasteful as their rhetoric is to most of us here, we should not allow that to sidetrack us from the issue of preventing serious harm to our one and only planet. I look at the science and I respond both rationally and emotionally. I fear for the world my young grandchildren will live in, and I use my scientific background and inclination to prepare them for it.

    (See for what may be my most effective way of reaching youngsters and their teachers.)

  8. #8 Harris Contos
    April 18, 2006

    Chris, thanks for the update, I wasn’t aware that Graham had stepped down, the cite I gave on him,, still listed him as of a few minutes before I submitted my post last evening. A check this morning reveals “acting” directors in some positions now within OMB, one of them being Graham’s.

  9. #9 SkookumPlanet
    April 18, 2006

    You’re correct about “the rampant Low Tolerance for Ambiguity that seems to be endemic to our culture.” Two additions.

    First, this is part of human nature, variable in individuals. Second, quoting myself, “The public is being trained to be that way… using the highly successful model the tobacco industry pioneered — selling doubt. This is true in a number of areas these days…” I go on to discuss how it’s done at this No Se Nada. So these techniques can work as tactics and strategy at the same time, a vicious circle.

    The whole process the right is engaged in is highly troubling. The left’s general incomprehension of how to fight it even more so.

    I agree with your suggestions. The only caveat is these types of approaches need to be understood, designed, and disseminated centrally. Without that, we end up with the splintered messages of many interest groups. The only thing that communicates is disorganization.

    Global warming is a tough nut to crack. I wrote about it extensively on the Mooney GW thread mentioned below. We not only need ways to get the correct message to religious voters, we don’t have effective message and means at all. Can’t get at it through a few individuals or a few small groups, say environmental groups.

    “Dubbers” was editing invention, only Dub spoke at first. When discussing psychomarketing I try, as able, to illustrate how-to with my process. Repetitive, subtle attacks on character are better than the “Bush is a moron” common on blogs.

    I posted on a Chris topic using a bit of hip-hop talk and thought Dub an unpleasant enough word to succeed, yet not overtly hostile. They embraced “Dubya” from the start, but Dub? I thought demeaning Cheney accomplished best by associating him with Dub. So I subordinated him, as Vee-Dub. Dub, Vee-Dub, and maybe Dubbers, are now part of my vocabulary. To quote myself from that post —

    Dub and Vee-Dub. How they do it? Dub and Vee-Dub. Watch’em. Dub and Vee-Dub. In plain sight. Dub and Vee-Dub. Answers.

    I carry that idea to the next section, “Extended B-Ball Metaphor”, about Coach teaching jump-shot mechanics. Fun post to write.

  10. #10 Keanus
    April 18, 2006

    Chris, this is off topic but this evening I watched Nova’s program on the dimming of the Earth (or Sun, if you wish). It offered evidence for what I’ve often mused about with friends, the generation by mankind of excessive dust leading to increased clouds and diminished sunlight. I’ve not seen this get any play in the media in recent years. Given that it’s inextricably intertwined with global warming, shouldn’t it be showing up in fora that address warming? Perhaps, because it’s not made it into the popular press, it’s not made it onto the Republican radar screen. But it’s equally significant and just as worrisome in that, if the experts like Jim Hansen are to be believed, it’s significantly masking the magnitude of global warming. If Chris can’t comment, perhaps, some of your readers can.

  11. #11 Fred Bortz
    April 19, 2006


    About the dimming, it’s one of the things Tim Flannery discusses in The Weather Makers (See my review at ).

    He notes that the positive effects from reducing particulate and acid emissions from coal-burning plants had a negative unintended consequence, namely that the dimming haze had served to mask the effects of greenhouse gases.

    GW deniers still use that to argue against accepting current science, since the popular press made it seem that there was scientific consensus in the 1970s that we were heading for an ice age. If we were so wrong then, why should we believed now? The argument is specious, of course, but it resonates nonetheless.

  12. #12 Dad of a Diabetic
    April 24, 2006

    During the past weekend, a teenage boy, in my small rural community, died after spending several days in a diabetic coma. He was older than my child, but I knew him. He used to come to my home every Halloween and trick or treat. The christian conservatives believe that it is better to let children die of disease, than to use a discarded blastocyst to help them. I cannot understand these people. Even if one considers a blastocyst to be just as much a person as a 6 year old child, it seems that using the stem cells from a blastocyst, that is being kept on invasive life support (frozen) and has no heart beat or brain activity, and no hope for life, is no different than organ donation. When living organs are taken from adults with no brain activity and no hope for brain activity, conservatives do not say that it is wrong to harvest the organs. ————————- Conservatives say that if we allow embryonic stem cell research, then our Nation will be on a “slippery slope”. For the family of the teenage boy, who died from diabetes, the “slippery slope” is real. Their son has slipped from this world to the grave. Parents, of living diabetic children, live in fear of the “slippery slope”. How long will the conservatives slow the life saving hope of embryonic stem cell research?????————— Mr. Mooney what do you believe will happen with embryonic stem cell research in the U.S. Congress this summer.

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