Among the most surreal episodes to take place in the Soviet Union in the Stalinist era was the assault on genetics, and the rise of Lysenkoism. Trofim Lysenko was an agronomist from the Ukraine who had no background in science, but whose experiments with crop reproduction caught the attention of Communist apparatchiks. Lysenko contended that Mendelian genetics, and in fact, the Darwinian theory of natural selection, were bourgeois and anti-Marxist because they suggested competition, which his comrades argued legitimated capitalism. In place of the existence of genes to explain the passage of characteristics from one generation to the next, Lysenko latched onto a form of Lamarckianism that proclaimed that species acquired characteristics that were molded exclusively by pressures from their environment, which were then passed onto offspring. This notion, it was argued, squared with dialectical materialism and was more faithful to Marxist principles. According to Lysenko, as to Lamarck, the giraffe had to struggle to reach leaves to eat at the tops of trees and thereby develop a long neck. And what could be closer to Marxist principles then a commitment to struggle?
By the 1930s, Lysenkoism had become the rage of Soviet science, and was broadly applied to agriculture, as crops were sowed in environments for which they were totally unsuited. The results were a total disaster from which it took Soviet agriculture decades to recover.
Lysenkoism was abandoned and declared dead by the Soviets in the mid-60s. But those long for the good old days can take heart. Something very much akin to Lysenkoism has been reborn in the administration of George W. Bush.
What is happening to science in the Bush presidency is simply unprecedented in American history. What I mean by this is that scientific fact is being replaced by ideology and theology, and the consequences are extremely dangerous for the future of our republic and for the lives of untold million of people here and now.
Bill Moyers recently gave an address in conjunction with his winning the Global Environmental Citizen Award from the Harvard Medical School’s Center for Health and the Global Environment. The speech, which was recently published in the New York Review of Books, caught my attention because I have long respected Moyers, as a sober and straight-thinking commentator on the American scene. While Moyers, I believe, could be correctly identified as a liberal, he assuredly is not far to the left, nor is he particularly alarmist. Moyers was press secretary in the Johnson administration and is an ordained Baptist minister. Yet, this speech expressed an urgency which seemed uncharacteristic of the Moyers I’ve gotten to know.
His speech was printed under the title “Welcome to Doomsday” and began with a personal confession: “There are times when what we journalists see and intend to write about dispassionately sends a shiver down our spine, shaking us from our neutrality. This has been happening to me frequently of late as one story after another drives home the fact that the delusional is no longer marginal but has come in from the fringe to influence the seats of power.
What sends shivers down Moyer’s spine is the extraordinary power that the religious right wields in the face of our growing ecological crisis. Theology and ideology today drive large swaths of policy in the Bush White House, and as Moyers elegantly puts it, “theology asserts propositions that need not be proven true, while ideologues hold stoutly to a world view despite being contradicted by what is generally accepted as reality. The combination can make it impossible for a democracy to fashion real-world solutions to otherwise intractable challenges.”
The gist of Moyer’s analysis of the Christian Right, which is comprised of millions of Biblical literalists, is their preoccupation with the doctrine known as the Rapture. Though the New Testament briefly hints at the notion of the Rapture, this amazing doctrine became a major tenet of Christian fundamentalism as recently as the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Rapture, which is the guiding inspiration for the “Left-Behind” series of pulp-Christian novels, which have sold tens of millions of copies, relates to the End-time. As the End-time approaches the Jews will be regrouped in Israel. The Holy Land will then be attacked by the legions of the anti-Christ that will trigger cosmic war on the fields of Armageddon. The Jews who have not converted to Christianity will be burned, the Messiah will return, the saved will then be raptured into heaven to be seated on the right hand of God, while they watch their political opponents writhe in the torment of plagues – boils, sores, locusts, etc. – during the period of tribulation that follows.
It is bad enough that this sadistic and lunatic scenario passes for religion these days. It also plays a potent and ominous part in framing political policy in the United States of America. For as Moyer’s notes,
“You can understand why people in the grip of such fantasies cannot be expected to worry about the environment. Why care about the earth when droughts, floods famine, and pestilence brought by ecological collapse are signs of the apocalypse foretold in the Bible? Why care about global climate change when you and yours will be rescued in the Rapture? Why bother to convert to alternative sources of energy and reduce dependence on oil from the volatile Middle East? Until Christ returns, the Lord will provide.”
