Union of Concerned Scientists

Overview

Committed to an “open-minded search for truth,” and armed with “unrivaled scientific expertise,” the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) “doesn’t say anything [it] can’t back up with solid evidence.” At least, that’s what its fund-raising letters say. The reality is quite different.

UCS embraces an environmental agenda that often stands at odds with the “rigorous scientific analysis” it claims to employ. A radical green wolf in sheep’s clothing, UCS tries to distinguish itself from the Greenpeaces of the world by convincing the media that its recommendations reflect a consensus among the scientific community. And that’s what makes it so dangerous. Whether it’s energy policy or agricultural issues, UCS’s “experts” are routinely given a free pass from newspaper reporters and television producers when they claim that mainstream science endorses their radical agenda.

Here’s how it works: UCS conducts an opinion poll of scientists or organizes a petition that scientists sign. Then it manipulates or misconstrues the results in order to pronounce that science has spoken. In 1986 UCS asked 549 of the American Physical Society’s 37,000 members if Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) was “a step in the wrong direction for America’s national security policy.” Despite the biased wording of the push-poll question, only 54 percent disapproved of SDI. Even so, UCS declared that the poll proved “profound and pervasive skepticism toward SDI in the scientific community.”

More recently, UCS pulled a partisan, election-year stunt in 2004 aimed at the Bush Administration. The group rounded up 60 scientists to sign a statement complaining that “the administration is distorting and censoring scientific findings that contradict its policies; manipulating the underlying science to align results with predetermined political decisions.”

On issue after issue, UCS insists, the White House fails to embrace global scientific “consensus” — and that automatically means it has “politicized” science. But UCS itself is frequently guilty of that exact sin. For instance, it works overtime to scare Americans about a whole host of imagined environmental problems associated with genetically modified food. But every authoritative regulatory agency, including the Environmental Protection Agency and the World Health Organization, declares that biotech food crops are perfectly safe.

UCS routinely abuses and politicizes science. Its crusade against farm animals receiving antibiotics presents guesswork as scientifically rigorous analysis, and is calculated to scare the public about risks it admits are groundless. UCS helped initiate the vicious attacks on Danish scientist (and “Skeptical Environmentalist”) Bjorn Lomborg, only to be repudiated by the Danish Ministry of Science, Technology, and Industry. And in 2003, the group dressed up its “strong opposition to the US invasion of Iraq” as an exercise in science.

Like many environmental activist groups, UCS uses the twin motivators of cheer and fear. A giggly Gwenyth Paltrow and a catty Cameron Diaz headlined a series of short appeals about energy conservation that UCS produced. The two mega-stars crow that they turn the water off while brushing their teeth, switch off the light when they leave their bedrooms, and keep the thermostat at 65 degrees. “Its time for us to band together and really make every effort to conserve our natural resources,” chirps Diaz. That’s the sunny side.

But UCS is more adept at producing horror stories than chick flicks. They are fear-mongers of the first order — turning the sober science of health and environmental safety into high drama for public consumption. For example, UCS recently warned that by 2100 the U.S. might suffer 50-80 million more cases of malaria every year if the Senate fails to ratify the Kyoto treaty. Such racy statistics are based on clumsy modeling of worst-case scenarios, and assume — against all evidence of human behavior — that no countermeasures whatsoever would be employed. “Not considering factors such as local control measures or health services,” in their own words. Of course, you won’t find those caveats in the press release.

Genetically Modified Science

Among UCS’s many concerns, “the food you eat” is at the top of the list. More than a million dollars went to its food program in 2001. Genetically enhanced foods — dubbed “Frankenfoods” by opponents — have caused worldwide hysteria even though no reputable scientific institution can find anything to be afraid of. But that doesn’t stop UCS’s “experts” from playing cheerleader to these unfounded fears.

They warn that biotech foods could result in the “squandering of valuable pest susceptibility genes,” “enhancement of the environment for toxic fungi,” and the “creation of new or worse viruses.” They scream about “Poisoned wildlife” and “new allergens in the food supply.” Biotech foods, they claim, might “increase the levels of toxic substances within plants,” “reduce the effectiveness of antibiotics to fight disease,” “contaminate foods with high levels of toxic metals,” “intensify weedy properties” and cause the “rapid evolution of resistance to herbicides in weeds,” leading to “superweeds.”

