Restoring Objectivity--The REAL Battle Progressives Are Waging

by: Paul Rosenberg

Sun Nov 30, 2008 at 14:12

An article in yesterday's Washington Post, "EPA, Interior Dept. Chiefs Will Be Busy Erasing Bush's Mark" is not really news for anyone paying attention the last 8 years:

Few federal agencies are expected to undergo as radical a transformation under President-elect Barack Obama as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department, which have been at the epicenter of many of the Bush administration's most intense scientific and environmental controversies....

In June 2007, Obama told reporters in Reno, Nev., that he would not hesitate to reverse many of the environmental policies Bush has enacted by executive order.

"I think the slow chipping away against clean air and clean water has been deeply disturbing," Obama added. "Much of it hasn't gone through Congress. It was done by fiat. That is something that can be changed by an administration, in part by reinvigorating the EPA, which has been demoralized."

But it hardly gets to the heart of the matter: What we have here are not just policy differences, which the Bush Administration dealt with by playing keep-away from Congress and the American people.  What we have is a radical break with both past precedent and reality-based sound scientific practice--not to mention the statutory purpose of the agencies involved.

In fact, the proper lens for viewing the Bush legacy at EPA and Interior is the same one laid out by Henry Waxman's staff back in August 2003, in the report Politics and Science in the Bush Administration, which is well worth recalling now, as it says so much about the entirety of the Bush Administration, and the conservative movement more generally.  It's not "ideology" that's the problem here--it's ideology that is staunchly opposed to truth, integrity and openness.

Paul Rosenberg :: Restoring Objectivity--The REAL Battle Progressives Are Waging
The report identified over twenty specific scientific issues that were affected, including abstinence education, condom use, global warming, missile defense, wetlands policy, HIV/AIDS, agricultural pollution, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, environmental health, lead poisoning, oil and gas exploration, prescription drug advertising, stem cells, substance abuse, drinking water, women's health, workplace safety, and Yellowstone National Park. It went beyond a case-by-case review to identify "three principal ways in which the Bush Administration has pursued its agenda: by manipulating scientific advisory committees, by distorting and suppressing scientific information, and by interfering with scientific research and analysis."  In turn, it went on to break these three broad practices down into more specific strategies.  In outline form, these were:

Manipulating Scientific Advisory Committees

  • Appointing Unqualified Persons with Industry Ties.
  • Appointing Unqualified Persons with Ideological Agendas.
  • Stacking Advisory Committees.
  • Opposing Qualified Experts.

Distorting and Suppressing Scientific Information

  • Including Misleading Information in Presidential Communications.
  • Presenting Incomplete and Inaccurate Information to Congress.
  • Altering Web Sites.
  • Suppressing Agency Reports.

Interfering with Scientific Research

  • Scrutinizing Ongoing Research [Based On Ideology]
  • Obstructing Agency Analyses.
  • Undermining Outcome Assessment.  
  • Blocking Scientific Publication.

Just to drill down a bit, let's take the examples of "Appointing Unqualified Persons with Ideological Agendas" and "Stacking Advisory Committees" and look at what the report has to say about them.  First off, regarding the overall practice they fall under, the report states:

Manipulating Scientific Advisory Committees

Scientific advisory committees assure that the government hears from the nation's top experts in a particular field before creating policy in that area. The Federal Advisory Committee Act requires that such committees be "fairly balanced in terms of the points of view represented" and requires that advice and recommendations "not be inappropriately influenced by the appointing authority or by any special interest." The Bush Administration, however, has repeatedly manipulated the advisory committee process to advance its political and ideological agenda.

So, there's already leeway for each Administration to have some impact on the scientific advisory process, but not to the point of compromising a basic level of soundness and reliability. Clearly, that wasn't good enough for Bush.  As with invading Iraq, reality-based conservatism just doesn't take you far enough:

Appointing Unqualified Persons with Ideological Agendas.
The Department of Health and Human Services nominated as chair of the FDA's Reproductive Health Drug Advisory Committee an anti-abortion activist who recommends that women read the bible for relief of premenstrual symptoms. The appointee's principal credential appears to be his opposition to the abortifacient RU-486. The medical journal Lancet described his scientific record as "sparse" and wrote that "[a]ny further right-wing incursions on expert panels' membership will cause a terminal decline in public trust in the advice of scientists."

