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Sound science isn't just a catch phrase—it's a real persuader

WASHINGTON—The Bush administration, senators, industrialists and farmers repeatedly invoke the term "sound science" to delay or deep-six policies they oppose and dismiss criticism of those they favor.

The administration has waved it at such diverse issues as global warming, beef imports, air pollution and arsenic in drinking water. Last Thursday, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta used the phrase to slow a congressional bid to raise the U.S. passenger vehicle mileage standard. "An administrative process based on sound science" should precede any change, Mineta said.

No one, however, is sure what "sound science" means.

The phrase has more to do with anti-regulatory lobbying than with laboratory results, said Donald Kennedy, the former head of the Food and Drug Administration and now the editor in chief of the influential magazine Science.

"Sound science is whatever somebody likes," Kennedy said. "It's essentially a politically useful term, but it doesn't have any normative meaning whatsoever. My science is sound science, and the science of my enemies is junk science."

The phrase has been on a roll since 1992, when lobbyists for the tobacco industry argued that no "sound science" showed that secondhand smoke is a health hazard.

Within a year, a group called "The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition"—backed by the Philip Morris company—was invoking "sound science" to oppose not only tobacco curbs but also regulation of hazardous industrial chemicals such as dioxin.

In a 2002 speech to the National Economists Club in Washington, John Graham, who designed the Bush administration's initiative to vet proposed federal regulations, called "sound science" the basis of his agency's reviews.

Graham, then President Bush's administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, said that would result in "a smart process (that) adopts new rules when market and local choices fail, modifies existing rules to make them more effective or less costly, and rescinds outmoded rules whose benefits no longer justify their costs."

The Bush administration has invoked "sound science" to:

_Douse concern about global warming by arguing that the human role in causing it is unproved. The National Academy of Sciences, the customary arbitrator of scientific disputes for the government, disagreed, finding ample evidence of fossil fuel pollution's role. On Wednesday, a panel created by the administration in 2002 confirmed some human influence over atmospheric temperatures. It's the first of 21 reviews due from the Climate Change Science Program.

_Challenge the Clinton administration's efforts to reduce the permissible level of arsenic in drinking water. Bush delayed the Environmental Protection Agency's effort in 2002, citing the need to "make a decision based on sound science." Eight months later, Bush let former President Clinton's arsenic regulations take effect.

_Block Canadian beef imports until "sound science," as Bush put it in 2004, proved that the beef presented no mad-cow disease hazard to U.S. consumers. When the shoe was on the other foot, farm state senators chided Japanese regulators for ignoring "sound science" that supported renewed U.S. beef imports after a mad-cow scare.

_Press the European Union to import genetically modified U.S. crops. The Bush administration argued persuasively in a World Trade Organization suit that "sound science" proved that Europe's fears were unjustified. Greenpeace and other environmental groups disagreed, along with many EU members.

_Ban the import of Mexican avocados because "sound science" showed they'd bring in harvest-destroying pests. The U.S. Department of Agriculture later lifted its ban, saying "sound science" showed Mexico's safeguards were adequate.

The administration's insistence on "sound science," however, can give a few extremists the same standing as a large consensus of scientists, charges the Union of Concerned Scientists, a Washington policy group that opposes the administration on many issues. For example, while there's nearly unanimous agreement that global warming is caused largely by human activity, the administration, in the name of "sound science," has stressed the arguments of a few dissenters, such as "Jurassic Park" author Michael Crichton.

The secret of the term lies largely in its power to cast doubt on the certainty or completeness of existing scientific evidence.

"The reason why it works is that it removes politics and ideology from the debate," said Frank Luntz, a Washington-based Republican communications consultant whose upcoming book, "Words that Work," champions the phrase. "It's a descriptive term that makes an already powerful argument even more so."

Author Chris Mooney, a Democratic partisan who chronicles the term's history and alleged misuse in his book "The Republican War on Science," said the phrase suggests that science and scientists are bad and biased. They can be, Mooney said, but calls for sound science often demand time-consuming additional peer review or an unattainable burden of proof that sidelines regulations unreasonably.

"You just have to use the best available information you've got to make a decision," Mooney said. "They're trying to throw a wrench in that process, and they're using science to create this kind of regulatory delay."


(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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