Rise of fake “science” aided by textbooks

The march of outrageous and maddening political news has sped up so that I can barely work myself into a proper lather over one thing before something else comes along. It’s so deeply soul-crushing that I’m tempted to throw up my hands, say, “fuck it,” and bury my miseries in drink or manic productivity, as I’ve done in the past.

But denial and silence didn’t work out so well, now, did they? So here we are.

Once upon a time — a brief time — I was a trial lawyer. From my very first week on the job, my boss impressed upon me the most crucial strategic move in litigation, regardless of who’s right: take the offensive and run with it.

You be the one to send out the interrogatories, he told me. You move to dismiss and petition for summary judgment. You arrange for depositions of the major players on the other side. When you keep opposing counsel playing catch-up, he won’t have time to put you on the defensive. He’ll be too busy trying to respond to the things you’ve set in motion.

To stretch the analogy much too far: we Democrats are opposing counsel, and the other side has been on the offensive for so long that we’re running years behind.

Of course, politics is different from a lawsuit in many ways, not least in that everything unfolds and is spun right in front of the public — the jury, as it were — and although justice is supposed to have the press on its side the media are too busy reporting on Scott Peterson’s murder trial to look into little things like unjust wars, the erosion of our civil and reproductive rights, and the use of fraudulent “science” to further the religious and pro-business agendas of the Republican party’s far right.

Last week I mentioned some evolution warning stickers — “Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things” — placed on Cobb County, Georgia textbooks. The media covered the story, but in that look-at-what-those-funny-people-in-the-South-are-up-to-now tone that completely misses the point.

A little digging reveals that this is not an isolated instance. In Oklahoma, for example, the legislature has passed a law requiring biology textbooks to state that “human life was created by one God of the universe.”

And Crooked Timber notes that Texas sought last year to eliminate references to evolution and global warming, and challenged curriculum materials warning of an “‘environmental crisis’ or promot[ing] such ‘un-American’ concepts as restricting urban sprawl to protect wildlife.” In the end, the state adopted books presenting evolution as fact, but religious conservatives are still waging a war to have creationist theories given equal weight.

These are public school textbooks, mind. I’ve experienced the ways this sort of disinformation is peddled in private religious schools, but I wouldn’t have expected it to be allowed in the public sphere. (I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, a Catholic friend of mine grew up in a small Central Florida town where fundamentalist prayers, ending with something like an altar call, opened her public school day. But presumably the textbooks were standardized, even if the “moment of silence” wasn’t.)

Common sense suggests that even if 51% of the country supports a second Bush term, the majority of Americans probably do not favor scientifically inaccurate textbooks for their children — particularly not scientifically inaccurate textbooks purchased with their own tax dollars.

The current New York Review of Books includes an insightful review of Scientific Integrity in Policymaking: An Investigation into the Bush Administration’s Misuse of Science, a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists. Among other things, the report chronicles the Bush administration’s dishonest approach to science, not so much in the context of schoolbooks, but more generally. It reveals that:

education and information about scientific findings have been manipulated to support a conservative religious ideology. In order to demonstrate that abstinence-only programs were effective, the Bush administration instructed the Centers for Disease Control not to follow the actual birth rate for participants in an abstinence only test program, but only their attendance and attitudes toward the program. In order to hide the effectiveness of condom use in preventing HIV infection, the CDC was directed to emphasize condom failure rates in its educational material. Finally, the National Cancer Institute was directed to post a claim on its Web site that abortion promotes breast cancer although a large study had shown no connection between them.

The report also discusses a number of cases in which government regulatory and review panels were packed with members favorable to the administration. Moreover, it is reported that many potential nominees for federal scientific advisory posts were questioned about their political views and even whether they had voted for Bush. The most transparent manipulation occurred in 2002 when the Center for Disease Control Advisory Committee on Childhood Lead Poisoning was to consider narrowing the criterion of lead poisoning, so that sources of poisoning that were formerly banned became permissible. A panel of new nominees for the Advisory Committee was proposed by the CDC and, for the first time in the history of the committee, nominees were rejected by the direct intervention of the secretary of health and human services, Tommy Thompson, who replaced them with five persons who were previously known to oppose tightening the standard. Two of the five had financial ties with the lead industry.

Reviewer Richard C. Lewontin examines the problem of “elite knowledge” — the difficulty of keeping the electorate informed when the scientific information necessary to make sound political decisions (whether to participate in international initiatives to reduce global warming, for instance) is in the hands of a small, highly-educated group — and he acknowledges that past administrations, too, have manipulated science (in much more subtle ways) to support their own agendas. Even so, he argues:

If knowledge about the natural world is to rationally influence the decisions of an informed electorate, then people must believe that scientists tell the truth about nature insofar as they know it. While we might agree that prior political commitment could lead us to ask one question rather than another, or to put more weight on the result of a study that conforms to our prejudice rather than one that refutes it, every scientist must agree that outright fraud is beyond the pale. Putting aside the issue of morality, scientific investigation would be destroyed as a useful human endeavor and scientists would lose any claim on social resources if deliberate falsifications were not exposed.

Some may balk at this reasoning, but I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that all scientific endeavor is undermined when demonstrably false claims are made in the name of science.

It’s bad enough that adults are being seduced by, or at least remain unaware of the extent to which they’re being manipulated by, belief masquerading as fact. But as that “science” wends its way into children’s educational materials, we face the possibility that the next generation will be inculcated from elementary school in the Christian and pro-business teachings of the Bush administration and its cronies.

We need to put the administration on the defensive, by putting out real science — about global warming, lead poisoning, and the rest of it — that people can understand.

Since the media won’t do it, will the next Michael Moore please step up to the plate?


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