What Was the Top #ScienceFail for 2014?

, former science communication officer | December 18, 2014, 12:38 pm EST
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Science isn’t easy. Scientific research is often difficult, tedious, and can take years to come to fruition. And it’s because it takes such dogged effort to reach solid scientific conclusions that we trust the work scientists do. Unfortunately, too many politicians and institutions reject or distort scientific conclusions they don’t like.

We all lose when political spin runs roughshod over evidence scientists have uncovered regarding risks to our health and well-being. Sadly, such incidents are now commonplace enough to have their own hashtag: #ScienceFail. Here are our nominations for the worst cases of #ScienceFail for 2014.

A version of this post appeared on LiveScience.com earlier today.

“I’m not a scientist.”

You’re a politician and not a scientist? We know!

Over the past year, elected leaders who have a strained relationship with science seemed to all adopt the same strategy: just say “I’m not a scientist” whenever anyone asks you about established facts.

Several politicians relied on this unartful dodge to respond to questions related to science. But just because politicians aren't scientists doesn't mean they aren't responsible for responding to risks scientists have identified.

Several politicians relied on this unartful dodge to respond to questions related to science. But just because politicians aren’t scientists doesn’t mean they aren’t responsible for responding to risks scientists have identified.

Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal said it when asked about teaching evolution in schools. Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, used it to avoid answering questions about fracking. And many more politicians said “I’m not a scientist” when asked about climate change.

Of course, we don’t elect politicians to play scientist in the first place. Andrew Rosenberg, the head of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists and a veteran of many scientific advisory bodies put it this way: “…politicians aren’t engineers, but they approve infrastructure projects. They aren’t accountants, but they create budgets. They aren’t inventors, but they make patent laws…saying ‘I’m not a scientist’ in the face of scientific evidence is a cheap cop-out.”

Thankfully, with retorts like that from Rosenberg and others, some politicians have been embarrassed into dropping the line, notably Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who presides over a state on the front lines of sea level rise. Hopefully, more politicians will stop using this dodge and start engaging in real debates about dealing with the realities we face.

Shell underwrites deceptive anti-climate group

At first glance, one might think Shell is relatively enlightened about climate science. The company uses an internal price on carbon and has signed on to constructive efforts to deal with climate change. Shell’s CEO explicitly told the Washington Post, “Climate change is real and it’s a threat that we want to act on. We’re not aligning with the skeptics.” (Setting aside for a second whether or not folks who reject climate science are really “skeptics.”)

On the one hand, Shell accepts mainstream climate science. On the other hand, it supports a powerful interest group that actively misinforms state legislators about climate science.

On the one hand, Shell accepts mainstream climate science. On the other hand, it supports a powerful interest group that actively misinforms state legislators about climate science.

But Shell still supports the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a group that works closely with corporations and state legislators to pass model bills around the country. ALEC has a long history of spreading misinformation about climate science to state legislators. It has also supported bills that would require teachers to inject misinformation about climate science into classrooms. And in several states, ALEC-affiliated legislators have tried to roll back renewable electricity standards.

Why the disconnect? David Hone, Shell’s climate change advisor, explained to one of my colleagues that “despite [ALEC’s] position on climate issues” Shell still “place[s] a value on their ability to convene state legislators.”

That answer strikes us as insufficient. There are other groups out there that convene state legislators, after all, and they don’t misinform their members about climate science. Further, external sustainability advisors have told Shell that working with groups such as ALEC can undermine trust among the company’s stakeholders. Tech giants, including Google and Facebook, have already severed ties with ALEC; so has Occidental Petroleum, another fossil fuel company.

While Shell is just one of 90 institutions that have produced most historic industrial climate emissions, it’s also a company that recognizes the realities and risks of climate change in many ways. But it earns inclusion on our #ScienceFail list for 2014 for its continued support of ALEC.

The bottom line is clear: Shell should leave ALEC, too.

Sugar Association sugar-coats science

The evidence is clear that over-consumption of sugar is giving Americans heart trouble and contributing to the obesity epidemic. By one estimate, Americans eat 16 percent of their daily calories from sugars that food companies add to products.

The Sugar Association has a long track record of misrepresenting food and health science to government agencies and the public.

The Sugar Association has a long track record of misrepresenting food and health science to government agencies and the public.

