Commentary

Chilling Science at the Science Committee

By Michael Gough
January 14, 1997

In disagreements about environmental regulations, each side claims it has science on its side. When the Democrats controlled Congress, they arranged the hearings, loaded the witness lists with experts who endorsed their points of view, and scheduled opposing scientists at the end of hearings when news crews had departed. Those days are gone, but the former chairman of the House Science Committee, Rep. George Brown (D-CA) has rolled out new tactics to preserve the politics-dominated interpretation of science used to underpin the country’s regulations of greenhouse gases, airborne pollutants and toxic substances. He dismisses scientists who disagree with his interpretations as “skeptical” and “fringe.”

Two weeks before the 1996 election, Mr. Brown issued a report, “Environmental Science under Siege: Fringe Science and the 104th Congress,” that tars several individuals as “fringe scientists,” and he included me because of testimony I presented before the House Committee on Science about the Environmental Protection Agency’s “dioxin reassessment.” The EPA’s $6 million, four-years-in-the-making reassessment claims that current exposures to dioxin are dangerously high and may be causing diseases in humans. It’s the sort of self-serving conclusion that can be expected from the EPA, and the Democrats or at least Mr. Brown, accept it.

Scientists don’t. My testimony quoted or paraphrased the congressionally established Science Advisory Board’s review of the EPA’s reassessment. The SAB did not equivocate: “Almost all of the Members of the [SAB] Committee conclude that the [EPA] presentation … is not balanced … with a tendency to overstate the possibility for danger.” And, “The Committee’s consensus is that chloracne [a skin disease seen only in highly exposed chemical workers] is the only [emphasis in original] lesion of note clearly established as being related to … [dioxin] exposure.” The SAB-identified flaws pose significant problems for the EPA. Nineteen months have passed since SAB’s resounding rejection, and the EPA has already missed several scheduled dates for release of a redraft.

Perhaps as well as any member of Congress, Mr. Brown knows the SAB and its role, and I cannot believe that he would reject its conclusions as fringe science. Instead, I suspect the report issued over his signature was put together by congressional staff wedded to the EPA’s views of environmental policy and ignorant of science and scientific review.

Regardless of its authors, the report’s castigation of anyone as a fringe scientist serves two functions. It is an attempt to discredit that person’s opinions, and it is a warning to other scientists that a similar smear awaits them if they disagree with the EPA’s interpretation of science or the agency’s Democratic allies. Directed at me, the slur has little effect. During the last 17 years, I directed the congressional Office of Technology Assessment’s oversight of federal research on the alleged health effects of dioxin-containing Agent Orange, wrote a book about those issues, chaired Veterans Administration and Department of Health and Human Services advisory committees, published articles about dioxin in the scientific literature, and served on the SAB dioxin review committee. Those credentials are adequate defense against the charge of being on the fringe. But the effects on younger scientists just establishing themselves or whose employment or research support depends on federal funding are easily imagined.

The Democrats and the EPA have much to gain if these tactics prevail. They could stem the scientific tide that has washed away some of the EPA’s policy-dominated interpretations of science. The EPA said that asbestos-containing building materials in schools threatened our children. The skeptics said that the asbestos didn’t get into the air and presented no risk. Years later after untold millions had been spent, the EPA agreed. The EPA says indoor radon causes a significant proportion of lung cancer. Study after study has failed to demonstrate a relationship. The EPA said electromagnetic fields cause brain tumors in children. The National Academy of Sciences says they don’t. Had it not been for scientists who opened themselves to charges of “skeptic” and “fringe” on those issues, EPA policy would have burdened society with even more costly and ineffective regulatory programs than it has already.

Mr. Brown acknowledges that skepticism plays a major and positive role in science, but he says, “The scientists we refer to as ‘skeptics’ are those who have taken a highly visible public role … through publications and statements addressed more to the media and the public than to the scientific community.” That reminds me of some discussions of the First Amendment: “I’m in favor of free speech. Up to a point.” Scientific skepticism is good. Up to a point. The media and the public are entitled to scientific skepticism, up to a point.

There are plenty of scientific disagreements and controversies that need resolution. Mr. Brown’s report does not move us in that direction. Coming from a congressional champion of science, it represents an unfortunate escalation in name-calling and a wet blanket thrown over the openness and skepticism that are essential if science is to play a role in public policy.

Michael Gough is director of science and risk studies at the Cato Institute.