Rigorous scientific analysis led UCS to this list of horrors, right? Wrong. That was merely a “‘brainstorming’ of potential harms.” So how likely are any of these to occur? “Risk assessments can be complicated,” UCS says, and pretty much leaves it at that. In other words, they have absolutely no idea.

In contrast, more reputable authorities have a very good grasp of the potential risks of genetically enhanced foods. The U.S. Environmental protection Agency says that genetically enhanced corn “does not pose risks to human health or to the environment.” The World Health Organization says that biotech foods “are not likely to present risks for human health” and observes that “no effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population.” Even the European Union, which has gone out of its way to stifle food technology for political reasons, notes: “The use of more precise technology [in genetically enhanced crops] and the greater regulatory scrutiny probably make them even safer than conventional plants and foods.”

The Food and Environment Program at UCS is headed up by Margaret Mellon and her deputy Jane Rissler, both of whom hold Ph.Ds and have held positions at prestigious universities. So what do a couple of highly trained research scientists, armed with nothing but guesswork, ideology and a million dollar budget, do? They fight biotech food every step of the way.

Although UCS claims that it “does not support or oppose genetic engineering per se,” Mellon and Rissler in fact have never met a GM food they didn’t mistrust. That’s because they hold biotech foods to an impossibly high standard.

In 1999, UCS joined the National Wildlife Federation, the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, and the Defenders of Wildlife, in petitioning the EPA for strict regulation of corn modified to produce large amounts of the bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) toxin. Bt is a naturally occurring insect poison that protects plants from pests like the European corn borer. UCS’s letter was part of a major scare campaign to convince the public that Bt corn posed a risk to the Monarch Butterfly.

Both the USDA and the EPA later concluded that Bt corn caused no harm to the Monarch. This reinforced the findings of federal regulators who had performed a comprehensive safety review of Bt corn before it was allowed into the marketplace. UCS remains unconvinced, even though the safest place for a Monarch larva to be is in a Bt cornfield. Rissler argued there was “insufficient data” to make such a conclusion.

Precautionary Nonsense

Of course, “sufficient” data can never exist for zealots like Rissler. She continued: “Do we assume the technology is safe… or do we prove it? The scientist in me wants to prove it’s safe.” It’s impossible to prove a negative, to absolutely demonstrate that there are no dangers whatsoever for any given product. The scientist in her knows that too, but she and her colleagues at UCS continue to be guided by the “Precautionary Principle.” This misguided maxim argues that, based on the fear that something harmful may possibly arise, we should opt for technological paralysis.

The Wall Street Journal editorialized in 2000 that The Precautionary Principle “is an environmentalist neologism, invoked to trump scientific evidence and move directly to banning things they don’t like.” It’s a big hit among anti-technology activists because it justifies their paranoia and serves to bludgeon technological progress.

Martin Teitel, who runs another misnamed activist group called the Council for Responsible Genetics, admitted as much in 2001. “Politically,” Teitel said, “it’s difficult for me to go around saying that I want to shut this science down, so it’s safer for me to say something like, ‘It needs to be done safely before releasing it.’” Requiring scientists to satisfy the Principle by proving a negative, Teitel added, means that “they don’t get to do it period.”

It should come as no surprise that UCS joined Teitel’s organization and other die-hard opponents of biotech foods in an activist coalition called the Genetic Engineering Action Network. While acknowledging that “we know of no generic harms associated with genetically engineered organisms,” UCS consistently opposes their introduction to the market on the basis of purely hypothetical risk.

Confronted with the real-world benefits of biotech foods, UCS simply changes the subject to its anti-corporate, socialist leanings. Rissler’s appearance on the PBS show Nova – on a program called “Harvest of Fear” — is a case in point. When the interviewer suggested that “genetically modified crops are arguably much less harmful to the environment” Rissler responded: “It depends on where you want to compromise. There’s another issue here with corporate control of the food supply.”

