A turning tide on junk science
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Bay Windows
July 26, 2007

RICHARD J. ROSENDALL

A turning tide on junk science


The tide is beginning to turn against the Republican Party’s war on science. This is good news to the LGBT community, which has so often been its target.

One example close to home is James W. Holsinger Jr., President Bush’s nominee for surgeon general, who has had to distance himself from a 1991 paper he wrote on homosexuality and health. The Kentucky cardiologist now calls some of the paper’s statements outdated, but as Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) pointed out on July 12, the paper was inaccurate when Holsinger wrote it.

“Dr. Holsinger’s paper cherry-picks and misuses data to support his thesis that homosexuality is unhealthy and unnatural,” Kennedy said. “For example, a disproportionate amount of the data Dr. Holsinger relies on in his paper is pulled from emergency room and trauma studies—which are not at all representative of the homosexual population as a whole.”

As Bay Windows recently reported, Holsinger’s backtracking prompted denunciations from homophobes like Peter LaBarbera of the inaptly named Americans for Truth. The attacks from all sides put Holsinger in a bind similar to that of fading presidential candidate John McCain, whose moderate stances on immigration and campaign finance alienate conservatives while his hawkishness on Iraq alienates everyone else.

Another example is public funding for needle exchange programs in the District of Columbia. On June 28, Congress defeated an amendment to the 2008 D.C. Appropriations bill which would have continued blocking D.C. from spending its own funds on needle exchange to combat a major source of HIV infections. Those who pushed the prohibition year after year, led by Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-KS) and Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN), were unmoved by the numerous studies showing that clean needle exchange decreases HIV infection without increasing drug abuse. But elections have consequences, and the prohibitionists have finally fallen short.

Republican policymaking is founded on falsehoods with amazing frequency. There is growing evidence, to cite another example, that Bush’s highly touted abstinence-only education program does not deter teen sex. This is hardly shocking news. Of course, the abstinence-until-marriage message utterly ignores gay and lesbian teens, who are offered no prospect of marriage. As Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) said in 2005, “I don’t think this debate should be about ideology, it should be about facts and evidence—we have to deal with the choices young people make, not just the choice we wish they would make. We should use all the resources at our disposal to ensure that teens are getting the information they need to make the right decision.”

Alas, unfettered information is not a hallmark of this president. A typical ploy of the pseudoscientists among his political base is to manufacture a bogus controversy and then insist that public schools should “teach the controversy.” The demands for equal time for “intelligent design” and “reparative therapy” are not just an attempt to cloak the establishment of religion in the garb of science or victimhood politics. They are part of an assault on the scientific method in service of partisan gain.

A mark of the hubris of Bush and his allies is that they extend their “we know best” coerciveness even to shackling and steering the free and open exchange of ideas within specialized disciplines that has fueled five centuries of human progress. But the “intelligent design” fraud will fare no better than “creation science,” and the spectacle of prominent “ex-gays” reverting to their old ways has long since passed beyond embarrassment into farce.

To be sure, science by itself cannot dictate policy, and moral concerns about the application of science are a legitimate part of public policy debates; but the Bush Administration has gone beyond policy disagreements to censor and alter scientific reports to serve Bush’s political interests. Such ham-fisted meddling undermines American leadership in the sciences and the resulting technology.

Two years ago, Brian Alexander wrote in Wired, “It’s not really the Republicans—as a whole party—who have made war on science. It’s the odd, far-right coalition of Christian fundamentalists, CEOs and anti-eco zealots who have come to dominate the party’s electoral politics. There was a time when trust-busting environmentalist Theodore Roosevelt was a Republican.”

As the American Civil Liberties Union documented in its 2005 report, “Science Under Siege,” Bush has pursued his assault on scientific inquiry not only in service of religious and business interests but in the name of national security. This ruse has worn thin as a misguided and mismanaged war has dragged on along with self-defeating security policies that include overclassification of information, exclusion of foreign students and scholars from research projects, and restrictions on materials commonly used in basic research.

The repeated backfiring of Republicans’ misuse of science plants a seed of hope that a chastened GOP may eventually renounce its know-nothingism. In the meantime, the two-party system, for all its flaws, works its rough wisdom.

In an open society, the hard truth can only be staved off for so long. The main reason that the anti-gay slanders fail to take hold is that they just don’t work. The science supporting them is not merely offensive, it is demonstrably false. Like the old Soviet economy, it was built to fail.

Preserving our nation’s vitality requires that we believe in America’s founding values enough to uphold them even—or especially—in wartime. Gay equality is gradually winning because those same values, and our own humanity, compel us to stand up and fight.


Copyright © 2007 by Richard J. Rosendall. All rights reserved.