The Gadfly Bytes -- May, 2002
The President of Fantasyland: Bush v. Science
"Go back to your laboratories and don't come to me again
If he honestly thinks that [we] will whistle a happy tune while rallying support around this pitifully lame mockery of ... leadership just because he's a nice guy, ... then [he] is the Chief Executive of Fantasyland.
"Sydney Ellen Wade" (Annette Benning)
What sort of pluperfect arrogance prompts a scientifically illiterate MBA to reject the considered conclusions of 2000 world-class scientists, and then, to arrange the ouster of the scientist in charge of the intergovernmental panel that came to those conclusions?
Be advised, my fellow Americans, that this very arrogance resides in the Chief Executive of our Republic – or perhaps more correctly, among those who sponsor and "advise" that Chief Executive.
But you knew that already, didn't you?
To be sure, George Bush's indifference to informed scientific opinion is no secret. However, the extent of this indifference is not fully appreciated, even less the serious implications thereof.
Bush does not accept evolution, the central coordinating concept of modern biology. According to the New York Times (October 29, 2000), he believes that "the jury is still out" on evolution, and moreover, the Times reports, he "doesn't really care about that kind of thing."
In March, the Pentagon terminated the contract of the "Jason" panel – an advisory group composed of forty to fifty elite scientists. John Marburger, Bush's science advisor, describes the group as "working scientists – top-notch people who are experts in their fields". One member suggested that the termination Jason followed from an attempt by the Bush administration "to place political appointees to [the] scientific panel." (NY TIMES, 3/23/02).
Critics of Bush's "National Missile Defense System" face retaliation by the administration. Two critics in particular are worthy of note. The published and public dissents of Dr. Theodore Postal of MIT have cost him federal research grants, along with threats of research cutbacks to MIT. In addition, Dr. Nira Schwartz, a scientist and computer expert, was fired by the defense contractor, TRW, immediately after determining that the design of the defense missiles (i.e., "kill vehicles") was fatally flawed. In early march, the General Accounting Office confirmed her findings. (Arianna Huffington, "Blowing the Whistle on Bad Science" ).
In a quixotic decision in August, 2001, Bush "in effect banned federal funding for human embryo stem-cell research" (Bioethicist, Arthur Caplan). In a monstrous concession to his right-wing constituency, Bush proclaimed that all human embryonic life (i.e., "babies") is sacred and thus beyond the reach of medical research, however valuable that research might prove to fully formed (post-born) human beings, and notwithstanding the fact that otherwise thousands of embryonic cell samples, fated to be discarded, would be available for research. As a result of Bush's decree, the vanguard of medical research may move from the United States to Europe. ("Scientists to Bush: You hate science, we'll move to Britain" ).
Last month, the US Geological Survey submitted the results of a twelve year study which concluded that oil exploration in ANWR would adversely affect the habitat of the wildlife of the region. In the spirit of "don't come to me unless you have the ‘facts' I want," Interior Secretary Gail Norton ordered a reassessment and, sure enough, in just a week got the desired result: arctic wildlife just love oil rigs.
And finally, the global warming fiasco. George Bush, who has boundless faith (contrary to scientific opinion) in the feasibility of national missile defense, simply can't face up to scientific warnings that the combustion products of fossil fuels just might be heating up the planet – ‘big time!' The 2000 scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change came to this conclusion in 1995 and then again in 2000. Unconvinced, Bush asked the National Academy of Sciences to review the IPCC findings. The result? "The [NAS] committee generally agrees with the assessment of human-caused climate change presented in the IPCC ... report." Did that satisfy the President-Select? Hardly. He then proceeded, at the behest of his Exxon-Mobil sponsors, to orchestrate the ouster of the IPCC Chair, Robert Watson and replacing this eminent atmospheric scientists with an Indian economist, Rejandra Pachauri. (See the report of the Natural Resources Defense Council).
All of this leads one to wonder: just what sort of a universe does the Usurper President believe he lives in? Is this a universe with an independent physical reality – a reality indifferent to our wishes, our politics, and our investments? Or is it, as Bush seems to believe, just the kind of world that Exxon-Mobil wants it to be – the kind of world "pre-designed" to maximize return on investment without troublesome "unintended consequences"? Is Bush's science like Schopenhauer's taxicab: a conveyance that will take him where he wants to go, but which he can then dismiss and disregard as he goes about his business.
Do these questions ever enter his frat-boy mind? Probably not. As he reportedly remarked about the theory of evolution, he "doesn't really care about that kind of thing." Instead, he apparently simply does the bidding of the corporate sponsors that fund his Republican party and which gave him his office.
