Thursday July 15, 2004
Â· Pointing out that the current American government is manipulative, deceitful and interventionist is hardly news: although it hadn’t occurred to naive little me that it’d started meddling in science. The Bush administration has decreed that the World Health Organisation must clear US government-funded researchers with the health and human sciences department, before they can speak at conferences. Nice. The editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, the largest US academic journal, has already criticised the ban on authors of papers on Aids going to conferences, talking about their work and sharing knowledge, just because they have ideas counter to the Bush administration.
Â· The man who decides who can speak is William Steiger. His qualifications are a PhD in Latin American history and having George Bush Snr as godfather. He was behind the attack on WHO’s reasonable suggestion that no more than 10% of people’s energy intake should come from sugar: he said there was no supporting scientific evidence. The US has a 25% guideline. That’s a quarter of your dietary intake of energy “safely” coming from pure sugar.
Â· It gets worse. The American “Union of Concerned Scientists” has collected the signatures of dozens of Nobel prizewinners, in protest at government interference in “independent scientific review panels”. You can read the full report at www.ucsusa.org, but it’s pretty depressing. It includes examples of the Bush administration blocking research and twisting evidence on issues as diverse as safe levels in lead poisoning, the environmental impact of mining, farming, drug abuse and patterns of infectious diseases. It’s practically impossible to research a lot of these things without being part of government infrastructure.
Â· Funny things happen when political ideologies start interfering with science. Trofim Lysenko was the top Soviet biologist for decades: he thought natural selection was too individualistic, and spent his career growing plants really close together, in the hope they would develop collectivist tendencies. Challenge him and you were out of a job. Governments that interfere with science, with the lies of alternative therapists, the fluff of cosmetics adverts, and childish dramatisations of science stories in the news, all contribute to the popular impression that it is nonsense concocted by boffins pursuing their own peculiar agendas. And that’s bad.