How influential is Christian fundamentalism in influencing American politics and policies issuing from Washington? In a recent interview I conducted at the Puffin Center with journalist Esther Kaplan on her book With God on the Their Side, a study of the influence of Christian fundamentalism in the Bush government, I posed this very question to her. She put her response this way: The Family Research Council is the Washington DC arm of Focus on the Family, a massive media empire run by evangelical psychologist James Dobson. These are mainstays of the evangelical Right, are very large, tightly organized and very powerful. In her research, Kaplan found that fully 30% of the members of both the House of Representatives and the US Senate received marks of 100% on the Family Research Council’s political score card. And because some of the legislation is pretty esoteric, it was her conclusion that many of these members of Congress and the Senate had to eagerly try hard to win that rating.
While focusing on environmental issues specifically, Moyers cuts the data somewhat differently, but no more hopefully, He writes:
The corporate, political and religious right’s hammerlock on environmental policy extends to the US Congress. Nearly half of its members before the election – 231 legislators in all (more since the election) – are backed by the religious right, which includes several powerful fundamentalist leaders like (Timothy) LaHaye. Forty-five senators and 186 members of Congress earned 80 to 100% approval ratings from the most influential Christian Right advocacy groups. Not one includes the environment as one of their celebrated “moral issues.”
What is true for the environment extend more broadly to the Bush administration’s approach to science overall. The watchword here, again, is that ideology and theology trump scientific research and scientific fact. This observation coheres well with the observation of a Bush operative, as reported by journalist Ron Suskind in an article a while back in The New York Times Magazine while back, to the effect that this administration is not “reality-based.” Its disrespect for science validates that point in ominous ways.
To be sure, science and politics have always been merged, and perhaps unavoidably so. Who gets what grants to do what kind of scientific research, no doubt, is based on political considerations. If we have a limited amount of funds devoted to health, do we spend it on expensive high-end research that may benefit a few suffering from exotic diseases, or do we spend the money in ways that will benefit a broad cross section of the population? Such decisions are to great extent political ones, and that is unavoidable, and maybe even in many cases desirable.
But that is not what we are talking about with the Bush administration. What we are talking about are the censoring and distorting of scientific information and findings made by federal agencies to bring them in line with the policies of the Bush administration. We are talking about the rejection of scientific reports that the administration finds politically objectionable. We are talking about staffing of federal scientific advisory boards, commissions and agencies with underqualified and unqualified directors and members who are ideologues in sync with corporate interests and with right-wing religious agendas. There has been the removal of competent and respected scientists from federal advisory boards because they did not pass political litmus tests set up by the administration. There has also been the removal from government health agency web sites of information which the administration finds politically objectionable, and the promotion of information that is anti-scientific. And there is much more.
The areas of science on which the administration has intruded run the gamut. They include, as noted, the environment, inclusive of global warming, mercury emissions and air pollution more generally, drinking water, forest management, lead poisoning and endangered species, but also issues of disease control, breast cancer, ironically even missile defense, as we know, stem cell research, workplace safety, and management of our national parks. But, perhaps the most ideologically driven areas encompasses the administration’s violation of scientific facts as it relates to sexually-based issues –HIV/AIDS, condom use, and its obsession with abstinence only education. These latter issues, in particular, inform international policy, the consequences of which affect the lives and deaths of countless millions of people.
In February, 2004, the Union of Concerned Scientists published an extensive report, critiquing the abuse of science by the Bush administration. It was signed by over 60 highly respected scientists and 20 Nobel laureates. Strong criticism has been raised in the editorial pages of respected scientific journals, including Science, Nature, Scientific American and The New Journal of Medicine. Protests have come from mainline scientific organizations such as the Federation of Experimental Biology, the American Association of Medical Colleges, and the American Academy for the Advancement of Science. Perhaps noteworthy is that protests have also come from scientific officials in the former Republican administrations of Nixon, Ford and Papa Bush.
I want to provide a few examples from the Union of Concerned Scientists report and other sources. There are approximately 1,000 committees, panels, commissions and councils set up to advise the federal government on scientific issues, so there is plenty of room for tampering and manipulation. For example, in regard to global warming, for which there is an overwhelming consensus in the scientific community, the administration in June, 2003 blatantly tampered with the integrity of scientific analysis when the White House tried to make a series of changes to the EPA’s draft report on the environment. The EPA report, based on National Academy of Science research, stated that human activity contributes significantly to climate change. The White House demanded major changes including references to the NAS input to the report, insertion of reference to a discredited study funded in part by the American Petroleum Institute and the insertion of so many qualifying words, such as “potentially” and “may” that the result would lead a reader to believe that there was uncertainty about global warming when there is none. According to former EPA Administrator, Christine Todd Whitman, the political environment around the EPA was “brutal” and any reference to climate change was ultimately deleted from the EPA’s final report. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists report, “the Bush administration has sought to exaggerate uncertainty by relying on disreputable and fringe science reports and preventing informed discussion on an issue.”
