Analyzing a scandal

WELCOME to reality according to the Bush administration, where scientific evidence is irrelevant, intelligent design is just as legitimate as evolution and credentials don't matter if you have the right politics. The latest casualty of these unfortunate policies is George Deutsch, who learned the hard way that it's not cool to mess with NASA.

After studying journalism at Texas A&M University, Deutsch was appointed by the Bush administration to work with NASA on public affairs. One might wonder how a 24-year-old journalism major could be qualified to judge the work of NASA scientists, but when we consider the performance of past presidential appointees, his appointment should come as no surprise.

As one might expect, NASA scientists were not thrilled to receive orders from a 24-year-old with no background in science, but more appalling than his initial placement are the directives he tried to impose upon the scientists. He demanded, for example, that scientists add the word "theory" to every mention of the "Big Bang."

In an e-mail to a NASA web designer, Deutsch wrote that the Big Bang theory was just an "opinion," adding, "This is more than a science issue, it is a religious issue. And I would hate to think that young people would only be getting one-half of this debate from NASA." Deutsch continued ironically, "That would mean we had failed to properly educate the very people who rely on us for factual information the most."

In addition to censoring the NASA Website, Deutsch tried to prevent reporters from speaking with Dr. James Hanson, a NASA scientist who studies global warming. Hanson had incurred the wrath of the administration when he spoke out against government censorship of scientists, and his research on global warming represented a threat to the administration's position that more sun means more fun for everyone. When Hanson spoke out about the administration's attempts to limit his access to the public, Deutsch found himself in the public spotlight, where his lack of credentials made him an easy target.

Deutsch eventually became a victim of his own dishonesty when a blogger, Nick Anthis, discovered that he had never actually graduated from Texas A&M, despite indicating on his resume that he had a degree in journalism. He resigned after the university confirmed that he never received a degree.

Since Deutsch has already resigned in a public scandal, it might seem excessive to dance on his grave with another column. But it's worth considering the larger problem that Deutsch represented, a problem that will likely continue under the direction of someone who actually has a college degree: We live in dangerous times when scientific inquiry is increasingly under attack from interest groups who dislike the conclusions suggested by evidence.

The debate over the Big Bang might seem to have little relevance to contemporary problems. Knowing the true origin of the universe probably won't change the way that many people live their lives. But this debate speaks to a larger controversy that threatens scientific education in the United States.

In a free country, anyone has the right to disagree with scientific evidence in favor of her own opinions or religious beliefs. But when interest groups can actually hinder science education, we should be seriously concerned about the consequences.

American students will be at a disadvantage if they are taught to devalue scientific evidence in order to appease those who have a different opinion. If we fail to educate our citizens about science, our nation will fall behind in scientific progress as we compete with nations who teach the difference between a respected theory and a baseless opinion.

The entire point of science is that some theories are better than others. Theories gain respect when evidence exists to back them up. Those who seek to undermine scientific theories of the universe have gained ground by insisting that there are two sides of the story, implying that it is somehow "biased" to believe scientific evidence above alternative theories that are based in religious beliefs or political agendas.

The saga of George Deutsch offers many lessons for college students: First, it's a good idea to stick around until you receive a degree. Second, don't lie on your resume in the age of the blogosphere. But most importantly, no political agenda is worth sacrificing the search for truth.

Cari Lynn Hennessy's column appears Tuesdays in The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at chennessy@cavalierdaily.

related stories