Environmental Health News

What's Working

  • Garden Mosaics projects promote science education while connecting young and old people as they work together in local gardens.
  • Hope Meadows is a planned inter-generational community containing foster and adoptive parents, children, and senior citizens
  • In August 2002, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board voted to ban soft drinks from all of the district’s schools

#522 - Political Science, 27-Nov-1996

Science is a process that allows people to reach agreement about the
nature of reality, no matter what culture they come from. If I describe
how to make a thermometer and you follow the recipe, you and I will end
up agreeing that, at sea level, water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit
(100 degrees Celsius). Not all of reality is accessible to the
scientific method but for those parts that are, science allows us to
reach agreement. Thus the scientific method has enormous power for
getting people together.

We read about 30 scientific and medical journals on a regular basis. In
recent years, a remarkable quantity of bad news for humans and the
environment has appeared in these and other peer-reviewed journals.
Because these results were gathered by the scientific method, they are
pretty convincing. On the basis of this work, it seems safe to say that
our civilization is pulling the rug out from under itself. Business as
usual is relentlessly destroying the community of creatures and
ecosystems upon which our survival depends. On the other hand, business
as usual is enormously profitable for a small group of people, who
fiercely defend what they are doing and who now sponsor an entire
industry dedicated to denying that trouble lies ahead.

According to the NEW YORK TIMES, the business community has developed a
specific wish list for the new Congress: they want less environmental
regulation, and they want to curb the rights of citizens to bring
lawsuits against corporations for harms.[1]

It seems apparent that the long-term strategy for achieving both goals
is to diminish the power of science. The aim seems to be to bring
science out of the laboratory and turn it into more of a street fight
where the most powerful and ruthless adversary has the best chance of
winning. By this means, it seems apparent, corporations intend to
undercut the credibility (and therefore the power) of scientific

In these two arenas --the courts, and government regulations --
contradictory tactics are being pursued.

In the courts, corporations (and the representatives they paid to
install in Congress) are trying to limit scientific evidence by
excluding views they claim are outside the mainstream. For example, the
Republican Party's 1996 Platform contains a section called "Restoring
Justice to the Courts," which proposes to "eliminate the use of 'junk
science'... by requiring courts to verify that the science of those
called as expert witnesses is reasonably acceptable within the
scientific community..."[2] In other words, testimony by expert
witnesses would be disallowed unless it represented the views of the
scientific mainstream. Scientists with new research findings and new
information about cause-and-effect would be effectively excluded from
the courts until their work had been absorbed into the mainstream of
science --a process that might take years or even decades.

On the other hand, in the arena of environmental regulation, the same
corporations (and their same representatives in Congress) are working
hard to undermine the credibility of mainstream scientific views. In
this arena, their goal is to boost the standing and credibility of the
scientific fringe --the handful of dissidents who say that global
warming is not harmful and may even be beneficial; that the ozone hole
is natural or has perhaps been faked; and that dioxin is not nearly as
poisonous as most scientists say it is --and it may even be good for

The thread that ties these contradictory views together is the goal of
making science into something that confuses people and thus drives
people apart, instead of something that helps people reach agreement
about the nature of reality.

The effort to make science more political has been gathering momentum
since the election of 1994 when self-styled "conservatives" gained
control of Congress. During 1995, the House Subcommittee on Energy and
Environment held three public hearings, one devoted to depletion of the
ozone layer, one to global warming, and one to the powerfully poisonous
industrial byproduct, dioxin. According to a recent analysis of the
hearing transcripts, a common theme emerged from the three hearings:

(1) Research funded by the federal government is not sound science
because scientists have an economic incentive to exaggerate the
importance of their work ("to shill for the apocalypse," as one
witness, Patrick Michaels, phrased it);

(2) Consensus science derived from peer review is not sound science
because it represents a conspiracy by the scientific establishment to
suppress dissenting views;

(3) Science which contains uncertainties in its conclusions is not
sound science;

(4) Science that is not strictly empirical (meaning based on
observations and not based on theories or models derived from
observations) is not sound science.[3]

Clearly, if these definitions of "sound science" were accepted, most
environmental science could not be considered sound, and nearly all
studies linking human health to environmental degradation would be
declared unsound. There is --and always will be --uncertainty in our
understanding of complex domains, such as the environment and human
health. Models are used in all complex scientific studies--purely
"empirical" studies, without reference to theoretical constructs, are
rare. Peer review is how scientists find errors; without it, science
could not proceed. And much environmental science must be funded by
public agencies because the private sector has no interest in funding
it (and, indeed, often has a strong interest in seeing that it is NOT

The effort to politicize science is proceeding outside the halls of
Congress as well. Individual scientists, science writers, and
scientific societies, are being intimidated by lawsuits and the threat
of lawsuits. Examples:

Last August, Bette Hileman, a veteran science writer for CHEMICAL &
ENGINEERING NEWS (C&EN), which is published by the American Chemical
Society, wrote an opinion piece titled, "Global warming is target of
disinformation campaign."[4] In it, Hileman described "a systematic
campaign of disinformation" being conducted by a small group of
scientists calling themselves the Global Climate Coalition (GCC) whose
work is funded by coal, oil, utility, automobile, and chemical
companies --the corporations whose profits might decline if Congress
took global warming seriously.