According to Representative Henry Waxman, who has championed Congressional hearings on the Bush administration’s attack on science:
Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA is supposed to set standards for toxic emissions such as mercury based on the minimum reduction that pollution control technology can achieve. The cornerstone for establishing these standards is technical analyses by agency scientists of what level of emission control is feasible.
These analyses should be done based on the best available science. But in the mercury case, the President had proposed legislation – backed by the power industry – that would allow up to 34 tons of mercury pollution annually. So the agency scientists were told to redo their analyses until they came up with 34 tons as the maximum feasible reduction.
The controversy over stem cell research was the biggest story of the Bush administration until the advent of 9/11. In banning public funding for stem cell research, because of the religious right’s concern about abortion, Bush postured himself as presenting a compromise by allowing research on already existing embryos. In doing so, he declared that patients suffering from the diseases that stem cell research was aimed at finding a cure for would not be adversely affected because of the existence of the 60 stem lines already in existence. In May 2003, the director of the National Institute of Health reported what was widely known in the research community, that only 11 stem cell lines were mature enough for research, and these were contaminated. A collateral effect of the withholding of federal dollars on this research is that cutting edge work on stem cells is now being carried on in foreign countries, and with it the flight of some our top researchers.
In a smaller issue, which is distinctly characteristic, an Assistant Secretary of the Interior wrote a report in 2003 on the state of Yellowstone National Park to a UN World Heritage Committee, stating that Yellowstone should be removed from a list of parks that were at risk and in need of international attention. An earlier draft report had cited examples of dangers to the Park including the pollution of water from nearby mines, and parasitic diseases that were affecting trout in the Yellowstone. The Bush administration made sure that these data citing problem in the park were simply expunged from the final report.
Another issue, which involved the participation of the religious right in a big way, was the sale and promotion in the Grand Canyon bookstore of a book which promotes the creationist notion that the earth is only 6,000 years old, and the Grand Canyon was created by the receding waters of Noah’s flood. In a survey done in late 2003, nine out of ten national park employees expressed deep concern that “decisions are being influenced by politics rather than by professional experiences and politics.”
But is in the area of reproduction and reproductive health that the Bush administration has arguably been the most brazen and ideological. In her book, Esther Kaplan documents the long roster of what we might call parallel Christian-right organizations, which serve as powerful lobbying and advocacy groups for their positions. These professional associations are formed not on the basis of expertise, but on theological positions and ideology. So, there exists the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, and the Medical Institute for Sexual Health. The former claims to have found scientific evidence for the long debunked idea that homosexuality is a mental disease that can be cured through therapy. The group also puts together shoddy survey data to link gay sexuality with pedophilia. The latter association, which has great influence in the Bush administration, marshals fake data to demonstrate that abstinence-only sex education works to prevent sexually transmitted diseases and condoms don’t. There also exists the influential Christian Medical Association, entry into which is predicated on being able to declare one’s allegiance to the final authority of the Bible, no doubt a position difficult to square with the scientific spirit.
These are the types of groups that are now within the inner sanctum of the administration, advising and influencing such prestigious organizations as the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control. In some cases they have elbowed out and replaced authentic scientific advisory boards. What have these extremist groups wrought?
Abstinence-only sex education has become the official policy of the Bush administration. What ought to cause public alarm is that numerous surveys have demonstrated that this approach to protecting teenagers from unwanted pregnancies as well as sexually transmitted diseases is not only ineffective, but actually aggravates the very problems it is supposed to solve. A broad study in March 2004, of 12,000 teens found that of those who took a virginity until marriage pledge, fully 88% ended up having sex before they were married. And since they were not exposed to comprehensive sex education, the sex they had tended to be more secretive, hence riskier, and they were less likely to seek out medical help with STD’s once they contracted them. Yet, the zealots who back this approach continue to ply falsified data, in shoddy, non-peer reviewed studies, and the federal government continues to vigorously support this ill-fated approach in the face of scientific data. In other words, facts make no difference.
