The Sounds Of Science: Thousands of Scientists Protest Manipulation In Environmental Policy Making

Bill Walsh | July 14, 2004

The phrase sound science evokes the idiom of science, though it is not itself a scientific term. It's a code word. Manufacturers of arsenic wood treating compounds used it with a straight face to argue that there was no sound science to support the proposition that children would be better off without arsenic on their playgrounds.[1] The Vinyl Institute insists that "Providing environmentally responsible products and services requires having information that is grounded in sound science and fact."[2]

A recent Washington Post editorial entitled "Beware 'Sound Science.' It's Doublespeak for Trouble" detailed how the sound science strategy is used exclusively to scuttle popular public policy measures from the Kyoto Treaty to anti-obesity campaigns, often in the face of "robust consensus" on the matter at hand.[3]

In the modus operandi of the sound science strategy, spurious claims of "scientific uncertainty" block meaningful action. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. challenges the influence of industrial polluters and corporate funded think tanks that "have invested millions of dollars to corrupt science. They distort the truth about tobacco, pesticides, ozone depletion, dioxin, acid rain and global warming."[4]

Congressional hearings in 1996 documented how unfounded claims of scientific uncertainty undermined national efforts to address the ozone hole, climate change and dioxin. The late George Brown, ranking Democratic member of the House Science Committee concluded: "The demand for absolute and incontrovertible truth prior to action, is a choice to ignore science rather than be counseled by it and an abdication of the responsibility to use the best knowledge available at any given time to serve the common good."[5]

This year science struck back. Over 4,000 US scientists have signed a petition condemning the Bush Administration's sound science platform for having "manipulated the process through which science enters into its decisions." Signers include 48 Nobel laureates, 62 National Medal of Science recipients, 127 members of the National Academy of Sciences, and advisors to both political parties.[6]

There are good examples of science responsibly applied to policy making. Among these is the 1992 International Joint Commission on the Great Lakes' recommendation to phase-out industrial chlorine uses in the Great Lakes basin. Chaired by former Indiana Republican Party Chairman Gordon Durnil[7], the Commission found that "…the evidence is sufficient… that persistent toxic substances are too dangerous to the biosphere and to humans to permit their release in ANY quantity."[8] (emphasis in original) Another is the 2001 Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants that interprets the weight of existing evidence to support a goal to eliminate dioxin and 11 other toxic chemicals.[9] A third is the European Union's REACH initiative that would shift the burden of proof from policy makers to chemical makers, requiring manufacturers to obtain government approval for specific chemical uses.[10] A growing list private sector initiatives complement these efforts.[11]

Arsenic treated wood production for the retail market ceased on December 31, 2003. The sound science defense of arsenic didn't survive the laugh test in the court of public opinion. In the matter of PVC and dioxin, fossil fuels and climate change, junk food and obesity, court is now in session.



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[2]; "To guard against misapplication of precaution (and the possibility that safe products will be arbitrarily taken off the market as was the case with vinyl toys), we need to make sure our regulators and the public have a good understanding of sound, science-based decisionmaking and rational risk assessment."

[3] "Beware 'Sound Science.' It's Doublespeak for Trouble" Chris Mooney The Washington Post Sunday, February 29, 2004; p. B02.

[4] Kennedy, Robert F., "The Junk Science of George W. Bush" The Nation, March 8, 2004


[6] Union of Concerned Scientists


[8] International Joint Commission (IJC), FIFTH BIENNIAL REPORT ON GREAT LAKES WATER QUALITY (Ottawa, Canada, and Washington, DC: International Joint Commission, 1990), pg. 21. Photocopies available free from the Commission at 1250 23rd St., NW, Suite 100, Washington, DC 20440. Telephone: (202) 736-9000. In Canada, phone (519) 257-6700. p.18 Cited in Rachels Environmental and Health News #496, Chemical Industry Strategies - Part 2 May 30, 1996


[10] Registration, Evaluation, and Authorization of Chemicals - REACH, see

[11] Private sector initiatives include those by DesignTex, Herman Miller, Nike, Shaw Contract, Kaiser Permanente, McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry and the Green Building Council of Australia. See