Political science

By Gord Gekko
web posted April 1998

I had two heroes as a youngster, Montreal Canadiens star and pack a day smoker Guy Lafleur and scientists that would remind you of Professor John Frink from Fox animated series The Simpsons.

Lafleur I idolized for his effortlessly graceful play, while I admired scientists for their dedication to truth and knowledge.

Well, NHL old-timer games prove that Lafleur isn't as graceful as he used to be, and the last few years have drilled into me that not all scientists are noted for their dedication to pure knowledge. The month of March brought two examples to world attention of government sponsored or influenced science more interested in politics than truth.

During the first week of March, British journalists broke the story of the World Health Organization's landmark study of second-hand smoke -- though the WHO would have rather that the story go unreported.

Commissioned by the WHO, the seven-year study of 650 lung cancer patients looked for links between lung cancer and passive smoke. Stunningly (to the WHO anyway), the study found that those non-smokers who "were married to, working with or growing up with with smokers were not at significantly more risk from lung cancer then anyone else." (The Economist, March 14, 1998).

The long awaited study, which was expected to prove a link between passive smoke and lung cancer, was summarized into three paragraphs and buried in a massive 350 page internal report.

But the study not only clashes with the tenor of the WHO's own anti-tobacco campaign, it appears to undermine the American government's war on public smoking. Unsurprisingly, many fear that the WHO's agenda is no longer governed solely by scientific principles. Rather, they suspect it is influenced by its biggest paymaster -- the United States.

The Economist, Smokescreens, (March 14, 1998)

Rather than damage its own Clinton-supported and funded anti-tobacco campaigns, some charge, the WHO buried legitimate a scientific study which put into question its own agenda.

The Economist piece illustrated two other examples of the WHO's alleged bowing to political dictates from the United States -- lest you think this was an isolated incident.

The second example of political science last month saw the Greenhoax industry once again dispute facts with their fantasy.

Satellite data has long been a problem for the Greenhoax movement because, because while Greenhoax theories state that the world should have warmed considerably, satellite data shows it has in fact cooling been cooling since 1979. This is no small problem for Greenhoaxers, leading some to flip flop several times trying to explain away those results with ever increasingly unsupportable theories.

Dr. Frank Wentz, among other authors, attempted to come to the rescue with the lyrically titled "On the Discrepancy Between Observed in Site Surface Warming and the Cooling Trend in MSU Tropospheric Temperatures."

Wentz, et al, submitted this piece -- which argued that orbital decay was responsible for the results provided by satellites, thereby proving the Greenhoax theory correct -- on February 23, 1998 to the journal Nature. Incredibly, the article managed to pass the peer review process in a mere ten days, something that normally takes months. To put it another way, the average fourth year student gets a more rigorous testing during their thesis process then did this major study.

There's more to the story, however. Before the "peer review" had even taken place, the unpublished paper was passed around government circles, pro-Greenhoax scientists and politicians, giving them an early line of attack against opponents of the Kyoto agreement. Only after the paper had widely been passed around did the authors of the study ask people to respect the pre-publication embargo, avoiding any potential public criticism but still influencing public policy.

What Wentz, U.S. politicians, and Nature had done was basically send a message to the U.S. Senate to pass the Kyoto agreement or face serious attack by the "scientific establishment."

It would be Pollyannaish to dismiss these two incidents as isolated. Some scientists, in an attempt to protect their government funding, grants, theories or stature, have played fast and loose with data for years. For example, in a study released several years ago, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration lowered thresholds of certainty to create a link between passive smoke and cancer, using less strenuous methodology than one would find in a first year university statistics class.

Readers should be awake to several very important lessons from these attempts to subvert the political process with lies. The first is the danger of government funded science. Admittedly some scientific avenues pursued by the government are better than others, but funding which leaves scientists hooked on proving the pet theories of their political masters is funding which no longer goes to seeking truth. The Clinton government has not been afraid to quietly issue dictates to government scientists to prove theories which often conflict with the facts. Is second hand smoke a danger? The preponderance of the evidence suggests that it is not as serious a health problem as the Clinton administration would have you believe, but their scientists would never say so.

The government funding political science is no less different then the government funding of cultural programming.

The second lesson is a healthy dose of caution. When it comes to scientific claims by both sides, one must not leave a mind too open. As science progresses and the claims become ever more complex, we have to make sure that we do not accept claims which fit neatly into our agendas, otherwise we make the same mistakes as the Greenhoaxers and Health Nazis do.

Finally, organizations should realize that carrying out public (and political) campaigns based on little or flawed evidence is inherently dangerous. It weakens respect for any scientist who would make a claim based on data and impugns the entire profession.

For more information on these and other examples of junk science, visit the following sites:

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