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William Fisher: Scientific Sleight Of Hand

Scientific Sleight Of Hand

By William Fisher

Most abstinence-until-marriage education programs -- which receive about $158 million annually from the Department of Health and Human Services -- are not reviewed for scientific accuracy before they are granted funding, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office.

"Efforts by HHS and states to assess the scientific accuracy of materials used in abstinence-until-marriage education programs have been limited," the GAO report states.

"This is because HHS's Administration for Children and Families (ACF) -- which awards grants to two programs that account for the largest portion of federal spending on abstinence-until-marriage education -- does not review its grantees' education materials for scientific accuracy and does not require grantees of either program to review their own materials for scientific accuracy"

GAO auditors contacted 10 states that receive funding from ACF for their abstinence-until-marriage programs. It found that only half reviewed the programs for scientifically accurate data on contraception, sexually transmitted infections and other information.

The report also found that most state and federal efforts to assess the effectiveness of abstinence-until-marriage education programs "do not meet the minimum scientific standards" that experts say are necessary to be scientifically valid.

The GAO report is the latest in a multi-year series of findings that the administration of President George W. Bush has systematically manipulated science to comply with ideology.

Here are a few examples:

  • On the subject of abstinence education, the Administration changed sex education performance measures to produce the appearance that scientific evidence supports abstinence-only programs.

  • President Bush has consistently supported the view that sex education should teach "abstinence only" and not include information on other ways to avoid sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy. Until recently, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) initiative called "Programs That Work" identified sex education programs that have been found to be effective in scientific studies and provided this information through its web site. All five "Programs That Work" provided comprehensive sex education to teenagers, and none were "abstinence-only." But the CDC later ended this initiative and deleted information about these proven sex education programs from its web site. Information about condom use and efficacy was also deleted from the CDC web site. The CDC replaced a comprehensive fact sheet on condoms with one that emphasized condom failure rates and the effectiveness of abstinence.

  • In banning federal funding for research on new stem cell lines, President Bush stated that "more than 60 genetically diverse" lines were available for potential research. Soon thereafter, then-HHS Secretary Thompson acknowledged that the correct number was 24 to 25. Still later, National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Dr. Elias Zerhouni told Congress that only 11 stem cell lines were widely available to researchers.

  • Global Warming reports by the Environmental Protection Agency on the risks of climate change have been suppressed. The White House added so many hedges to the climate change section of the EPA's report card on the environment that the then-administrator Christie Todd Whitman deleted the section rather than publish one she felt was scientifically inaccurate.

  • Defense Department officials presented misleading information on whether a functional Missile Defense System could be quickly deployed. An Under Secretary of Defense told a Senate panel that by the end of 2004, the system would be 90% effective in intercepting missiles from the Korean peninsula. But a year earlier, in April 2003, the Government Accountability Office found the President's plan unworkable and even dangerous. The Pentagon's claim of 90% effectiveness "is not supported by any publicly available evidence, and it appears not to comport with the Pentagon's own classified estimates."

  • Comments on Wetlands Policy from scientists at the Fish and Wildlife Service on the destructive impacts of proposed regulatory changes have been withheld. Scientists at Service, part of the Interior Department, had prepared an analysis showing that a new proposal from the Army Corps of Engineers would "encourage the destruction of stream channels and lead to increased loss of aquatic functions." The then-Interior Secretary Norton, however, failed to submit the scientists' comments to the Corps. The Corps subsequently issued rules that weakened key wetland protections.

  • After social conservatives campaigned to require women to be "counseled" about an alleged risk of breast cancer from abortions, the National Cancer Institute revised its web site to suggest that studies of equal weight conflicted on the question. In fact, there is scientific consensus that no such link exists.

  • A report commissioned by Congressman Henry Waxman of California charged that the Bush Administration is manipulating Scientific Advisory Committees to advance its political and ideological agenda. Examples include appointing unqualified persons with industry ties, opposing qualified experts, and stacking advisory committees.

The Bush Administration contends that these examples are isolated coincidences. But most scientists have a different view.

For example, Dr. Michael Stebbins, Director of Biology for the Federation of American Scientists, told us, "Time after time, ideology has trumped science in a very ugly way during the Bush Administration. It is no surprise that the GAO finds major shortcomings in the abstinence only approach of the government. There are very real questions about whether this approach works. The evidence so far is that it does not, and this has an effect on, for example, whether we are fighting the spread of HIV-AIDS in the most effective way. But the White House - and members of Congress under its control - have move in lockstep to block science-based lawmaking."

Stebbins is optimistic, however, that "things are going to improve now that the Democrats have won control of the Congress." He predicted that legislation requiring science-based policy that was introduced into the current Congress and blocked by Republicans along straight party lines will be re-introduced when the new Congress re-convenes in January. He says he expects that "key science committees will hold extensive hearings on Bush science policy, that these will attract a good deal of press attention, and that the Bush Administration, looking toward the Presidential election in 2008, may be forced to listen and change course."


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