And, of course, for the crazies to have a free hand, the reality-based "obstructionists" have to be gotten rid of:

Stacking Advisory Committees
The Department of Health and Human Services replaced 15 of 18 members of the key advisory committee to the National Center on Environmental Health. Several of the new members were long-time industry consultants. In response, ten leading scientists wrote in Science that "stacking these public committees out of fear that they may offer advice that conflicts with administration policies devalues the entire federal advisory committee structure and the work of dedicated scientists who are willing to participate in these efforts."

The report first introduces this framework, outlining the types of strategies used by the Bush Administration--each with an example--and then proceeds to a discussion of the different issue areas covered. This approach reveals both the overall set of strategies employed to undermine the impact of reality-based sound science on policy-making, and the ways in which those strategies were brought to bear in a substantial number of specific cases.

The Larger Pattern

Now, given that this is how the Bush Administration acted across a wide range of policy areas, with a "pattern and practice" (as they say in the trade) of twisting "science" to fit the policy goals, and given that the Downing Street Memo recorded the observation that in the run-up to the Iraq War, "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy," it should not be too hard to conclude that the exact same strategy of corrupting the advisory process was in place all across the boards.

Indeed, this is precisely what the more extended record shows with respect to going to war with Iraq, as well as with the corruption of the Department of Justice: Qualified professionals were shunted aside, their judgments were marginalized, if not suppressed entirely, their places were taken by or reports re-written by ideological hacks, lacking in proper qualifications for the posts they held.

This is, quite simply, the grand story of the Bush Administration, and how it operated.  And not only that, it is the grand story of movement conservatism over the past 40 years, as well.   This can be clearly seen in the prototypical example of the Overton Window--the strategic device for tracking long-term shifts in public opinion.  That example is expressed thus:

One useful tool is the Overton window. Named after the former vice president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy who developed the model, it's a means of visualizing where to go, and how to assess progress. Let's say, for example, that you want to make education as free and choice-based as it can possibly be. Let's start by developing a continuum of educational states, from the desired extreme of total freedom, to the undesirable extreme of total statism. It might look something like this:
--No government involvement in education.
--All schools private with government regulation.
--Voucher system with public schools.
--Tuition tax credit with public schools.
--Homeschooling legal.
--Private schools restricted.
--Homeschooling illegal.
--Private schools illegal.
--Children taken from parents and raised as janissaries.

The explanation then proceeds to a discussion of how the range of acceptable options is shifted over time.

The key point here for our current discussion is that this entire focus on educational policy has nothing to do with actual educational policy.  There is no discussion of actual educational practices, resources, problems or outcomes.  It is a purely ideological approach, solely concerned with undermining public education, with no empirical relationship whatsoever with the actual process of education.

The deep motivations here are not hard to discern.  Public education has been one of the primary means by which society was able to escape from the control of aristocratic, anti-democratic, conservative/reactionary elites.  Rolling back public education is therefore to key to rolling back that process. Starving public education, depriving ordinary citizens of educational opportunity, and shifting education to private settings, with curricula under the private control of wealthy elites all serve that long-term agenda of re-establishing uncontested elite control of society.  Of course, this is not the substance of the policy arguments.  But it is, objectively, what the end state of the process would be, if government finally were completely excluded from education.

While libertarian conservatives can readily put together this kind of fact-free ideological agenda, there is no leftwing counterpart, despite centrist rhetoric to the contrary.  Indeed, the absurdity of the extreme of "Children taken from parents and raised as janissaries" is a good indication that there is no actual opposite ideological extreme to what the rightwing ideologues have in mind.

So-called "left-wing ideologues" might advocate for multi-cultural education, but, then, that's increasingly what affluent parents of all sorts want for their children, given the trends of global interconnectedness, and the kind of world they expect their children to live in.  Or they might advocate for universal, enriched pre-school education.  But, again, they would hardly be alone in this: the long-term cost/benefit ratios of investing in early education make this a policy with broad political appeal.  In short, there simply isn't a left-wing counterpart to rightwing ideological goal reflected in the Overton Window example on education.

This example need not be universal. There might be some issues on which there really is a leftwing ideological position or goal that is held onto despite having no relationship to empirical evidence regarding the fundamental issue at hand.  But the simple fact that there is at least one such issue in which this is not the case has tremendous importance--it means that we cannot simply assume that progressives are in thrall to some sort of fact-free ideological agenda.  We have to actually examine what people are arguing for and against.  Horrors!  What an awful lot of work that is!  Wouldn't it just be easier to sneer at them and call them names?


