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Head in the Sand Science

The recent coverage of former Surgeon General Carmona’s experiences working within the Bush Administration may be seen as another example of the Administration running roughshod over and ignoring experts. But at a more general level it raises an issue that may never go away in politics: where do science and policy intersect, if ever? One could claim that science is objective and should always be followed. But it seems that anyone can dig up an expert to assert a view that fits one’s policy objectives. That possibility, however, causes mayhem in courts where in theory the jousting allows the truth to come out.

In contrast, the government’s apparent suppression of the chief medical officer’s views on AIDS, smoking, stem cells, global warming, needle exchange, and so on (as the article notes such behavior has occurred under republican and democratic Presidents) seems different. Although different parties control political appointments depending on the public’s vote in a previous election, not allowing the Surgeon General or any other official (for example, the head of Health and Human Services or the director of the National Institutes of Health) tasked with representing the interests of the people by presenting what they believe to be the best information and guidance regarding issues undermines the faith one wants to have in the government. Again the positions are of course political and as such one should have a certain amount of skepticism regarding the information, but when the information is being censored, suppressed, or manipulated by the executive the amount of skepticism required reaches sad levels that suggest no faith in information from the government. Maybe that has always been the case, but I’d like to believe that those with the best access to vital information often share a decent amount of it so the public can be well informed. Put differently, shouldn’t we demand such behavior regardless of which party is in power?    

2 thoughts on “Head in the Sand Science”

  1. There’s some case law on this from the perspective of the First Amendment and the extent to which it protects professionals in government service from contradicting government-sponsored messages that conflict with their expert opinion (or from retaliation for expressing opinions that conflict with the government’s official position). For the most part, the Court has held that there’s no constitutional constraint on this kind of government conduct. E.g., Rust v. Sullivan (doctors); Garcetti v. Ceballos (lawyers).

  2. Dave makes a very good point re the First Amendment. But the key now is to try to get some sort of durable consensus (maybe even a 28th Amendment) against government censorship of its own non-security-related reports. Just as government works can’t be copyrighted, we should not allow the government to release objective, scientific, non-security-related information it deems helpful and not release such information it deems harmful.

    The article Deven cites is devastating. What is particularly astonishing is how petty and far-reaching the partisanship has become:

    “Administration officials even discouraged [Carmona] from attending the Special Olympics because, he said, of that charitable organization’s longtime ties to a “prominent family” that he refused to name. “I was specifically told by a senior person, ‘Why would you want to help those people?’ ” Dr. Carmona said.

    The Special Olympics is one of the nation’s premier charitable organizations to benefit disabled people, and the Kennedys have long been deeply involved in it.”

    And of course, as administration officials might also reason, many of the participants can’t vote.

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