> An analysis of the phrase "Sound Science" - a favourite expression of GM
>food & crop advocates ...
> [The Gadflyer is a new progressive Internet magazine]
> May 13, 2004
> The Fraud of 'Sound Science'
> A history of a conservative term of art
> By Chris Mooney, Contributor
> Over recent months, an unprecedented rupture has occurred between the
>U.S. scientific community and the White House. Denunciations of President
>Bush's science policies by a slew of Nobel Laureates organized by the
>Union of Concerned Scientists, followed by a sweeping rejection of the
>scientists' charges by the administration, have made for great political
>theater. But the controversy has also shown that on issues ranging from
>mercury pollution to global warming, today's political conservatives have
>an extremely peculiar - and decidedly non-mainstream - concept of what
>science says and how to reach scientific conclusions. Conservatives and
>the Bush administration claim to be staunch defenders of science, of
>course; but close attention to the very language they use suggests
> Much of the modern conservative agenda on science is embodied in the
> enigmatic phrase "sound science," a term used with increasing frequency
> these days despite its apparent lack of a clear, agreed-upon definition. In
> one sense, "sound science" simply means "good science." Indeed, when
> unwitting liberals and journalists have been caught using the phrase -
>which happens quite frequently - it appears to have been with this meaning
> Conservatives, too, want people to hear "good science" when they say "sound
> science." But there are reasons for thinking they actually mean something
> more by the term. The Bush administration has invoked "sound science" on
> issues ranging from climate change to arsenic in drinking water, virtually
> always in defense of a looser government regulatory standard than might
> otherwise have been adopted. In this sense, "sound science" seems to mean
> requiring a high burden of proof before taking government action to protect
> public health and the environment (not really a scientific position at all).
> Indeed, in an online discussion of "Sound Science and Public Policy," the
> Western Caucus of the U.S. House of Representatives, chaired by Utah
> Republican Chris Cannon, notes that "environmental laws should be made with
> great caution and demand a high degree of scientific certainty" - once
> again, a policy statement rather than one having to do strictly with
> A short history of the phrase "sound science," and its development into a
> mantra of the political right, clearly demonstrates its anti-regulatory,
> pro-industry slant. Strategic uses by the business community trace back at
> least to Dow Chemical Company president Paul F. Oreffice's 1983 claim that a
> $3 million program to allay fears of dioxin pollution in Michigan would use
> "sound science" to "reassure" the public - i.e., downplay risks. To rebut
> Dow's claims, a young South Dakota representative named Tom Daschle promptly
> released results from a confidential study suggesting that dioxin damages
> the immune system. In this incident, it's possible to see the first
> sprouting of a political debate over "sound science" that would bloom into a
> full schism a decade later.
> A key development came in 1993, when an Environmental Protection Agency
> report estimated that secondhand smoke causes some 3,000 lung cancer deaths
> each year. EPA classified secondhand smoke as a Group A human carcinogen.
> The tobacco lobby quickly sprang into action, and it's not hard to see why.
> If smokers were hurting other people, and not merely themselves, the issue
> wasn't just about "personal responsibility" any more. Society could find
> itself compelled to take steps to ban smoking in a variety of public venues.
> The Tobacco Institute, an industry group, quickly labeled EPA's conclusions
> "another step in a long process characterized by a preference for political
> correctness over sound science." And as we now know from tobacco documents
> made available as a consequence of litigation, the industry decided to do
> something about it.
> In early 1993, Philip Morris and its public relations firm, APCO Associates,
> created a nonprofit front group called The Advancement of Sound Science
> Coalition (TASSC) to help fight against the regulation of secondhand smoke.
> To mask its true purpose, TASSC assembled a range of anti-regulatory
> interests under one umbrella, and rarely, if ever, explicitly challenged the
> notion that secondhand smoke poses health risks. Instead, the group, headed
> by former New Mexico governor Garrey Carruthers, described itself as a
> "not-for-profit coalition advocating the use of sound science in public
> policy decision making." Still, at the very least TASSC implied that the
> science of secondhand smoke was bogus. For example, in 1994 the group
> released a poll of scientists suggesting that politicians were abusing
> science on issues such as "asbestos, pesticides, dioxin, environmental
> tobacco smoke or water quality."
> At roughly the same time, fortuitously or otherwise, the incoming Republican
> Congress of 1994 adopted "sound science" as a mantra. Just a week after the
> November 1994 elections, Newt Gingrich and company had set the tone.
> "Property rights" and "sound science" had become "the environmental
> buzzwords of the new Republican Congress," a Knight-Ridder news report
> noted. The perceptive report also included a definition of "sound science,"
> which suggested it meant much more than simply "good science." Instead, the
> point was deregulation: "'Sound science' is shorthand for the notion that
> anti-pollution laws have gone to extremes, spending huge amounts of money to
> protect people from miniscule risks."
