Science and Politics in the Media

It no longer seems unusual to see an article in the Washington Post or the New York Times about Bush administration officials interfering with science for political reasons. Over the past week, though, two major news sources that reach a different audience have given this problem a lot of ink.

Dan Vergano’s USA Today article “Science vs. politics gets down and dirty” begins with the example of former Surgeon General Richard Carmona, who testified recently about administration officials suppressing health reports, and goes on to describe clashes between officials and scientists at the Fish & Wildlife Service, NASA, and NOAA. Plan B gets a mention in the sidebar. The last section of the article is dedicated to Bush’s position on embryonic stem cell research.

Ian Hart at Integrity of Science points out that Vergano conflates two different problems: political considerations outweighing scientific recommendations (as in the stem cell issue) and political interference with the scientific process (as in political appointees altering scientific reports regarding endangered species and climate change). Nonetheless, I think readers of the article will get the crucial message: the Bush administration puts the concerns of its key supporters above the welfare of the public. This assumes the readers understand that ignoring global warming and blocking access to emergency contraception are bad for public welfare, of course – and as the second article shows, there are lots of people who don’t understand this.

Sharon Begley’s Newsweek cover story “Global Warming Deniers: A Well-Funded Machine” chronicles the extensive, well-funded, and alarmingly successful campaign to convince the public that global warming is not happening/ not caused by humans/ not a problem, and to avoid regulation that might reduce fossil-fuel consumption. (Bush administration politicians aren’t the only ones abetting the campaign, but their actions are particularly indefensible given recent findings.) A lot of people in the U.S. have evidently found this campaign’s “scientific uncertainty” claim more compelling than the unified message of the hundreds of top scientists who generated the IPCC reports: In a recent Newsweek poll, 39% of respondents said there is “a lot of disagreement among climate scientists” on the basic question of whether the Earth is warming.

After so many years of journalists (or their editors) dutifully including the contrarian viewpoint in every article on global warming, it’s refreshing to read a mainstream news article that doesn’t question the existence of global warming or humans’ role in it. Begley cites the evidence for this approach in the first paragraph, and treats the “denial machine” as the PR campaign that it is, not as the scientific enterprise that it pretends to be. By contrast, denialists are over-represented in the comments section, parroting the very arguments that Begley has traced back to fossil-fuel industries.

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