UCS’s knee-jerk reaction to biotech foods is matched only by its animus towards agribusiness. A 1994 press release condemning FDA approval of biotech foods complained that some of the data used by the oversight agency was provided by private enterprises.

In her zeal to decry increased food production from the corporate adoption of biotechnology, Mellon has argued that it’s “not clear that more milk or pork is good.” And UCS supports a radical vision of “sustainable agriculture.” That means no pesticides or herbicides; no fertilizer (other than E.coli-rich manure); and eating only “locally grown” produce. If it’s not clear under this plan where New York City would get its rice or how Chicago would scrounge up any bananas, there’s a reason for it. They wouldn’t.

Pigs, Chickens and Cows, Oh My!

Hogging It, a UCS report published in 2001, argues that the use of antibiotics in farm animals could result in human diseases that are resistant to conventional treatments. The report received a great deal of press attention, and UCS is not afraid to brag about it. “We developed the numbers that everyone uses when talking about… overuse of antibiotics,” trumpets a fund-raising letter. But how did they go about developing those numbers? “Rigorous scientific analysis”? Hardly. While the livestock industry actually calculates the amounts of antibiotics administered to farm animals using hard sales figures, UCS guesses at average drug dosages and then multiplies by the total number of animals. That’s “brainstorming.” Not science.

The real experts, like David Bell, coordinator of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s anti-microbial resistance programs, aren’t impressed by Hogging It. Interestingly, UCS admits the weakness of its evidence. The executive summary of Hogging It complains about a “gaping chasm” in the data. Nevertheless, the authors are proud to produce the “first transparent estimate” of livestock antibiotic use in America.

Estimate? That’s right. “The numbers everyone uses” are just estimates. Moreover, UCS measures antibiotic usage in total tonnage. But is that relevant in any way? UCS concedes that it’s not. The activist group wants the FDA to track antibiotic usage by “type,” since most antibiotics used in animals are unlike those used in humans.

Consumer Reports quotes Margaret Mellon saying, “We know nothing. We are flying blind.” No wonder the American Veterinary Medical Association and the Coalition for Animal Health also reject Hogging It’s findings. But none of that stops UCS from scaring the wits out of the public. Mellon warns of an “era where untreatable infectious diseases are regrettably commonplace.” That might be worth getting “Concerned” about, if only it were based on good science.

Unfortunately, political science masquerading as real science can have real-world consequences. In July 2003, identical bills introduced in the U.S. House and Senate threatened to ban the routine use of eight entire classes of antibiotics in livestock. Keep Antibiotics Working (KAW), a slick PR coalition of activist groups, was especially pleased with the news because its favorite statistic became the legislation’s main factual “finding.” Namely: “An estimated 70 percent of the antibiotics and other antimicrobial drugs used in the United States are fed to farm animals.”

Guess who “estimated 70 percent” for KAW? The Union of Concerned Scientists, a long-time coalition member. UCS admits that this estimate was created from mere guesswork, saying on its own website that “data to answer [the following] questions are not available”:

  • What is the total amount of antibiotics used each year in the United States?
  • How much of this is used to treat human disease?
  • How much is used in animal agriculture?
  • How much is used to treat sick animals and how much to promote their growth?
  • How much of each major class of antibiotics is used as supplements to animal feed or water?
  • Is agricultural use increasing? By how much?
  • Which agricultural uses are most likely to contribute to problems in treating human disease?

For a group facing so many unanswered questions, answers seem to come remarkably easily. While freely admitting that no good science exists to determine the effect (if any) of livestock antibiotics on human health, UCS managed to convince members of Congress otherwise. At the same time, UCS activists protested outside fast-food restaurants, holding giant “pillburgers” (prop hamburgers stuffed with oversized drug capsules) and chanting “Hey hey — ho ho — Drugs in meat have got to go.”

