The Junk Science of George W. Bush | The Nation


The Junk Science of George W. Bush

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As Jesuit schoolboys studying world history we learned that Copernicus and Galileo self-censored for many decades their proofs that the earth revolved around the sun and that a less restrained heliocentrist, Giordano Bruno, was burned alive in 1600 for the crime of sound science. With the encouragement of our professor, Father Joyce, we marveled at the capacity of human leaders to corrupt noble institutions. Lust for power had caused the Catholic hierarchy to subvert the church's most central purpose--the search for existential truths.

About the Author

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr., senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council and president of the Waterkeeper...

Today, flat-earthers within the Bush Administration--aided by right-wing allies who have produced assorted hired guns and conservative think tanks to further their goals--are engaged in a campaign to suppress science that is arguably unmatched in the Western world since the Inquisition. Sometimes, rather than suppress good science, they simply order up their own. Meanwhile, the Bush White House is purging, censoring and blacklisting scientists and engineers whose work threatens the profits of the Administration's corporate paymasters or challenges the ideological underpinnings of their radical anti-environmental agenda. Indeed, so extreme is this campaign that more than sixty scientists, including Nobel laureates and medical experts, released a statement on February 18 that accuses the Bush Administration of deliberately distorting scientific fact "for partisan political ends."

I've had my own experiences with Torquemada's modern successors, both personal and related to my work as an environmental lawyer and advocate working for the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Waterkeeper Alliance.

At the time of the World Trade Center catastrophe on September 11, 2001, I had just opened an office at 115 Broadway, cater-corner from the World Trade Center and within the official security zone to which access was, afterward, restricted for several months. Upon returning to the office in October my partner, Kevin Madonna, suffered a burning throat, nausea and a headache that was still pounding twenty-four hours after he left the building. Despite the Environmental Protection Agency's claims that air quality was safe, Kevin refused to return and we closed the office. Many workers did not have that option; their employers relied on the EPA's nine press releases between September and December of 2001 reassuring the public about the wholesome air quality downtown. We have since learned that the government was lying to us. An Inspector General's report released last August revealed that the EPA's data did not support those assurances and that its press releases were being drafted or doctored by White House officials intent on reopening Wall Street.

On September 13, just two days after the terror attack, the EPA announced that asbestos dust in the area was "very low" or entirely absent. On September 18 the agency said the air was "safe to breathe." In fact, more than 25 percent of the samples collected by the EPA before September 18 showed presence of asbestos above the 1 percent safety benchmark. Among outside studies, one performed by scientists at the University of California, Davis, found particulates at levels never before seen in more than 7,000 similar tests worldwide. A study being performed by Mt. Sinai School of Medicine has found that 78 percent of rescue workers suffered lung ailments and 88 percent had ear, nose and throat problems in the months following the attack and that about half still had persistent lung and respiratory illnesses nine months to a year later.

Dan Tishman, whose company was involved in the reconstruction at 140 West Street, required his crews to wear respirators but recalls seeing many rescue and construction workers laboring unprotected--no doubt relying on the government's assurances. "The frustrating thing is that everyone just counts on the EPA to be the watchdog of public health," he says. "When that role is compromised, people can get hurt."

I also recall the case of Dr. James Zahn, a nationally respected microbiologist with the Agriculture Department's research service, who accepted my invitation to speak to an April 2002 conference of more than 1,000 family farm advocates and environmental and civic leaders in Clear Lake, Iowa. In a rigorous taxpayer-funded study, Zahn had identified bacteria that can make people sick--and that are resistant to antibiotics--in the air surrounding industrial-style hog farms. His studies proved that billions of these "superbugs" were traveling across property lines daily, endangering the health of neighbors and their herds. I was shocked when Zahn canceled his appearance on the day of the conference under orders from the Agriculture Department in Washington. I later uncovered a fax trail proving the order was prompted by lobbyists from the National Pork Producers Council. Zahn told me that his supervisor at the USDA, under pressure from the hog industry, had ordered him not to publish his study and that he had been forced to cancel more than a dozen public appearances at local planning boards and county health commissions seeking information about health impacts of industry mega-farms. Soon after my conference, Zahn resigned from the government in disgust.

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