Even if Bush doesn't bother with such deep philosophical issues, he must at least have an implicitly realistic metaphysics. If pressed, he would, if functionally sane, concede that there is physical reality that acts consistently ("law-like") and independently of our preferences and our investments, and furthermore that since the Italian Renaissance, the sciences have accumulated a rather fine record of discovering a myriad of physical and chemical laws that "run" that universe.
Accordingly, Air Force One flies George Bush around the world due to the discovery, confirmation and technical application of countless thousands of scientific laws, theories and facts. If any one of hundreds of these scientific discoveries were variant by as little as one-percent from what the scientists have determined them to be, then Air Force One would never get off the ground. So when Bush boards that aircraft, he implicitly affirms the undoubted truths of numerous scientific disciplines.
Similarly, Bush understands that if he puts water in the fuel tank of his pickup truck at the Crawford ranch, that vehicle will not run. Wishing or believing that it will can not change this fact. The chemical properties of water are what they are, and that is a plain and independent fact. You know this, I know this, and George Bush knows this.
Why, then, does Bush pretend to believe otherwise regarding proven chemical and physical conditions of the atmosphere? The facts are what they are, and furthermore these facts are well-known to the two-thousand scientists that contributed to the IPCC reports. Exxon-Mobil cannot change these facts of nature, and they will not be altered by removing a physicist from the chair of the IPCC and replacing him with an economist.
If the IPCC is right, then it is possible that in the amount of time that separates us from the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the coastal cities of the world along with billions of their inhabitants will have to be evacuated. New York, Washington, Miami, New Orleans, London, St. Petersburg, Calcutta, Tokyo, Shanghai – all will be underwater. The breadbaskets of the world, the American mid-west and Ukraine, will be deserts.
How does George Bush respond to these prospects? Either he believes that oil company public relations hype is a superior source of knowledge to the scientific research of the IPCC, in which case he is a fool; or else he is aware of the devastation that his policies may cause future generations, in which case he is a scoundrel. There is no apparently benign third alternative interpretation of his behavior.
As Jack Beatty recently wrote in The Atlantic Monthly (May 2002), "George W. Bush has calculated that the future does not vote. His administration has abandoned its obligations to posterity, from the environment to the budget to Social Security to regulation affecting the health and safety of Americans in the emerging digital workplace."
Appropriate action in the face of the threat of global warming begins with an acknowledgment of the grim facts, followed by a campaign of alerting the public and then adopting policies and implementing remedies. But this would be bad for the short-term profit expectations of the fossil fuel corporations that have invested heavily in Bush, Inc. So instead, Bush ignores the scientific warnings and proceeds to silence the messengers, such as Robert Watson of the IPCC. "When ignorance is bliss, ‘tis folly to be wise."
Ignorance and irrationality will always be with us. When someone appears on Larry King's show and tells of his abduction by aliens in a flying saucer, we respond with a mixture of amusement and pity. And when we are told that in the United States today, one hundred and fifty years after the publication of The Origin of the Species, half the population does not believe in evolution, we can only wonder at the dreadful condition of public education in our country.
But when such ignorance and irrationality is operative in the highest executive offices of the realm, this is a very serious matter.
Given sufficient political power and support by a compliant media, a President can write and enact laws, arrange the ouster of scientists in international committees, destroy the careers of still other dissenting scientists, and even persuade the general public of all sorts of pseudo-scientific nonsense. What he cannot do, despite all this political influence and craft of persuasion, is change the discovered and validated laws and facts of nature, as disclosed by the sciences. Exxon-Mobil can order Robert Watson off the panel of the IPCC. But it can not alter the facts of atmospheric chemistry and physics discovered and confirmed by that international body of scientists.
Bush's quarrel is not simply with the democrats, the liberals, or even the scientists; his quarrel is with nature itself. This is a contest that he is fated to lose, and so long as we associate ourselves with his delusions, we too will lose, all of us: ourselves, our fellow species, our posterity.
"Never, no never," wrote Edmund Burke, "did nature say one thing and wisdom say another."
We can't replace the fundamental laws of nature as discovered by science. If George Bush refuses to accommodate his policies to these immutable natural laws, our only sensible option is to replace the President of Fantasyland.
Copyright 2002 by Ernest Partridge
"But isn't science nothing more than the religion of our age in history." This is a challenge that I have heard all too often from my students. For my reply, see "Yes Virginia, There is a Real World" and "Is Science Just Another Dogma?"