Politics and science have become like oil and water: They just don’t mix. Consider these unfortunate examples:Politics and science have become like oil and water: They just don’t mix. Consider these unfortunate examples:
Women’s Voices for the Earth, the Alliance for a Healthy Tomorrow and the National Black Environmental Justice Network recently claimed that phthalates in nail polish cause cancer and birth defects. In response, cosmetics firms Estée Lauder and Procter & Gamble agreed to reformulate their nail polish. Eight other international companies have pledged to purge “poison chemicals” from their makeup lines.There’s no shortage of examples in which public policy has proved deadly when divorced from science.
The Bush administration in 2001 imposed a more stringent federal standard for arsenic in drinking water, reducing the allowable level from 50 parts per billion of tap water to 20 parts per billion. Water suppliers estimate the cost of compliance to be $604 million annually, after an initial investment of $5 billion.
The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality is proposing to declare 9,000 Midland properties hazardous waste sites because of the presence of dioxin in the soil. No study of actual human exposure to the dioxin in Midland’s soil has been undertaken. But of the 22 soil samples analyzed thus far, half actually measured below the state’s stringent safety standard of 90 parts per trillion, while 90 percent of the samples measured below the federal safety standard of 1,000 parts per trillion.
According to the American Chemistry Council, a woman could apply four and a half bottles of polish every day and still not exceed the exposure level at which laboratory animals experienced no ill effects.
According to the National Research Council, no human studies of sufficient statistical scope have examined whether the previous arsenic standard posed any health risk in drinking water. Moreover, the Environmental Protection Agency’s own Science Advisory Board concluded that any benefits from the new standard could be overridden by the impact of compliance costs, thereby leading to a net reduction in public health.
These are but three of a multitude of cases in which science has been sacrificed to unwarranted fears and short-term political self-interest. The economic impact can be severe, both in actual costs and in forgone opportunities. Perhaps more troubling is the disregard of science as an organizing principle. As history has so often shown, tyranny advances where rationality retreats.
This may sound unduly alarmist. But there’s no shortage of examples in which public policy has proved deadly when divorced from science. The federal government’s imposition of fuel-economy standards in 1975, for example, literally sacrificed American blood for oil. The reduction in automobile sizes necessary to comply with the standards increased highway fatalities by 2,000 to 4,000 annually. The United Nations ban on DDT, meanwhile, has increased deaths from malaria and West Nile Virus by the millions worldwide. And perfectly safe genetically modified foods are being withheld from starvation-plagued Africa as a “precautionary” measure.
Such tragedies are made possible in part by the tendency of policy makers to elevate their seemingly virtuous intentions over actual results. The vain belief in zero risk trumps scientific fact. Whether this is due to political expedience or to a radical agenda hardly matters, for the results are the same: public policies that ignore cause-and-effect, the bedrock of science.
This state of affairs is hardly surprising. The United States consistently ranks poorly in science education, besting only Cyprus and South Africa, for example, in 12th-grade achievement in the Third International Math and Science Study. Ours was one of the few countries, in fact, that registered a drop in the test rankings between 1995 and 1999.
A confluence of factors is responsible for the problem, but the media certainly play a major role. Newspapers and television programs consistently demonize chemicals and confer legitimacy upon even the most crackpot notions of risk.
To the extent attention and resources are diverted to phantom risks, the nation’s wealth goes wasted. Yet wealth is precisely what defines the difference between environmental well-being and ruin. Underdeveloped nations tend to be the most polluted. Economic progress and wealth creation enable investments in the environment that poverty renders inconceivable.
There is no simple remedy for a disregard for science. With Election Day approaching, however, citizens would do well to consider whether the candidates they choose would advance sound science or junk science in public policy.
Diane Katz is director of science, environment and technology policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and her affiliation are cited.