The CDC is one of the nation’s most respected public health arms. I have used its web site myself, when traveling to Asia and Africa to research what inoculations I would need in tropical countries. Due to the influence of the Christian right, the CDC web fact sheet on condoms was removed. When it was restored it included inaccurate but ideologically driven materials. The web site used to advise “The correct and consistent us of latex condoms during sexual intercourse – vaginal, anal or oral – can greatly reduce a persona’s risk of acquiring or transmitting most STD’s, including HIV infection, gonorrhea, Chlamydia, etc., etc.” The new document reads “The surest way to avoid transmission of sexually transmitted diseases is to abstain from sexual intercourse, or to be in a long-term mutually monogamous relationship.” We need to recall that this is the government’s fact sheet on condoms. A CDC official concluded “This is really cutting away at the CDC’s mission. It is endangering people’s lives.” Another CDC staffer told the Union of Concerned Scientists that higher-ups in the Bush administration had ordered the suppression of the information on the CDC web-site, and no further information or rationale was given.
Claiming that abortion can cause breast cancer, religious conservatives have pushed for laws across the country that would require doctors to provide “counseling” about this alleged risk. As these efforts advanced, the Bush administration distorted the science on this issue to misleadingly portray abortion as a risk factor in breast cancer when there is a scientific consensus that there is not. In November, 2002, the Bush administration changed the National Cancer Institute’s web site to the effect that the linkage between abortion and breast cancer is an open question. Only after this was exposed in The New York Times, Congress convened a conference of experts which reconfirmed that there is no debate on the issue. Only then, was the National Cancer Institute’s web site corrected to reflect the original position.
But as destructive as these religiously driven initiatives are for the health and welfare of American lives, their actual effect on people in the developing world is far greater. Soon after assuming office in 2001, Bush reinstated and in fact expanded the Reagan policy of cutting off aid to all international family planning organizations that provided, promoted or even discussed abortion as an option. Known as the “gag rule” Bush expanded what countries could do that used even private funds or their own government’s money. It cut off tens of millions of dollars that went for family planning in the Third World. Rather than limiting abortions, it has increased their number, especially the pursuit of unsafe abortions, a situation which the Roe decision had ended in this country, but which is expanding in poor, foreign countries.
But beyond limiting abortion, the intent of this destructive and cruel policy is to starve those organizations that the radical right sees as its ideological enemies, International Planned Parenthood, most of all. Consistent with its unscientific sense of purity, the administration is imposing its anti-condom, pro-abstinence line on the developing world. This approach is akin to institutionalized murder. It does not recognize that girls and women in many traditional cultures do not have a choice as to whether to have sex or not, and to deprive them of condom use or adequate sex education is a tragedy of global scale, especially when one considers the spread of AIDS in Africa, India and elsewhere.
Returning to our own country, where does this assault on science leave us? According to the Union of Concerned Scientists,
In the long term, one of the most profound effects of the administration’s injection of politics into the government’s handling of scientific knowledge may well be the demoralization of researchers at federal agencies, many of whom feel that their integrity as scientists has been compromised. World-renowned scientific institutions such as the CDC and the National Institutes of Health take decades to build a team of world-class scientific expertise and talent. But they can be severely damaged in short order by scientifically unethical behavior such as that displayed by the current administration. Top flight scientists can readily find posts elsewhere, and once an exodus of scientific expertise starts, it becomes much harder for an agency to retain its remaining staff and attract outstanding talent to replace those who have departed.
In closing, scientific integrity has been sold out to the Neanderthal minions of Bush’s fanatic constituency for the sake of augmenting his own political power. It’s a most dangerous political game, when we look to the future of American society.
Humanists that we are, we are no doubt especially sensitive to the importance of intellectual and ethical integrity. But we also understand that a great society and a great civilization rest on the pillars of reason and science. At the moment, the United States remains the international beacon of scientific research and education. But that is changing in a globalized world, and we are now up against stiff competition, coming from Europe, East Asia, India and elsewhere. How ironic it is, that George Bush and those who prop up his regime are so blind and shortsighted so as not to see, appreciate, or perhaps even care, that by undermining science, they are destroying an essential pillar of American society and strength.
We who take democracy seriously must be willing to clearly assess the dangers that confront us, and use our intelligence, will and organizing ability to push back the night and restore moderation, reason and scientific integrity to a government which would otherwise lead us down the path to a new medievalism.