Not a Geologist

We all have our favorite Bushisms, the top one-liners uttered by our recently reinaugurated president that seem to summarize his view of the world. For some, it's George W. Bush's "axis of evil" line. For others, it's his "Wanted, Dead or Alive" remark about Osama bin Laden (a comment that even Bush now regrets).

For me, it's, "I am not a geologist, as you know."

The line came on December 29, 2004, after the president finally roused himself to say something about the Asian tsunami disaster. A journalist asked Bush whether the United States had a "mechanism in place" to warn about tsunamis. Bush said it was a "very legitimate" question but that he'd have to look into it. “I think our location in the world is such that we may be less vulnerable than other parts,” he began -- but then explained that he lacked the requisite scientific expertise to discuss such matters.

Dear President Bush: Americans don't want you to be a geologist. We only want you to talk to geologists when it becomes necessary for your job. In fact, as a general matter, we would prefer in the future that you consult relevant experts before you go before the cameras -- and (this is the tricky part) even before you decide on your policies.

Unfortunately, Bush's party has a long tradition of disregarding expertise, which often goes hand-in-hand with putting policy decisions ahead of the science. President Ronald Reagan, in pushing his implausible "Star Wars" program, didn't "care about wavelengths" according to his science adviser. The Gingrich Republicans, high on their newfound power in 1995 and eager to cut budgets, dismantled their own Office of Technology Assessment and seriously proposed doing away with the U.S. Geological Survey (which showed its value during the tsunami crisis). At the time, President Bill Clinton's secretary of the interior, Bruce Babbitt, lashed back, "We live with a rugged, restless earth, an earth created by volcanic and seismic activity. To me, it is incomprehensible that the agency which studies these activities is on the hit list."

Perhaps more than anything else, Bush's "I am not a geologist" line calls to mind his famous August 9, 2001, speech on embryonic stem-cell research. In both cases, the president emerged from his vacation in Crawford to address the nation and promptly let on that he hadn't studied up enough.

On the stem-cell issue, Bush said that he made his decision -- to limit federal research funding -- with "great care"; but it soon became clear that his claim (that "more than 60" embryonic stem-cell lines would be available to scientists) was just plain wrong. Even today, the National Institutes of Health only
lists 22 available lines; and, from a research standpoint, these lines have serious shortcomings of their own. Meanwhile, if the other lines haven't become available in the more than three years after Bush's initial promise, they probably won't emerge over the next four years either. In fact, the NIH has explicitly described a “best-case scenario” in which a maximum of 23 lines would be available.

But perhaps luckily for Bush -- who has seen Republicans defecting left and right over his restrictive stem-cell policy -- he may manage to avoid grappling with the issue during his next term. States have essentially bailed out the federal government in this hot area of biomedical research; California, with a $3 billion infusion of research funds, is the most dramatic example. While this role reversal allows science to progress and lessens the pressure on Bush to a large extent, it also leaves the illustrious NIH on the sidelines.

But if we have four more informationally challenged years ahead of us, there's little doubt that the greatest tensions will arise surrounding global climate change. This scientific, environmental, economic, and international mega-issue won't go away. Rather, in all likelihood, it will continue to rear its head as more evidence coalesces suggesting that global climate change is caused by humans.

Thus far, the administration's inclination has been to spin or to downplay each new, major study that shows that humans are destabilizing the climate -- frequently by selectively citing remaining scientific uncertainties rather than accepting what scientists know with confidence. But what will the administration do when the fourth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change -- the leading global body charged with weighing the evidence on this issue -- emerges, as scheduled, in 2007?

In each of its successive reports so far, the IPCC has grown more confident in the conclusion that humans are partly responsible for rising temperatures. If the fourth assessment also fits this pattern, the Bush administration's strategy of hyping uncertainties, as a way of ducking the core conclusion from the scientific community, will become still more untenable.

Of course, at the beginning of a new term, perhaps we shouldn't prejudge Bush on science. Maybe the tune will change and the 48 Nobel Laureates who opposed his reelection will simmer down. On the other hand, many of the special interests that thronged Washington for the inaugural bash -- and contributed a heck of a lot of money to it -- will now be seeking special dispensations from the administration, often relating to science-based areas of public policy. If the past provides any indication, they'll get them.

Chris Mooney is a Prospect senior correspondent whose weekly column will appear each Monday. His book on the politicization of science will be published later this year by Basic Books. His daily blog and other writings can be found at www.chriscmooney.com.

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