The Food and Drug Administration understands the risks and has proposed putting “added sugars” on the ubiquitous Nutrition Facts label. But the Sugar Association, a trade group representing U.S. sugar interests, is pushing back against the science and the FDA’s proposal.

In June, Sugar Association president Andrew Briscoe told the FDA “there is no preponderance of evidence” to justify an added sugar label. Briscoe ignored research on chronic diseases such as diabetes and also claimed that an added sugar label would create a record-keeping headache for food manufacturers. The truth, as an FDA official noted, is that food companies already track sugar measurements to meet existing labeling requirements.

Often surprising amounts of added sugar wind up in products marketed as healthy, including soup, yogurt, and energy bars. People deserve to know what’s in their food – and what effects those ingredients can have on their health. The Sugar Association’s job is to protect its member companies’ bottom lines, but they should do so without ignoring or distorting science.

House Science Committee still failing science

The last time we rounded up the worst #ScienceFail examples, we included the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. Once a proud bastion of sensible, science-based policy-making, the committee has increasingly become another front in Capitol Hill’s endless partisan battles.

Once a bastion of bipartisanship on science issues, the House Science Committee has continued to prioritized politics over policy.

Once a bastion of bipartisanship on science issues, the House Science Committee has continued to prioritize politics over policy.

Under the leadership of Texas’s Lamar Smith (R), the committee spent months crafting a bill that would effectively bar the Environmental Protection Agency from using the best available public health science to set air pollution standards. Members ignored scientists and public health experts who pointed out the bill’s failings.

Further, Rep. Smith dismissed a landmark federal climate report released in April as “unscientific.” Ironically, the report was mandated by an act of Congress.

The committee is also spending an inordinate amount of time scrutinizing grants from the National Science Foundation. While it’s appropriate for members of Congress to debate science funding, Science magazine described Rep. Smith’s decision to investigate individual grants as “unprecedented” and “bizarre.”

As bare-knuckled as politics in the House can get, the House Science Committee shouldn’t let partisanship trample science.

The tip of the iceberg

My colleagues and I work every day to fight back against efforts to undermine the vital role science plays in democracy. And we rely on our members, activists, and allies to let us know about other areas where we can help.

We also know there’s good news out there, including the work our Got Science? Champs are doing on water quality, vaccination rates, and climate change.

That said, I’m sure the #ScienceFail examples listed above aren’t the only ones worthy of mention. Who else do you think deserves a #ScienceFail? And what could we do to turn that into a #ScienceWin?

Posted in: Food and Agriculture, Global Warming, Science and Democracy, Science Communication Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

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  • We can see the iceberg and the ship where in may take 100 years to change course. The Amazon is disappearing before our eyes on Google earth, and some of it is due to climate change.

  • There are many qualified experts with a vested interest in bad science.

  • I’m not a scientist but I did well at school. Top science exam mark, twice in the same year. I see a lot of hot air in the climate change debate but very little action? join me at http://savetheworldfree.ning.com

  • Richard Cronin

    Other science fails: 1) The earth’s oceans were filled by water from comets. Disproven by Rosetta probe to comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Hint – The water came from below, just as we know of water-bearing ringwoodite. 2) “Peak OIl” pushed further and further back, as we come to understand that methane and petroleum are produced within the Earth. 3) Per the work of Dr. Ho-Kwang (Dave) Mao, the Lower Mantle is not comprised of highly insulating MgSiO3 perovskites. The Lower Mantle is comprised of highly heat conductive H-phase Iron. The heat balance supporting AGW needs to be revisited. 4) Per the work of Dr. Dario Alfe, the core of the Earth is at least 6000 C , approx. 1000 C hotter than previously thought. Again, this surely affects the heat balance supporting AGW. 5) Failure to fully recognize the increase in geothermal energy release in the Earth’s current warming cycle as witnessed by significant seismic and volcanic activity. Univ. Texas Austin has determined that the Thwaites glacier in Antarctica is melting due to geothermal energy. Perhaps it is time to give the work of Dr. J. Marvin Herndon another examination. The GeoReactor.

  • My colleague Dr. Andrew Rosenberg has an update here worth reading. Gov. Cuomo said “I’m not a scientist,” again, but importantly, he also said we should “ask the qualified experts what their opinion is.” http://blog.ucsusa.org/governor-cuomo-fracking-experts-772