Daytime TV host Dr. Mehmet Oz apologized this month for pushing fake weight loss supplements and junk science “miracle cures” on his show. This comes as no surprise to many observers in Washington, D.C. — as a Senate committee grilled him about that last June. Unfortunately, followers of Dr. Oz are only the latest victims of an increasing trend of manipulating science to fit an agenda — and the public policy world is incredibly susceptible.
As a former member of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, I witnessed firsthand the effect of this science denying culture on our nation’s policies. To protect fossil-fuel interests, Republicans attempted to defund climate science. Sometimes they would declare it a big government conspiracy or label mainstream climate studies “bad science.” However, the overwhelming evidence of peer-reviewed studies shows global climate change is happening and is man-made.
Republicans don’t have a monopoly on science denial. Democrats, too, are often guilty of ignoring scientific consensus and, in turn, undermining many of our own policy goals. Those on the left who manipulate science for their own interests tend to believe all corporations are evil and/or that activist groups are infallible.
These movements can be dangerous when they widely perpetuate misinformation. The anti-vaccine movement, for instance, was launched by one discredited British physician in a 1997 article that was later retracted. A few years later, environmental activist Robert Kennedy Jr. launched a campaign to remove the mercury-containing preservative thimerosal from vaccines. As the misinformation snowballed into hysteria, confused parents started to resist having children vaccinated, and outbreaks of infectious diseases followed. To this day, no evidence has been found that the very low amounts of thimerosal in some vaccines are harmful.
Another example is bisphenol-A, commonly known as BPA, a chemical used to harden plastics and line the insides of aluminum cans. Anti-chemical activists allege BPA causes a host of health problems. However, the Food and Drug Administration, as well as scientists at regulatory organizations around the world, have repeatedly debunked the so-called scientific justifications for these claims. As it happens, people are exposed to amounts of BPA many hundred times smaller than the amount that would have any effect on them. Of course, you’d never know this from alarmist headlines on the Internet or from calls by some officials to restrict its use. Most recently, California regulators have started pushing to have BPA added to its much-maligned Prop 65 list of hazardous chemicals, despite direct outreach by the FDA’s chief scientist to disprove the unsound science behind this proposal.
Movements such as this, even while they lack scientific justification, still lead some citizens — mirroring their right-wing counterparts — to complain the government is part of the “conspiracy” and is not doing enough on BPA. Elected officials then push government agencies such as the National Institutes of Health. The NIH has already spent more than $170 million studying BPA since 2000, and it continues to spend more even while the FDA gives BPA its “safe-use” designation and health agencies in Europe, Canada and Japan have made similar determinations.
What’s the harm of more study? It crowds out more needed scientific research. At the NIH, half of worthwhile research projects get turned down. Surely we can find a better use for taxpayer dollars than funding one government agency undercutting another and undermining the public’s trust in our federal safety regulations. Consumers are also confused — believing “BPA-free” products are better even though they often contain substances that, unlike BPA, have not been tested extensively and shown to be safe.
Science is an area where direct democracy simply does not apply. Laws of science cannot be repealed, no matter how big a majority may doubt them. And it’s essential politics doesn’t dictate public health and safety regulations. Officials should adhere to sound science as the basis for their policies. Anything less will cede ground to science deniers on both sides of the aisle.
Dan Maffei, a former Democratic representative from New York, served on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology in the 113th Congress.