Blackeye

By any real scientific yardstick, the Union of Concerned Scientists has a lousy track record. Their predictions are often laughably, and sometimes tragically, wrong. A few examples:

  • In 1997 UCS organized a petition that warned of “global warming” and advocated U.S. ratification of the Kyoto treaty. It was signed by 1,600 scientists, and so UCS declared that “the scientific community has reached a consensus.” But when a counter-petition that questioned this so-called “consensus” was signed by more than 17,000 other scientists, UCS declared it a “deliberate attempt to deceive the scientific community with misinformation.”
  • UCS invested significant resources in “a multiyear effort to protect Bacillus thuringiensis, a valuable natural pesticide, by bringing high visibility to a preliminary report on the toxic effect of transgenic [biotech] corn pollen on the Monarch Butterfly.” Unfortunately for them, both the USDA and the EPA have concluded that Bt corn is only a threat to the crop-devastating insects it’s supposed to kill.
  • Based, we suppose, on some “science” or other, UCS’s Margaret Mellon predicted in 1999 that American farmers would reduce their planting of genetically enhanced seeds in the year 2000, saying it “probably represents a turning point.” What happened? Just the reverse. Planting of biotech crops has increased in 2000, 2001 and 2002 — and shows no sign of slowing down.
  • In 1980 UCS predicted that the earth would soon run out of fossil fuels. “It is now abundantly clear,” the group wrote, “that the world has entered a period of chronic energy shortages.” Oops! Known reserves of oil, coal and natural gas have never been higher, and show every sign of increasing.
  • To improve fuel efficiency, UCS argues for lighter tires on SUVs. But lighter tires are blamed — even by Ralph’s Nader’s Public Citizen — for tread separation. 148 deaths and more than 500 injuries were attributed to tread separation in Firestone tires alone.

UCS apparently hasn’t learned from its many, many mistakes. But if at first you don’t succeed, scare, scare again.

Motivation

The Union of Concerned Scientists was born out of a protest against the war in Vietnam. In 1969, a group of 48 faculty members at MIT — the original “union” — sponsored a one-day work stoppage of scientific research. A conference that coincided with the strike included appearances from such notables as Noam Chomsky (who is now recognized as a leader of the 21st Century “hate-America left”); Eric Mann, who led the 1960s terrorist Weather Underground; and Jonathan Kabat, who argued: “We want capitalism to come to an end.”

Later that year, when the founding document of the Union of Concerned Scientists was formalized, the United States’ relationship with the Soviet Union was featured even more prominently than environmental issues. Three of the five propositions in the founding document concern political questions of the Cold War — a topic about which even the brightest physicists and biologists can claim no particular expertise.

UCS continues to involve itself in issues where scientific credentials carry little weight. For example, the group opposes urban sprawl, disputes a war in Iraq, and supports abortion. While these positions may be perfectly legitimate in themselves, they are hardly the product of “rigorous scientific analysis.”

An early petition from UCS argues: “A new ethic is required — a new attitude towards discharging our responsibility for caring for ourselves and for the earth… This ethic must motivate a great movement.” So activists with lab coats are now presuming to instruct us on matters of ethics and politics.

Among its ethical appeals that have nothing to do with science, UCS’s approach to farming stands out. The activist group advocates “a sustainable approach, based on understanding agriculture as an ecosystem.” They call it an “agroecosystem,” and label it “holistic.” They call it “science”; the rest of us call it Zen.

At UCS, politics drives science — not the other way around. “We undervalue our scientists and agriculturalists if we accept today’s productive, but highly polluting agriculture,” UCS claims. Of course, UCS advocates organic-only agriculture, the widespread adoption of which (at today’s anemic levels of production) would result in mass starvation. So in this instance, some form of technology will surely have to save the day, even for organic farmers. But when it comes to something UCS opposes — like missile defense — they argue that the technology will never work.

Respectable scientists operate by considering a question, developing a methodology to answer that question, and only then arriving at a conclusion. They disdain political interference, and go to the media only when their conclusions warrant immediate public attention. The Union of Concerned Scientists stands this process on its head. It develops a press strategy first, and then conducts politically tainted and methodologically flawed analysis. After all, it’s getting harder to convince the media that your environmental scare is more lurid than the next guy’s. You need good PR. That’s why UCS partners with slick Washington PR firms — to get attention, whether or not there’s good science behind the sound bites.