Voodoo science

LAST YEAR, federal wildlife biologists were caught seeding the habitat they inventoried with lynx hair. Last week, Nature abashedly retracted a controversial article reporting that genetically modified corn had drifted into southern Mexico, where GM agriculture is forbidden. Such shenanigans fuel the perennial claims of interested industries that conservationists and researchers twist the science to suit the cause—and the unspoken view that science itself is just another rhetorical form to bend, fold, spindle, and mutilate whenever you can get away with it.

Not that the Bush league, who piously demand scientific certainty before taking environmental precautions, need any such provocation to cook the research books. When they don't like research results, they're quick to order a recount: First, change the science. If that doesn't work, change the scientists. Two weeks ago, Interior Secretary Gale Norton repudiated 12 years of department research that found that, lo and behold, oil "exploration" (i.e., drilling) in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge posed substantial risks to caribou and other wildlife. Its authors had 10 days to come up with the right results.

The next week, in an alarming move unnoted by the Seattle dailies, the administration proposed ousting Robert Watson from the chair of the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), whose 2,500 members keep telling the oilmen (inside and outside the White House) what they don't want to hear. Watson, a widely respected climate scientist, is also chief scientist of that notorious hotbed of eco-fanaticism, the World Bank. Last year, ExxonMobil asked Bush to replace Watson and other Clinton-era IPCC appointees with industry-friendly reps. Last week, the administration backed Rajendra K. Pachauri, an economist from coal-dependent India, for chairman.

Entrusting climate science to an economist sounds like entrusting health care to an accountant. Whoops, you say, your HMO already does that?


Perhaps the most egregious official attack on the facts is the Pentagon's decade-long campaign, with Boeing and other industry bedmates and abettors in various branches of government, to prove that national missile defense will work, when logic and test results keep showing that it won't. The Pentagon's response has been to misrepresent those results and, when exposed by whistle-blowers, to dumb down the tests by eliminating the (simple) decoys that fool its system, until it got the recent, meaningless "positive" results. The definitive dissection of this chicanery appears in the May Technology Review, www.technologyreview. com. (Disclosure: I occasionally write for that mag.) The author, an MIT physicist and former congressional military-technology analyst named Theodore Postol, has standing; he was pilloried, then praised, for calling bull on the bogus tallies of Iraqi Scuds shot down by Patriot missiles in 1991. He outlines a local (as opposed to intercontinental) missile defense that would actually stop launches by an isolated "rogue" threat like Iraq. It would cost much less than the current scheme's projected $200 billion and wouldn't threaten other powers with U.S. global supremacy—two big demerits in the current thinking.


Ordinarily, war is not healthy for environmental protection and other constructive things. But sometimes the goals may coincide. So at least the state, Makah, and Port Angeles governments hope; they've asked the feds for $1 million in post-Sept. 11 "Port Security" funds to keep a rescue tug stationed at Neah Bay to prevent shipwrecks and oil spills, on grounds that the 10,000 ships traversing the strait could invite other mischief. The state spends $1.5 million to deploy the tug through winter, but that tour ended this week, and Gov. Locke has warned that economic woes may "jeopardize state funding for 2002- 2003," despite a bipartisan commitment to sustain it.

While U.S. Senate Transportation Subcommittee chair Patty Murray, D-Wash., didn't endorse the use of Port Security funds, Murray spokesperson Todd Webster says she'd be "willing to secure federal funding for the tug if there's a long-term commitment from the state." Show me your money, and I'll show you mine. In Seattle last week, Murray broached another interesting idea. All ports pay a federal "harbor maintenance tax" to fund dredging. Puget Sound ports hate it because our deep waters don't need dredging. So why not change the rules to fund other maintenance—like spill protection?


Here it comes again, 22 years old on April 22: Earth Day, an idea first conceived when John F. Kennedy was president and inaugurated when Richard Nixon was. I'm usually Scroogish about such ballyhooed anniversaries and feel-good causes. But if ever the time is right for an Earth Day, it's now, under the most anti-Earth administration this nation has ever had (with the possible exception of Reagan), under a president who makes Nixon look like David Brower. And Seattle has a special claim, or obligation, to the occasion; it was here, in September 1969, that Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Gaylord Nelson announced the first upcoming Earth Day. That event's coordinator, Denis Hayes, now directs Seattle's Bullitt Foundation. Check www.earthday.net for local events—and whichever you attend, how 'bout leaving the car at home?


Eric Scigliano's environment column appears every other week.

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