Unless your belief system doesn’t begrudge a millimeter of doubt, there is calm and order in science. Recently we learned that atoms can now be viewed through powerful microscopes. A scientist from Oak Ridge Labs described the scale of viewing an atom as the equivalent of looking at a penny from across the continent. Wow.
There is charm in science, too. Think of The Weather Channel, how you dependably are returned to your local weather on a blue screen, elevator music and animated signs in boxes to represent the coming days that are usually nothing out of the ordinary before returning to typhoons in Asia, tornadoes in Omaha and mayhem in Florida.
We live in a world where science and its benefits are so transparent, so ubiquitous, that it is easy to forget that without science we would live in a flat world where dogma determines the horizon.
Earlier this year, the nonpartisan Union of Concerned Scientists issued a scathing report that indicted how science has been manipulated by political appointees at regulatory agencies to serve the interests of lobbyists and special interests at the expense of public health and the environment.
The UCS report was followed in February by a letter to President Bush, signed by 20 Nobel laureates and some of the most distinguished scientists in America, asserting, “Across a broad range of policy areas, the administration has undermined the quality and independence of the scientific advisory system and the morale of the government’s outstanding scientific personnel.”
Take the undermining of Everglades restoration, for example. Science has established that the Everglades — which defines Florida and is an emblem of hope for restoring damaged ecosystems while meeting the demands of an exploding population and land speculators — ceases to function as God intended when phosphorous pollution flowing from wet sugar fields contaminates the Everglades in parts per billion.
In 2003, the Florida Legislature decided to alter the landmark agreement that settled years of contentious litigation with the federal government by fudging the date that sugar had sworn to comply with its prior agreement to stop pollution of the Everglades based on science — an example of what is meant by the new “ownership society.”
Jeb Bush appointee and former Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary David Struhs had assured the Legislature that federal agencies approved the changes, although this was subsequently shown to be false.
In a recent interview with National Public Radio’s syndicated program Living on Earth, Friends of the Everglades President David Reiner said, “We’re at a low as far as federal oversight of restoration and the environment in South Florida. It really can’t get worse than it is right now.”
Long ago, scientists established that the probable outcome to restore the Everglades is based on adequate spatial extent — that is, enough land on which to put a cleansing flow of fresh water according to the cycles of rainfall God provided. But government-sponsored science is organized to prove a predetermined outcome in the Everglades.
This year, as details of Everglades restoration were hammered out, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and South Florida Water Management District undermined a prior commitment by Congress to support independent science review. What emerged, finally, minimizes the scope and role of the National Academy of Sciences. And so the contractors will audit their own performance.
In the same NPR segment, former Everglades czar J. Allison DeFoor said that the “environmental community and the business community have forged a broad consensus on a lot — not all — but a lot of issues and have been able to move the ball dramatically as a result of that consensus.”
DeFoor did not offer details or explain the composition of the “broad consensus.”
The Nobel laureates, in their letter to the Bush White House, noted that an earlier president, George H.W. Bush, said in 1990, “Now, more than ever, on issues ranging from climate change to AIDS research to genetic engineering to food additives, government relies on the impartial perspective of science for guidance.”
That was then. Today, say a thing enough times by repetition, and any assertion can be held as fact.
It is a common mistake to believe that science is all about certainty. It is not. It is about providing tools for wise people to use to the fairest advantage for the most, so that comfort, happiness and security will conform to the best in a world of probable outcomes.
It is likely that science will someday show exactly how molecules of mercury pass from atmosphere to water to mother to unborn fetus and demonstrate how pollution we knew was a threat yet allowed to exist turned the thinking capacity of Americans into Styrofoam.
With one in six mothers now at risk for elevated mercury levels, we won’t need a microscope to tell us what happens next.
ALAN FARAGO, a longtime writer on the environment and politics, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.