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Did President Obama Restore Science to Its Rightful Place?

Monday, November 5, 2012

On a whole host of issues, Obama has placed politics before science.

In his 2009 inaugural address, President Barack Obama promised to “restore science to its rightful place,” in addition to making the government more transparent and accountable. Millions rallied to his cause. Four years later, how has he done?

Unfortunately, not well. On a whole host of issues, Obama has placed politics before science. We will examine just three of them: vaccines, the BP oil spill, and “Cash for Clunkers.”

Obama vs. Vaccines

In 2008, Obama ventured into the realm of vaccines and autism. While on the campaign trail, he said:

We’ve seen just a skyrocketing autism rate. Some people are suspicious that it’s connected to the vaccines. This person included. The science right now is inconclusive, but we have to research it.

Wrong. The science was decidedly not inconclusive as of 2008. Discredited researcher Andrew Wakefield’s original 12-person “study” linking vaccines to autism was published in 1998, but by 2002 the medical community had thoroughly debunked Wakefield’s claim. That year, the New England Journal of Medicine published an enormous epidemiological study, including more than 537,000 people, that demonstrated no link between vaccines and autism. In reality, the notion of there ever having been a “controversy” in regard to vaccination is fallacious; the medical and scientific communities have always endorsed vaccines as one of the basic foundations of public health.

By the time Obama was running for president, the vaccine-autism link had been comprehensively dismissed (and its underlying research was eventually found to be fraudulent as well). So why did Obama claim the science was unclear? Perhaps he wasn’t up-to-date on the latest findings on the subject.

But even if we give Obama the benefit of the doubt on his autism gaffe as a candidate, he had a troubling relationship with vaccines even after assuming the presidency. In 2009, when the world was bracing for the H1N1 swine flu pandemic, the United States experienced a vaccine shortage. Former deputy commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration Dr. Scott Gottlieb pinned the blame on a sluggish and overly cautious FDA for holding up production. The Obama administration ultimately bears responsibility because the FDA is under the purview of the Department of Health and Human Services.

By April 2010, CDC estimated that 61 million Americans had been infected with H1N1 swine flu, 274,000 had been hospitalized, and 12,470 had died.

In the midst of the swine flu panic, two decisions in particular flew in the face of immunology and medical science. The first was the refusal to allow adjuvants, which boost a person’s immune response, to be mixed with the vaccine. Using adjuvants decreases the amount of raw material required per shot, and that may have quadrupled the U.S. vaccine supply. Additionally, adjuvants are used in Canada and some European nations and are endorsed by the World Health Organization as an effective method to extend the vaccine supply.

The second bad decision was the insistence on producing single-dose, as opposed to multi-dose, vials. The reason given for this decision was that single-dose vials would contain less thimerosal — the preservative that opponents of vaccines falsely believed causes autism.

On the campaign trail, candidate Obama ignored basic medical facts and pandered to the anti-vaccine crowd. In office, his administration failed to be either sensible or scientific when it came to vaccinations. As a result, production chains backed up and many Americans couldn’t get flu shots.

By April 2010, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that 61 million Americans had been infected with H1N1 swine flu, 274,000 had been hospitalized, and 12,470 had died. It’s not possible to calculate how many of those ill- nesses and deaths could have been prevented if the Obama administration’s pandering to the irrational concerns of progressives hadn’t contributed to the vaccine shortage. However, what is certain is that the administration has been far more anti-science than pundits and progressive activists would like to believe.

Obama vs. BP Oil Spill

In April 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil-drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico operated by BP exploded, causing one of the worst oil spills in history. For presidential leadership to be effective during such a disaster, relevant information must be accurately and transparently produced — and it must be delivered to scientists as quickly and reliably as possible. How did the Obama administration do?

