We’ve discussed to some extent the silliness of the federal government using “sound science” as rhetorical cover for patently anti-science policies. This week, FiveThirtyEight’s Christie Aschwanden takes an extensive look at the term and its decades-long history as a tool of political propaganda.
We don’t use the term “propaganda” lightly or frivolously. But how the term is used is a clear example of propaganda: the co-opting of an ideal to achieve the opposite outcome of said ideal. “Sound science” is a term now used by climate deniers but first popularized by the tobacco industry to turn science’s focus on transparency and replication against it as a weapon.
Aschwanden does a great job of summarizing the decades-old use of the term as a way for industry to protect itself from regulation by setting impossible standards that they claim science must meet before regulations are warranted.
A big part of this is demanding scientific transparency--though, of course, only when convenient. The classic example, described by Aschwanden, is how deniers demand data that underpins a seminal set of Harvard studies demonstrating the health impacts of particulate matter pollution. The problem is that data is private patient health data. Researchers used it on the condition that sensitive medical information wouldn’t be made public. By demanding that data be made public in these cases, “sound science” advocates present an impossible choice: break your (legally mandated) promise to protect patient privacy, or admit your study can’t be replicated and therefore isn’t “sound.”
But sometimes even Scott Pruitt, who has called for “sound science” at the EPA, is no friend of transparency. And by “sometimes” we mean, like, all the time. Former GOP EPA administrator Bill Ruckelshaus even wrote an op-ed for the Post last month on how Pruitt has abandoned transparency at the EPA. Ruckelshaus’s piece opens and closes with a warning of how past EPA administrator Ann Buford Gorsuch’s downfall came after a loss of public trust in how the Superfund program was handled.
As it turns out, the loss of public trust is something Pruitt may need to take to heart. Malcolm Burnley’s latest story this week for Politico Magazine exposes how as Oklahoma Attorney General, Pruitt kept a report regarding the potential mismanagement of an Oklahoma Superfund site secret, and declined to prosecute the actors responsible for the crisis.
It’s a long story, rife with jaw-dropping pull quotes about the long term effects of mining pollution in the small town of Tar Creek Oklahoma. (“On rainy days, local fields used for football practice bleed a toxic shade of orange.”)
While the narrative, spanning decades, is complicated, at its core is the fact that Pruitt appears to have been protecting fellow Oklahoma fossil fuel-loving politician Jim Inhofe--who was responsible for handling the rehabilitation of the Superfund site--from a potentially unflattering report.
This is not likely to be the scandal that takes Pruitt down. But given his insistence that the EPA focus on Superfund sites (instead of climate) and that a past EPA admin resigned in the wake of a Superfund scandal, a Superfund scandal of his own making sure would be poetic justice.
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