A prominent member of GCC is Patrick Michaels, a faculty member at the
University of Virginia and a fellow of the libertarian Cato Institute
in Washington, D.C. Michaels often publishes commentaries covering
everything from global warming to the free market and tax policy in the
Reverend Sun Myung Moon's newspaper, the WASHINGTON TIMES.[5] In recent
months, Michaels has been attacking the work of Benjamin D. Santer of
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. Santer wrote the
final draft of Chapter 8 of the latest report from the IPCC (United
Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). Chapter 8 concluded
that "the balance of scientific evidence suggests a discernible human
influence on global climate" --a conclusion fully supported by the IPCC
but one that the coal and oil industries cannot leave unchallenged.
Hileman evaluates Michaels's attack on Santer's work, concluding, "...
[E]ither Michaels does not understand Santer's work or he is
deliberately distorting it." In the normal course of scientific debate,
such criticisms are routine.

But no longer. Now S. Fred Singer --a former colleague of Michaels and
a frequent author in the Reverend Moon's WASHINGTON TIMES --has
threatened a lawsuit against the American Chemical Society: "The
American Chemical Society may well be courting one or more libel
suits," Singer writes in the Moonie TIMES November 13, 1996, referring
to Hileman's opinion piece.[6]

Singer is himself one of the fringe scientists who appeared as a
witness (as did Michaels) at the 1995 Congressional ozone hearing
described above. During the hearing, Singer tried to establish his
ozone credentials by claiming to have published several peer-reviewed
papers in which he presented his current theories about why the
continent-sized ozone hole over the South Pole isn't a problem.
However, when Congressional staff checked his references, they found
that Singer's only published work on ozone depletion during the past 20
years had been one letter to the editor of SCIENCE magazine, and two
articles in magazines that are not peer reviewed.[7] And of course his
many articles in the Moonie WASHINGTON TIMES, where Singer is a regular
blowhard columnist--the scientific equivalent of Rush Limbaugh. In
fact, Limbaugh says he gets his information about the ozone depletion
nonproblem from sources that have been traced back to Singer.[8]

The assault on science doesn't stop with threats aimed at intimidating
journalists. The LOS ANGELES TIMES reported (Nov. 22, pg. A3) that U.S.
Ecology --a corporation trying to build a huge nuclear waste dump at
Ward Valley in the California desert --has threatened to sue two
scientists who were commissioned by the U.S. Department of the Interior
to study the safety of the proposed dump. In a letter to the two
scientists, U.S. Ecology wrote, "Should you continue your participation
in Interior's ill-advised project, please do so based on the knowledge
that U.S. Ecology intends to seek compensation from any persons or
entities whose conduct wrongfully injures its interests in this

The two scientists --hydrogeologists Martin Mifflin and Scott W. Tyler
--are employees of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and are
both members of the National Academy of Science's panel on Ward Valley.

The U.S. Ecology tactic is working. The two scientists have said they
must stop work on Ward Valley until the federal government agrees to
pay their legal costs, if they are sued. A Department of Interior
official called U.S. Ecology's tactic "disgusting" but said under law
the government cannot indemnify contractors, so the Ward Valley safety
analysis has been put on hold.

The message is unmistakable: if science is standing in the way of
corporate goals, then the methods of science will be discredited,
modified or discarded, and individual science writers and scientists,
and even scientific societies like the American Chemical Society, will
be threatened and intimidated.

It seems clear that the root cause of these problems is a corporate
form run amuck. This legal form, which limits corporate owners'
liability yet provides full Constitutional protections for corporate
actions, is providing legal cover and nearly unbounded resources for
continuing unprincipled attacks on our most important social
institutions, including courts, elections, and the scientific method
itself. Now would be an appropriate time to examine the corporate form,
and modify it as necessary, to make corporations once again subordinate
to the will, and the general welfare, of the American people.

--Peter Montague (National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)


[1] Robert D. Hershey, Jr., "The Election Changes Little; Business Can
Live With That," NEW YORK TIMES November 15, 1996, pg. D1.

[2] Republican platform quoted in Representative George E. Brown, Jr.,
CONGRESS (Washington, D.C.: Office of Representative George E. Brown,
Jr., October 23, 1996), pg. 7, note 16. Brown is the ranking Democrat
on the House Committee on Science.

[3] George E. Brown, Jr., report cited above in note 2, pg. 15; see
also the rest of Brown's report, including the appendices.

[4] Bette Hileman, "Global warming is target of disinformation
campaign," C&EN August 19, 1996, pg. 33.

[5] Michaels writes regularly in the Reverend Moon's WASHINGTON TIMES;
see, for example, March 30, 1994, pg. A14; October 18, 1993, pg. A16;
March 17, 1993, pg. G3; February 5, 1993, pg. F1; and December 15,
1992, pg. F1. The WASHINGTON TIMES was founded, and has been subsidized
to the tune of a billion dollars since its founding, by the Reverend
Sun Myung Moon. See Daniel Junas, "The Washington Times: Who Pays the
Bills for the Right's Daily Paper?" EXTRA! (March/April, 1995), pgs.
15-16. EXTRA! is published by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, 130
West 25th Street, NY, NY 10001; phone: (212) 633-6700.

[6] S. Fred Singer, "Disinformation about global warming?" WASHINGTON
TIMES November 13, 1996, pg. A15.

[7] George E. Brown, Jr., report cited above in note 2, pg. 11, note
26, evaluates Singer's recent publications.

[8] See Paul R. Ehrlich and Anne H. Ehrlich, BETRAYAL OF SCIENCE AND
REASON (Washington, DC: Island Press, 1996), pg. 41.

Descriptor terms: science; courts; corporations; junk science;
regulation; dioxin; global warming; ozone deplation; congress;
lawsuits; slapp suits; bette hileman; patrick michaels; cato institute;
sun myoung moon; banjamin santer; ipcc; fred singer; washington times;
american chemical society; u.s. ecology; ward valley; radioactive
waste; george e. brown, jr.;