by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif.
August 19, 2004
HOW THE YALE MEN FLUNKED SCIENCE
LOS ANGELES -- Well, President George W. Bush said something Thursday we ought to agree with, even if it wins the prize for the best ironic self-parody in an election year: "We need to keep facts, not politics, at the center of the debate."
The president was in Las Vegas on August 12, and in this instance was defending his position on the proposed nuclear waste storage site at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. The multibillion dollar project is intended to provide a repository for spent waste from atomic power plants all around the U.S., which currently are forced to store their spent fuel rods onsite.
As told by Las Vegas Sun reporter Kirsten Searer, Bush went on to say, "When I campaigned here, I said I would make a decision based upon science, not politics." The report continues, "I said I would listen to the scientists, those involved with determining whether or not this project could move forward in a safe manner. And that's exactly what I did."
Perhaps coincidentally, presidential candidate John Kerry was also in Las Vegas on the same day last week, and in the same Friday, August 13, 2004 edition of the Sun, columnist Jeff German wrote an opinion piece, captioned "Kerry has guts to stop nuke waste." The gist is revealed by two brief excerpts: "With Gov. Kenny Guinn and other top Republicans at his side, Bush offered no reassurance in a televised speech that he would stop sending the deadliest substance known to man our way. ... Kerry, on the other hand, whether chatting with local officials at a small town hall meeting or preaching to an overflowing crowd of an estimated 15,000 supporters at the Thomas & Mack Center, stepped up his tough anti-Yucca Mountain talk."
The junction of politics, science and journalism is represented in microcosm here, and the picture isn't pretty.
Let's be clear by what I mean by the word "science." In this case, it really means two different things, and the distinction is important in understanding how politicians and the media use, abuse, and misuse the term.
Working scientists tend to use the term to represent the process, that is to say, the established method for determining physical truths. It involves the careful design of studies, the collection of data and the critical evaluation of data and theory. In one sense, it is an attitude, the obsession with being truthful, whether or not we happen to like the conclusions our studies lead us to.
The other more prosaic use of the word science refers not to the process but to the body of knowledge and understanding that has been amassed over the years. It is the payoff our civilization has gained through use of that scientific process.
A scientist who is called on to evaluate the geological stability of the Yucca Mountain site may not have personally discovered the geological information he takes into consideration, but still can be competent to the task. If he understands the established theories and has the local geological data available, he or others like him can evaluate the location and predict to the best extent possible the likelihood that it will remain unsullied by earthquakes, cave-ins or floods in the future.
So President Bush is willing to trust to science to untangle the issues regarding whether power plant waste should be stored at Yucca Mountain. I find it wonderful. Perhaps this separates me from the more ideology-bound liberals and environmentalists, but the essence of science requires us to be as unconstrained by ideology as is humanly possible. To put it more bluntly, the scientific attitude is to let the facts lead us to our conclusions rather than vice versa.
And that is of course the crux when it comes to use of science by politicians and the media. For the most part they get it exactly upside down: Ideology generates the official position, and the facts are cherry-picked to match the desired result.
The proof? The marriage of opportunism between columnist Jeff German and candidate John Kerry is the liberal side of the coin. Things nuclear are automatically taken as bad on the anti-technology side of the left wing.
In my home state, Sen. Barbara Boxer and former Gov. Gray Davis made political capital by opposing the construction of a low level radioactive waste facility at Ward Valley, Calif. It was a location that had been nominated by leading environmentalist leaders. It had been studied to the heights and the depths by every scientific discipline under the desert sun. None of this mattered in the calculus of political opportunism.
Over on the right wing, the ozone question reigned supreme for a while (before global warming became the bigger issue). The facts are simple and now uncontrovertible: Certain chemicals of the chlorofluorocarbon class (ie: compounds containing chlorine, fluorine and carbon atoms) result in loss of ozone in the upper atmosphere. This results in higher levels of ultraviolet radiation reaching the surface of the earth, including the earth's oceans. The damage is not only to our own skins but to other forms of life.
The effect is independent of our social policies and political ideologies -- the chemical reaction goes on whether the compounds are made by capitalists or socialists. But the cure, which involves refraining from manufacturing and using such compounds, is economically inconvenient if you happen to own the factory.
To the scientist, the issue is simple. Do these compounds have an ozone depleting effect, or don't they? A lab in Siberia or a lab in Beijing was fully capable of repeating the experiments done in Irvine, Calif. and the scientists in those labs were fully capable of understanding the theory that explained ozone depletion.
It is truly sad and a little depressing to note that the American people were fed a steady diet of pseudo science and misinformation on this subject by the right wing media for several years, calling into question what had become well established scientific fact. In the political realm, the misinformation was repeated by so-called conservatives.
Even so, international treaties have been working to lessen the ozone loss. The upper atmosphere is slowly curing itself as the chlorofluorocarbons break down into their component parts -- all this in spite of the deceptions of politicians repeated uncritically in the media.
There are two larger principles that ought to be considered. The first seems obvious but is lost on the political class: You don't deserve to call on science if you only use it once in a while to support one position, but ignore it otherwise. President Bush has been AWOL when it comes to supporting the scientific fact of evolution and has been less than forthcoming about the legitimate concerns over carbon-dioxide induced global warming. This is the side of the word "science" that refers to honesty in depth.
For the Kerry's and the Boxers of the world, the defense of stem cell research is nice but also rings a little hollow in the face of their antinuclear opportunism.
The other issue is for the media. Energy questions have to be considered in terms of the worldwide supply and demand not just of one form, but taken all together. It is a domain which includes petroleum, coal, nuclear, solar and all manner of alternative fuels.
In reality, every available and predicted technology has costs, risks and benefits. For example, solar electric power, that holy of holies among the enviros, involves constructing and mounting vast acreages of solar collectors, an electric grid to be laid and mountains of silicon (or other) to be mined, processed and formed into usable collectors.
Taken in this perspective, the risks associated with building and running one nuclear power plant should be considered in comparison to the overall lifetime costs and hazards associated with installing and servicing perhaps 100 million square feet of solar panels (at the minimum). That is a lot of square feet. How many construction workers would be injured or killed in building and maintaining such an array? How many acres of otherwise useful land area would be rendered sterile to provide the space?
But when was the last time any of us read anything in a newspaper which involved this calculation?
We have been asked how many wars we will have to fight to provide petroleum, or how many lungs will be destroyed to provide coal. Viewed in this light, the answers about which energy sources are better than others are not so obvious.
In the absence of careful calculations as to costs, risks and recoveries, it is silly to point to the risks associated with storing spent nuclear fuel rods while ignoring all other risks, and the remark by the columnist in question about "the deadliest substance known to man" is scientifically illiterate.
It is a quantitative scientific question, at least in part, as to how to proceed along our energy future, and the media have largely been ignoring it, instead running political horse-race stories. Kerry hopes to win Nevada by pandering to the nuclear panic while Bush is caught in his newly invented image of consistency, while the media allow it.
It is the responsibility of the serious media to make these points clear to the public, but for that week in Las Vegas, the result was less than edifying.