Pseudo-Science Debunked

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Illustration by Peter O. Zierlein

Under the Bush administration, citizens have been told that climate change isn’t such a big deal, evolution doesn’t belong in the classroom, and there’s no use crying over extinct species. It’s Francesca Grifo’s job to expose the manipulation of information that gives politicians cover for such claims. As the head of the scientific integrity program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, Grifo documents the government’s meddling in science and advocates for a return to public policy based on sound evidence. Grifo, a senior scientist at the nonprofit and an expert in biodiversity and environmental education, explains how citizens can distinguish scientific fact from political fiction for themselves. 

How is science being politically manipulated?

There’s the suppression of science. The poster child for that has been climate change: Various documents were modified, uncertainty was inserted, and the release of scientific information to the public has been limited.

We’re also seeing manipulation of scientific results. An example here is endangered species: [Former deputy assistant secretary] Julie MacDonald, the political appointee at the Fish and Wildlife Service, was taking scientists’ information and changing it. If we look broadly, the Reagan administration listed 289 endangered species, and the first Bush listed 232. Bush Two has listed 56. We’ve got 278 species waiting to be listed and no action.

Then there’s the manipulation of scientific advice, the most blatant example of which has been recent changes at the Environmental Protection Agency. They’ve completely changed the way that scientific advisory committees advise on national ambient air quality standards. It’s no longer a scientific document that informs final decisions; it’s a policy document.

This is not about the role of science in public policy. This is about changing science before it even gets into the arena where policy decisions are made. 

Has our culture’s lack of scientific literacy played a role here?

It’s easier to get away with inserting uncertainty where there isn’t any, because people typically don’t have the training and background to notice. But it’s also about questioning what you read: What evidence do I have that this actually makes sense, and what evidence do I have that this is not something to be fully considered? People have to take on some of that responsibility themselves. 

How can they do that?

Consider the source [behind a scientific claim].  A group may sound green and progressive, but do a little homework to see where its money comes from–reputable groups make that information easily available. Also think about the folks who are writing, promoting, or funding a claim: Do they have an ax to grind?

Look for evidence of a scientific method. Did [the researchers] start with an idea, and then set out to prove it–which is not the scientific method–or did they start out with a question, look for evidence, and then draw their conclusions? 

Methodology often gets left out of science reporting. How can the media make scientific issues more clear?

With the media, there’s this notion of needing to provide a balanced perspective. That’s not necessarily
a bad thing, but at some point, the preponderance of opinions and evidence falls on one side. At that point, it becomes a disservice to the public to resurrect the one scientist out of 800 who feels a certain way on an issue. 

What are some good sources of scientific information?

Try to go to groups that have scientists on staff, that have strong connections to universities, museums, or other places where scientists work. Zoos, aquariums, museums, botanical gardens, and nature centers all tend to be fairly reliable sources of information.

Spend an afternoon with your family tearing through a wetland, or looking at things in the woods, or watching birds. It’s all going to increase your ability to observe, gather evidence, and draw conclusions. 

How much do we really need to understand the science behind politically charged scientific issues, such as climate change, evolution, and reproductive health?

We have to understand some basic tenets of how the natural world works, of how the earth runs. Fortunately, there are some great pieces of literature that do a lot of that translating for us. 

For example, last year the editors of Science magazine put together State of the Planet: 2006-2007, a compilation of articles that are written for a broad audience. People can’t be afraid to dive in. You don’t have to have a Ph.D. to read these things. What you have to do is care. 

To learn more, visit the Union of Concerned Scientists’ website at www.ucsusa.org.

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