MADISON – It has been six years since President Bush imitated Pope Urban VII and all but crippled federal support for human embryonic stem cell research, a 21st century version of the Vatican’s gagging of Galileo for claiming the Earth revolved around the Sun.
Bush was wrong about stem cell science then and he’s wrong now – and the nation may someday pay a price for ceding the high ground in this ground-breaking field to medical researchers around the world.
Just as Galileo wasn’t the first scientist to come under scrutiny or be muzzled, however, neither is Bush the only politician at home or abroad guilty of shunning science and technology that conflicts with personal beliefs. In fact, entire political movements have been built on little more than that.
Consider the political left’s stubborn refusal to re-examine nuclear energy as a potential antidote to global warming. Yes, the slow but steady conversion to biofuels, wind energy and solar energy will combat climate change and replace waning supplies of some carbon-based fuels. But it will be years before many of those renewable technologies are commercially scaled, even if federal research funding grows at a Manhattan project pace.
Nuclear energy technology – now in its safe and efficient “third generation” – is available today, leaves no carbon footprint and could help reduce U.S. reliance on foreign oil. Here’s the answer to your next question: Storing nuclear waste is not a scientific problem, but a political dilemma perpetuated by decades of fear-mongering. The repository at Yucca Mountain would be infinitely safer than leaving nuclear waste in above-ground casks, which is the status quo.
When Bjorn Lomborg wrote “The Skeptical Environmentalist” in 2001, he turned the environmental community on its head by noting that many apocalyptic predictions had proven false. Opponents of animal testing, crop biotechnology and forest management practices have been cornered by the facts on many occasions, yet their political friends continue to shout down the science as if it really doesn’t matter.
Again, none of this is new. The left still lionizes Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, “Silent Spring,” as one of the literary anthems of environmentalism. But the underpinnings of Carson’s book were refuted almost instantly by scientists such as UW-Madison’s Dr. Ira L. Baldwin, a professor of agricultural bacteriology who questioned her hypothesis that the pesticide DDT was linked to cancer in humans.
Carson claimed (incorrectly) that few carcinogens exist naturally, and that manmade substances such as pesticides are “elixirs of death” – even in tiny quantities – because humans have evolved “no protection” against them. To Carson, there was “no ‘safe’ dose.”
In a scientific review of “Silent Spring,” Baldwin acknowledged that some pesticides could be harmful, especially if misused, but added that dosage matters a great deal. He also noted that “mankind has been engaged in the process of upsetting the balance of nature since the dawn of civilization.” Society must measure costs versus benefits, Baldwin wrote, as scientists, doctors and farmers combine to fight “an unrelenting war” against insects, parasites and disease.
Time has confirmed that Baldwin, not Carson, was right. Recent studies indicate most human carcinogens are natural, and the dosage of any carcinogen is far more important than whether it’s natural or manmade. Meanwhile, how many people have suffered and died from malaria because even the emergency use of DDT was banned?
As former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona testified earlier this year when asked about the Bush administration’s sneering at science, “Anything that doesn’t fit into the political appointees’ ideological, theological or political agenda is often ignored, marginalized or simply buried.”
That’s a statement that could apply to liberals and conservatives alike, today as in the time of Galileo.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council and the co-author of “Hands-On Environmentalism,” published by Encounter Books, New York.