'Sound Science' or Conventional Liberalism?

September 3rd, 2009 5:37 PM

Much of the mainstream media shares the Obama Administration's mistrust of-even outright hostility to-industry leaders, and its reverence for ‘sound science.' Too often, however, ‘sound science' simply is another way of saying conventional liberalism.

A good example of this is David Michaels, tapped by the president as OSHA administrator, praised by the New York Times in an editorial with the headline "A Champion for Workers' Safety." The Times said he would steer OSHA away from "eight years of lax oversight and favoritism to industry under the Bush administration."

Michaels shares the Times's distaste for "industry favoritism," exemplified by the title of his 2008 book, "Doubt is Their Product: How Industry's Assault on Science Threatens Your Health". In fact, doubt is a central element of sound science. We doubt claims until they are shown to be true.

Sound science, of course, implies a number of conditions, including that all hypotheses be considered-though certainly not accepted as true-until disproved. Any scientific work that rejects certain arguments a priori for the purpose of advancing a political agenda might be termed ‘politicized science.'

Michaels's record suggests that, far from bringing an objective, politically neutral perspective to the White House, he will use his position, if confirmed, to advance an agenda hostile to business interests, regardless of the facts.

This philosophy towards science, which regards it as secondary to political interests, will fit right in with the Obama administration's record of putting ideology before facts. The starkest example of this trend took place in June, when EPA officials suppressed a study by Dr. Alan Carlin, which questioned the effects of carbon dioxide on global temperatures, for the stated reason that it did not fit the administration's pre-established position on climate change.

Michaels chairs George Washington University's Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy, which led the charge against the use of a plastics hardener, bisphenol A, or BPA. Michaels contended that industry leaders were taking a page out of the Tobacco industry's playbook:

"As in this case, eventually the science becomes overwhelming. But if you can get five or 10 years of avoiding pollution control or production of chemicals, you've greatly increased your product."

Lyndsey Layton, who used that Michaels quote in an April 2008 Washington Post article, suggested that "chemical manufacturers have exerted influence over federal regulators to keep a possibly unsafe product on the market", and cited un-attributed "evidence" of the risks of using BPA in baby bottles "and other products."

Since then numerous scientists in countries across the world have debunked the purported dangers of BPA. Gina Kolata, blogging for the New York Times, cited a STATS study to that effect. She ended her post by saying "see if [the study] convinces you." Not exactly a definitive endorsement of its findings.

Despite the overwhelming consensus that BPA is not harmful-even that banning it could endanger public health (see the STATS study)-the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel recently received a George Polk Award for reporting on the chemical's detrimental health effects.

The science that Michaels claimed the plastics industry was fighting, and that so many in the media seem to be ignoring, suggests that BPA is not harmful. Michaels's stubborn opposition to the use of BPA shows that he believes ‘sound science' to be a secondary concern to his anti-industry ideology.

His backers in the mainstream media suffer from the same cynicism that derides all industry-supported scientific findings as somehow tainted, and policies based on these findings as "favoritism to industry."

Beyond the flattering piece in the New York Times, other major media outlets expect him to combat big business in his new post. The Las Vegas Sun, which called Michaels's book "a primer on the way some corporations and special interests have used skewed studies to defeat sound policies," also accused the Bush administration of industry favoritism.

The Sun vaguely proclaimed that during the Bush years, "powerful politicians and business interests have stood together ... to block strong safety regulations and enforcement." Michaels shares this view, but seems to believe that regulations should derive from political considerations, rather than sound scientific observation.