Politicized Science

Politicized Science

Physicist Richard Feynman once said, “Science is a way of trying not to fool yourself.” The “way” involves minimizing bias through a peer-review process and performing experiments that rely on personal perceptions as little as possible when gathering data. Today, a growing chorus of researchers charges that these procedures are being undermined. In January, eleven scientists who study work-related injuries boycotted the federal government’s two-day symposium on workplace ailments to protest the Bush administration’s tendency to distort science for political ends. They’re not alone: a number of employees with long histories at government agencies have resigned, citing an inability to do their jobs because of what they see as the squelching of research for political reasons.

A recent report from the office of Representative Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) entitled “Politics and Science in the Bush Administration” attempts to catalogue these rifts between the White House and the scientific community. The administration dismissed the report as full of “inaccuracies, distortions, and omissions,” but what at first appeared to editors at the magazine Discover to be “another broadside” from the partisan liberal from Los Angeles struck such a chord among scientists that it earned the number five slot among the magazine’s top hundred science stories of the year. In February, the Union of Concerned Scientists issued its own report echoing Waxman’s charges.

Take the example of Joel Brind, the primary advocate for an abortion-breast cancer link (or ABC as he calls it). His own account of this “discovery” emphasizes his conversion to Christianity rather than any hard scientific data: “With a new belief in a meaningful universe, I felt compelled to use science for its noblest, life-saving purpose,” he told Physician magazine (July/August 2000). He describes how the “pieces came together”: “By 1991, I realized that my understanding of life was incompatible with a pro-abortion point of view.” After “making contact” with a local right-to-life group concerning RU-486 (the “morning after pill”), he began to formulate his theory.

Despite a few publications by Brind in scientific journals, the ABC link was widely discounted after the publication of “Induced Abortion and the Risk of Breast Cancer” in the New England Journal of Medicine (Jan. 9, 1997) that used a much larger sample than Brind’s and relied on actual medical records to correct for the possibility that women might not voluntarily report their abortions. This and later studies led the national director of medical and scientific communication for the American Cancer Society, Joan Schellenbach, to conclude, “The scientific evidence does not support the association between induced aborti...