Politics and the English Language


Wending their way through the U.S. Congress now are several Republican-sponsored bills to reform the Endangered Species Act under the guise of "sound science." If you didn't know any better, you might think these laws would ensure the use of better analysis to preserve species. Instead, they set the scientific bar so high that federal agencies would have a hard time acting to protect vulnerable species, or even to list them as endangered in the first place.

The proposed legislation isn't the only place we've seen the deceptive phrase "sound science." It's been employed repeatedly by the Bush administration to brush off its critics on environmental issues ranging from climate change to drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve to the risks of arsenic in drinking water. The actual policies adopted by the administration on scientific issues-especially on climate change-rarely jibe with the consensus views of the scientific community. But the Bush advisers don't want the public to know that, hence the carefully confounding language. The fact that some people outside the administration still use the phrase "sound science" innocently, as if it actually means what it says, hardly helps matters.

What appears to have begun as a pro-industry campaign to undercut scientists now feeds talking points to the president and his spokespersons. The "sound science" concept was employed by Philip Morris in the early 1990s as part of a strategic push to discredit a scientific consensus on the health effects of secondhand smoke. More recently, it popped up in a notorious memo advising Republicans on how to talk about the environment [see Environmental Intelligence, page 8].

"Sound science" even has an antonym, "junk science," which broadens the whole Orwellian lexicon. "Junk science" isn't really used to describe poor, deficient, or fraudulent work; instead it appears to be a label attached to research that doesn't mesh with the pre-set views of regulated industries. According to a 2001 media analysis of uses of the phrase "junk science" published in Philosophy & Public Policy Quarterly, an overwhelming number of the uses occurred in the context of an "anti-regulatory message or admonition, asserting that a particular policy or regulatory perspective or program should be reversed or opposed because it is based upon junk science."

The people now following in the footsteps of Philip Morris are reading from the same cheat sheet. And it's one that has been crafted to obscure from the public both what it is that scientists actually know about contentious issues and what the Republican party's science-or anti-science-policies actually are. Scientists have grown increasingly outspoken, of late, in their warnings that the current administration abuses science in the formulation of policy. At this point, we have some 20 Nobel Laureates on one side of the fence and the "sound science" slogan on the other. Who are you going to trust?


Chris Mooney


Chris Mooney (www.chriscmooney.com) is writing a book about the Republican Party's war on science.