> Calls for "sound science" closely accompanied the push to enact a key tenet
> of the Republican Party's "Contract With America" - regulatory "reform," an
> industry-backed gambit to provide steep hurdles to future environmental,
> health, and safety regulations. Reform bills sponsored in 1995 by Gingrich
> and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole would have imposed stringent new rules
> on the process by which the Environmental Protection Agency and other
> government bodies conducted science-based risk assessments to determine
> whether a particular danger should be regulated. The proposals demonstrated
> that the new Republican majority wanted nothing less than to become
> government's science cops - and to start fixing the tickets of industry.
> The leading regulatory reform proposals would have legislated the very
> nature of science itself. They prescribed a one-size-fits-all standard for
> risk assessment across very different government agencies, potentially
> stifling scientific adaptability. The bills also would have erected a "peer
> review" process to scrutinize risk assessments with large potential
> regulatory impacts - one that would have not only bogged down the regulatory
> process, but also allowed industry scientists to participate in or even
> dominate reviews. In addition, regulatory reform would have created new
> opportunities for federal court challenges over agency risk assessments - an
> ideal opportunity for business interests to engage in scientific warfare
> over analyses they didn't like. The whole process, Public Citizen lawyer
> David Vladeck wrote at the time, smacked of an attempt to achieve "paralysis
> by analysis."
> Reformers didn't describe it that way, of course. As Dole argued in a
> Washington Post commentary, the goal was to make sure that agencies were
> using "the best information and sound science available." Yet the notion
> that Republican reformers were merely calling for better science in the
> abstract - instead of issuing unrealistic demands for minimized uncertainty
> before regulation could be undertaken - is hard to swallow. At the same time
> that they pushed for regulatory reform, the Gingrich Republicans dismantled
> Congress's Office of Technology Assessment, a widely respected scientific
> advisory body, and sought to slash funding for government scientific
> Throughout the whole saga, the Advancement of Sound Science Coalition
> cheered the regulatory reformers along, sometimes explicitly. In an October
> 13, 1994 speech, TASSC chairman Garrey Carruthers specifically endorsed a
> regulatory reform proposal by Louisiana Democratic Senator J. Bennett
> Johnston (co-sponsor of the Dole bill). Then in 1995, the group released a
> study protesting negative media coverage of regulatory reform, which Dole,
> in turn, cited in a statement. Carruthers heralded the survey - without, of
> course, mentioning tobacco in any way. "We want to offer information on how
> scientific issues are communicated to the public as another means of
> ensuring that only sound science is used in making public policy decisions,"
> he stated.
> Ultimately, the regulatory reformers went too far and their proposal died in
> the Senate -but not before it had helped crystallize a new conservative
> lexicon. In a 1996 report, the late Rep. George Brown, ranking Democratic
> member of the House Science Committee, issued a long and anguished
> reflection on the Republican Party's adoption of "sound science" principles
> entitled "Environmental Science Under Siege: Fringe Science and the 104th
> Congress." Brown's report provides a powerful riposte to the "sound science"
> movement, whose proponents he accused of having "little or no experience of
> what science does and how it progresses."
> Brown's ire had been raised by a series of hearings by the
> Republican-controlled Energy and Environment Subcommittee entitled
> "Scientific Integrity and the Public Trust," which were a closely related
> offshoot of the regulatory reform movement. Presided over by Rep. Dana
> Rohrabacher of California - who notoriously derided climate change as
> "liberal claptrap" - the hearings levied charges of science abuse across
> three environmental issues: ozone depletion, global warming, and dioxin
> risks. After an analysis of the hearings, Brown found "no credible evidence"
> of scientific distortion in the interest of environmental scare-mongering.
> But he did come away with a definition of "sound science" as used repeatedly
> by the Republican majority. "The Majority seems to equate sound science with
> absolute certainty regarding a particular problem," wrote Brown. "By this
> standard, a substance can only be regulated after we know with absolute
> certainty that the substance is harmful. This is an unrealistic and
> inappropriate standard."
> Nevertheless, invocations of "sound science" to prevent regulation remain a
> core component of the conservative science agenda today. In 2002, Republican
> pollster and strategist Frank Luntz - who did polling work for the GOP's
> 1994 Contract with America - wrote in a memorandum (PDF) for GOP
> congressional candidates that "The most important principle in any
> discussion of global warming is your commitment to sound science." But what
> was most intriguing was what "sound science" actually meant to Luntz on
> climate change. "The scientific debate is closing [against us] but not yet
> closed," he added cynically. "There is still a window of opportunity to
> challenge the science." It's hard to read Luntz's words as anything but yet
> another call for "paralysis by analysis."
> Conservatives and liberals both agree that science is crucially important
> for making public policy. But the answers provided by scientific research
> are rarely certain and always open to disputation or challenge. When
> conservatives today call for "sound science," the evidence suggests that
> what they really want is to hold a scientific filibuster - and thereby delay
> political action.
> Chris Mooney is a senior correspondent for The American Prospect. Read
>more of his articles at: chriscmooney.com.