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Blinded by Bush's science

By Ellen Goodman, Globe Staff, 4/8/2001

AND TO THINK that I was skeptical of George W. when he said education would be at the top of his dance card. Maybe the malapropisms misled me. Maybe I was put off by his most famous tip for teachers: "You teach a child to read and he or her will be able to pass a literacy test."

Oh me of little faith. We are only months into the first semester of this administration, and never before have I seen a president so committed to studying.

Every time George W. wants to get rid of some troublesome piece of public policy, he doesn't expel it - he sends it back to study hall. As principal in chief, he doesn't justify his decisions on the grounds of politics but of science. He has become the champion of ever more research.

Remember arsenic and old water regulations? Bush kicked up his administration and his class in retro politics by rolling back the standards for arsenic coming out of the tap.

Did he raise a deregulated glass of cheer with his corporate buddies? Nah. He explained to the nation: "We pulled back so that we can make a decision based on sound science."

I cannot imagine that his "sound" studies will say anything to contradict the grim facts. Will they discover that arsenic, a carcinogen, cures baldness or eliminates cellulite? Still, nothing will quench this man's thirst for knowledge.

How about RU-486? When Bush came to the Oval Office, the abortion pill had been approved for the market. Did Bush's appointee say he would do anything to prevent the FDA-approved drug from getting in the hands of women? Nope. In professorial tones, Tommy Thompson, the new head of Health and Human Services, merely said "it should be reviewed" for safety.

A peer review would require no more than a scan of the vast international medical literature. But these guys just can't get enough of science class.

CO2? Global warming? We should be grateful that this president hasn't denied global warming. That would be a bit like denying evolution - oops, that's next week. Nevertheless, when he pulled away from the Kyoto treaty, he justified his action largely on the grounds of "the incomplete state of scientific knowledge."

In fact, the link between carbon emissions and global warming is about as "incomplete" as the link between tobacco and lung cancer. But ... study, study, study.

While we are hard at work, how about equal pay? On April 3, Equal Pay Day, a Labor Department survey from pre-Bush days showed that a woman working in a government contract job earned 72 cents for every dollar a man made. Did the new secretary of labor, Elaine Chao, challenge the goal? No, just the "flawed study."

Chao is a member of the Independent Women's Forum, a conservative group that declared the end of the pay gap last year, saying a 20-something woman earned as much as a 20-something man. Want to bet that the Labor Department's new research will prove that any woman can close the wage gap simply by remaining young and childless? May the science be with you!

If all this studying is making you a bit queasy, count your blessings. Your kids could be starring in an Immodium ad. For a moment Wednesday, the Bush administration had decided to drop one little test in school: the test for salmonella.

For a while, teachers were going to be held more "accountable" than meat vendors. The cover story? The tests for the bacteria in the lunch were burdensome and - you got it - not scientific.

In this case the Bush folks pulled an all-nighter in another science - political science. After an uproar, beef will still have to pass a pop quiz.

School daze, school daze, dear old golden rule daze. What are we to make of George W. U as such an earnest student?

The good news is that the Bush administration knows it can't just slash environmental regulations, ignore working women, or favor cattlemen over school kids without pretense. The bad news is that it can "disappear" any regulation into the eternal study hall. Or into the corporate labs of scientists for hire.

The new administration has begun to sound less like an executive branch and more like a scientific review board with a very simple standard: a cost-benefit analysis. Benefit to the corporate buddies, cost to you.

Let that be a lesson. There will, I promise you, be a final exam.

Ellen Goodman's e-mail address is

This story ran on page 07 of the Boston Globe on 4/8/2001.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.