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Monday, March 31, 2008

Science at Risk? Well, maybe logic

With elections around the corner, it isn't surprising to hear the populist rhetoric coming from politicians. Protectionism and talk of "obscene" profits being made by "big business" have been staples of populism for thousands of years. These ideas have pulled at the hearts of voters, but an there is interesting new approach being used. Political opportunists have found a way to exploit the Bush administration's reputation for not considering science.

In a New York Times editorial, Stephen Johnson, the administrator of the EPA, is heavily criticised for proposing to rewrite the Clean Air Act. His policy was "weaker than those his scientists had recommended — and more to the liking of industry". They continue that "science would be the sure loser unless insulated from special interests" and name their article "Science at Risk". What was his Policy? It was to allow costs to be considered when setting air standards. My question is... what does this have to do with science?

Ozone levels are measured in parts per billion, and Mr. Johnson wants to lower the acceptable standard from 84 to 75 ppb. The independent group of experts advising him, the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, recommended 60 to 70 ppb. The editorial board said that the "difference of a few points could prevent several thousand premature deaths". Again, why does the consideration of costs and benefits ignore science? If there is a large cost to going to 70 ppb, why not save the money and use it elsewhere? More lives can probably be saved by using more cost effective methods, malaria nets in Africa, for example.

The editorial board wrote "In the Bush administration, contests between politics and science are usually resolved in favor of politics". They are right about one thing, the real issue is politics. In possibly the craziest sentence in the article, they reject the consideration of costs and note that "Since this would permanently devalue the role of science while strengthening the hand of industry, the proposal has no chance of success in a Democratic Congress". This is still populism, only with an intellectual twist. It seems to me that for the New York Times, contests between politics and logic are often resolved in favor of politics.

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