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Scientists’ advice shunted aside under Bush

SHOWCASE | March 14, 2006

No dissent is tolerated, writes Michael Specter in the New Yorker as he lays out entire fields that are subjugated to politics, including climate change, pollution, and biomedical research.

By Sam Kean
“Political Science: The Bush Administration’s war on the laboratory,”
by Michael Specter, The New Yorker, March 13, 2006

Michael Specter begins his deconstruction of the Bush Administration’s science policies with a typical political plea: for the children. The human papillomavirus (HPV) has been proven to cause cervical cancer, which kills around 5,000 U.S. women each year and hundreds of thousands worldwide. Thankfully, there are two vaccines in the pipeline that could effectively eliminate HPV. Many would like to see such a vaccine included in normal childhood inoculations, like measles, mumps and rubella. Says one Nobel laureate quoted in the article, “It has the potential to save hundreds of thousands of lives each year.”

Yet the odds of these vaccines receiving the final push toward FDA approval are slim. Why? Because HPV is a sexually transmitted disease, most often encountered (in mild strains) as genital warts. And conservatives in Washington argue that eliminating the threat of HPV can only promote casual sex. Specter quotes Oklahoma Republican Senator Tom Coburn, a physician, as saying: “Pre-marital sex is dangerous, even deadly. Let’s not encourage it by vaccinating ten-year-olds so they think they’re safe.” Public health has become a strictly moral issue.

The Bush Administration also opposes HPV vaccines and instead promotes abstinence-education programs, which might be fine if such programs worked. Yet, citing the best available evidence, Specter writes,

“When it came to preventing sexually transmitted diseases, students in the [abstinence] programs fared no better than those in the control group [who received no abstinence education]. The study also found that students who promised to remain virgins were less likely to use contraception when they did have sex, and they were less likely to seek S.T.D. testing.”

Nevertheless, abstinence education remains a key plank in the President’s platform, even determining which African AIDS-relief groups can receive funding.

This example gets to the heart of Specter’s argument: Bush administration officials consistently subvert science to further their political goals. If they disagree with what science says, they ignore it. Or silence it. Or use dubious data to argue it away. Specter lays out a litany of cases—emergency contraception, stem-cells, global warming, the Schiavo case, evolution—in which hard science has been squashed for political considerations. It’s not that these Bush officials have no grounds, moral or otherwise, on which to argue some of their points. Sometimes they do. But dissent is not tolerated, and scientific evidence is subsumed.

Science used to be considered different, Specter notes. Its insistence on proof left it above the fray. The legendary director of the Manhattan Project, Vannevar Bush (no relation to George Bush), “was a conservative who opposed the New Deal, and not quietly. Yet President Roosevelt didn’t hesitate to appoint him, or to take his advice.” Other, similar cases exist between World War II and the 1960s. In scientific matters, Presidents usually made efforts to appoint the best men available.

Ironically, it was liberals who first yoked science to politics by vehemently opposing Barry Goldwater, and Specter points out cases where later liberals continue to contravene clear scientific fact—the safety of both genetically modified food and nuclear power being two examples—simply because the technology makes them uncomfortable.

But the Bush administration has commandeered science to an unprecedented degree. “From the start of his first term,” Specter writers, “George W. Bush seems to have been guided more by faith and ideology than by data in resolving scientific questions. . . Bush, unlike Clinton and many other Presidents, appears to view science more as a political constituency than as an intellectual discipline or way of life.”

Specter points out that even C. Everett Koop—the most controversial Surgeon General ever—dissented from President Reagan on AIDS and, to some extent, abortion. But Bush appointees to scientific posts must toe the Administration line. As a result, lower-level managers face unnecessary delays; scientists are asked about their voting habits before funding decisions are made, and stem-cell researchers are barred from using any equipment—even test tubes or microscopes—paid for with federal money.

Scientists are frustrated and exasperated, especially about future research, Specter writes:

“The war over the ethics of using embryos in research has proved costly to American medicine. Not only has it slowed the pace of progress but for the first time other countries have moved ahead of the U.S. The United Kingdom, for example, has established several centers for stem-cell scientists. The ban has also discouraged researchers from contemplating careers in what would otherwise be considered the most exciting area of medicine.”

Overall, the article makes a convincing case that the Bush Administration’s stance on many scientific issues is politics pursued by other means. Specter is not guilty of scientism. He points out legitimate fears that science can and should induce in clear-thinking citizens. However, in a nice summary of his article, he writes: “Clearly the Bush Administration alone is not responsible for America’s fear of [scientific] progress. But it has widened the gulf between truth and belief immensely.”

(Here are two books that books deal with the issue of science and politics. One, by Chris Mooney, is titled "The Republican War on Science." The other, by Daniel S. Greenberg, is "Science, Money, and Politics",)

HPV - it can be transmitted wo intercourse
Posted by Peter Vann -
03/15/2006, 01:02 AM

Dear Sam

I read your story on Bush and the HPV vaccine with interest.

I believe that this vaccine should be included in normal childhood inoculations.

This should be of concern to parents who attempt to install in their children no pre-marital sex. Why? because HPV can be transmitted without actually engaging in intercourse, eg the following quote is from Medical News today and cites a reference to support the claim (I haven't checked the reference)
http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/medicalnews.php?ne ...

"Virtually every woman is at risk of cervical cancer. It is not hereditary. Cervical cancer is caused by persistent infection with an oncogenic (cancer causing) HPV virus. HPV is a very common infection that is easily transmitted through close sexual contact (sexual intercourse is not necessarily required)."

I suspect that children who come from families where the parents attempt to install in their children no pre-marital sex, will still have close sexual contact before getting married. This is a one likely explanation of the Specter's comment that "When it came to preventing sexually transmitted diseases, students in the [abstinence] programs fared no better than those in the control group [who received no abstinence education].”

New Yorker Magazine
An interview with Michael Specter that appears on the New Yorker Web site.

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