Before we answer that, let’s remember that President George W. Bush was constantly criticized for manipulating scientific data for political and ideological purposes. This was such a big issue for President Obama that he even addressed it during the signing ceremony for his executive order regarding stem cells:

[Promoting science] is about letting scientists like those here today do their jobs, free from manipulation or coercion, and listening to what they tell us, even when it’s inconvenient — especially when it’s inconvenient. It is about ensuring that scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda — and that we make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology.

We agree with these standards. Did Obama live up to them during one of the biggest crises of his administration, the BP oil spill?

No. In fact, the Obama administration did exactly what it accused the Bush administration of doing: manipulated data and withheld information from scientists. A devastating article published in the Los Angeles Times described independent government reports that were issued following the spill:

Taken together, two of the reports paint a picture of a government that was as unprepared to deal with a catastrophic spill as BP. And the portrait of an administration that withheld information from the public and, more specifically, scientists, about how much oil was getting into the water, how much remained, and how such estimates were calculated appeared to contradict Obama's pledge to make government more transparent and trustworthy.

It gets worse. A panel of outside experts reviewed drilling safety recommendations put together by the Department of the Interior. After the scientists approved the draft, the White House altered the contents of the document to include a moratorium on offshore oil drilling — thereby giving the false impression that the panel also approved the moratorium.

Essentially, when things got tough, the Obama administration did what many other politicians and bureaucrats do: withheld and manipulated information. Obama did everything except “restore science to its rightful place.”

Obama vs. “Clunkernomics”

The much-ballyhooed “Cash for Clunkers” program was an initiative in which the government tried to stimulate the economy by subsidizing, through rebates, the purchase of newer and supposedly greener vehicles.

The government paid for people to take cars that were getting approximately 15.8 miles per gallon (mpg) and trade them in for cars that averaged around 25 mpg. With 690,000 cars traded in, this translates to saving an aggregate 12,000 barrels of oil per day. In a country that uses 9 million barrels of oil on any ordinary day, this is at best a drop in the bucket.

The administration has been far more anti-science than pundits and progressive activists would like to believe.

Worse, a separate analysis revealed that newly purchased vehicles were only 0.23 mpg more efficient than if the program had not existed, meaning that the benefit in terms of reducing fossil fuel consumption was marginal. It’s worth noting that the engines of the older cars were destroyed rather than reused — and the formidable environmental cost of manufacturing brand new cars did not factor into anyone’s calculation.

You might wonder if the tradeoff was worth it. Even though the program wasn’t as green as the Obama administration said it was, did Cash for Clunkers at least stimulate the economy? Not so much. People who received rebates were already planning to purchase new cars. Instead of generating new demand for vehicles — which truly would have been a “stimulus” — the program concentrated existing demand into the lifetime of the government program. Auto dealerships and car manufacturers got a burst of sales, but not substantially more than they would have had over a longer period of time. The short-term cost to taxpayers, according to an analysis by automotive website Edmunds.com, was $24,000 for each clunker.

At the time, “clunkernomics” was popular with the public. The government was handing out billions of dollars in “free” money, and other taxpayers were stuck with the bill, so what was not to like? It just wasn’t good economic or scientific policy. With a piece of legislation specifically intended to both help green the planet and boost the economy, the Obama administration did neither.

Given the high expectations that President Obama set for himself with respect to science when he entered the Oval Office, it is clear that he has not lived up to them. Instead of promising to restore science to its rightful place, he should have promised to “continue the political assault on good science, but this time from a left-wing viewpoint.” That would have been a promise he could easily have fulfilled.

Alex B. Berezow is the editor of RealClearScience. Hank Campbell is the founder of Science 2.0. This essay is adapted from their new book, Science Left Behind: Feel-Good Fallacies and the Rise of the Anti-Scientific Left.

FURTHER READING: Jon Entine discusses “Paper and Plastic: When Political Ideology Trumps Sound Science.” Gilbert Ross argues “Better Living Through Chemistry (If Permitted).” Daniel Akst explains “Science and the Chattering Classes.” Jonah Goldberg says “He Blinded Me with Science.” Scott Gottlieb contributes “No More Pandemic Hysterics.”

Image by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group

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