That is the "sensible", "grownup" Versailles consensus in a nutshell.  And fighting against that is the main battle that we have before us right now--not instead of this or that policy battle, over global warming or universal health care or withdrawal from Iraq or anything else, but in parallel to all those specific battles.  Because as long as the myth of an irrational, insatiable ideological left persists--a left that's the mirror image of the actually existing right--then that myth will be a potent hobgoblin for derailing serious substantive debate, in ways both subtle and gross.

What we on the left are actually fighting for at this point is simply a return to reason and evidence in the formation of policy, and accountability and the rule of law in the process of governance.

These are, in a nutshell, the fundamental "ideological", "unreasonable", "purist" demands that Versailles insists must be automatically off the table, no iffs ands or buts.

But they are, in fact, nothing more or less than the absolute minimum for actually rolling back the disasters of the Bush years, and providing reasonable assurances that that excess of reckless lawlessness will not easily return again.

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Pragmatism (0.00 / 0)
What I understand about pragmatism is that it's an acknowledgment of perspectives and an agreement on some version of "truth."

When conversation is blocked, then pragmatists are blocked out.

I saw this, in your examples, in the Bush administration regarding science.

I saw this from the Democrats this year in a lack of explanation, truthfully, regarding the Democratic Party SD system.  It never was about popular vote.  That information was "blocked" from discussion by insiders.

So this business of pragmatism is truly an ideal.  Those who are dedicated will also open discussion, even if the summation is that their opinion loses.  

Those who don't risk that....aren't pragmatists.

I haven't seen a huge amount of evidence that Obama is a pragmatist.

Definitely, not Bush.

They seem more alike than different in this respect.

Yes, But... (0.00 / 0)
You are idealizing this, to a certain extent.  It would be nice if folks were willing to risk so much, but generally they are not, and it's not realistic or pragmatic to expect them to do so.

Which is why we have notions like checks and balances, separation of powers, etc.  To set up incentive structures and limations that will tend to move folks more in this ideal direction than they otherwise would.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Excellent post (4.00 / 4)
Because as long as the myth of an irrational, insatiable ideological left persists--a left that's the mirror image of the actually existing right--then that myth will be a potent hobgoblin for derailing serious substantive debate, in ways both subtle and gross.

What we on the left are actually fighting for at this point is simply a return to reason and evidence in the formation of policy, and accountability and the rule of law in the process of governance.

Many Democrats have bought into the myth about an irrational, insatiable ideological left. Certainly there are a few "leftists" who could be described this way, but they are a tiny, tiny minority. Most people who consider themselves to be progressive are extremely rational and reality-based, willing to consider arguments for and against every proposal. They are not lock-step ideological cultists.

Comprehensive, in depth and timely. (4.00 / 1)
I admire this post. Once again it needs to be forwarded. I do not mean to imply that the right people don't read this site, thats not the point. We are involved in a wide ranging re-imagining of government and society. It is widely understood that the Reagan revolution, and all conservative policies since have failed the American people and the world. It is widely understood that we need to do different things to correct for that set of values, and the damage they caused.

We need the widest possible discussion of what damage was done, as Paul has laid out so well, and what needs to be done not just to correct the problems (ie repair the bridges) but also what we should have been doing (ie building mass transit) and where we need to go next (sustainable energy for one) but that needs discussion and discovery.

We don't know all of it, not by a long shot. We need to excise a lot of assumptions, pack in a lot of new information and then restructure a great number of the things we think we know.

Just knowing what screens were erected to hide information, what roadblocks were put in place to prevent action, what pseudo-philosophical constructs were invented isn't enough. We need study, discussion and open minds, not just for the next 2 years or four, but 10 20 and 30 years.

So you've read the article, send to people you respect to discuss it with.

Lets get back to guest bloggers too.


The government has a defect: it's potentially democratic. Corporations have no defect: they're pure tyrannies. -Chomsky

Thanks! (0.00 / 0)
I couldn't ask for a nicer comment. What you see in it is exactly my intent.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Amen! (0.00 / 0)
Although I'm very much a centrist on many social and economic issues, I am in complete agreement with your article on breathing again regarding objectivity in government and how that relates to science.  The most disturbing aspect of the past 8 years has been the group think process that has denied scientists the right to voice their actual work and findings.

I, too, am relieved.


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