A Democrat Undermines Science

In my debate a few months back with Kenneth Green about the left, the right, and science, my colleague really could have used some more strong examples of left wing science abuse.

Now, he has one.

There is no other way to spin it: The Obama administration’s decision to ignore the FDA, and refuse to make Plan B emergency contraception (the “morning after” pill) available over the counter, is a clear and unequivocal case of politics interfering with science. And it is a particularly galling one because, as former FDA official Susan Wood points out, this is one of the key issues on which the last administration, that of George W. Bush, misused science. So there is every reason for the Obama administration to have known better, and to have done differently.

In fact, the bogus argument that Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius used, to justify overruling her own expert agency, is the same bogus argument that was attempted during the Bush years.

Sebelius argued that

The label comprehension and actual use studies did not contain data for all ages for which this product would be available for use….the data, submitted by Teva [Pharmaceuticals], do not conclusively establish that Plan B One-Step should be made available over the counter for all girls of reproductive age.

Here’s what I reported in The Republican War on Science, back in 2005:

The FDA’s stated reason for ignoring its scientific advisers—that Barr [Pharmaceuticals] had not provided adequate data on how younger adolescents would use the drug….

In both cases, politicians were demanding more “data” on a drug that has already been proven safe, and creating hurdles that other drugs—drugs not having something to do with, uh, sex–have not had to clear.

The interesting question is why the Obama administration has so clearly abused science on this issue. After all, it is not like the Democrats usually do what the Christian right says. And concerns about Plan B have long been tied to Christian right moralizing about young girls and promiscuity.

One can only hypothesize: Perhaps this is an attempt to head off potential criticism from the right in a coming election year.

But that’s just the point—you don’t get to go against the science for any reason, whether it is to appease your own base or to protect yourself from political attack. The excuse doesn’t matter, because there is no excuse.

I don’t think this one case study changes the big picture: The right is still much more in conflict with science than the left. And in my new book The Republican Brain, I will explain why it is very natural that things should be this way—that, generally, liberals and scientists should find themselves aligned, and conservatives and scientists should find themselves opposed.

But that doesn’t mean there won’t be counterexamples in complex social systems, or political situations. And the supposedly pro-science (and now simply hypocritical) Obama administration has just provided a very, very big one.


“A clear and unequivocal case of politics interfering with science” is rather overstating the case.  The decision is political–not scientific.  Science does not MAKE decisions; science can certainly inform political decisions, but the decisions themselves are social and political, not scientific per se.  Scientific facts alone cannot determine values.  And social decision-making is at heart a value-laden enterprise. 

Jim Tantillo

Cornell University

The numbers and facts say yes… the ethics say no.

Its kind of like the safe injection sites in Vancouver.  I know its good for the population on the whole. But its also in a very grey area of ethics.  (Druggies perpetuate many diseases which then spiral out into the general population.  This kills people like you and I.  Safe injection sites prevent much of this.  But how right is it to give druggies injections?)