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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?