Will the Administration's Census Policy Put Politics above Science?

The Obama administration stood tall last week asserting the preeminence of science over politics in reversing policies that limited federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.  At least, that was their rationalization for the decision that was very much fueled by political considerations.

In making this policy change, the President said his administration would, "make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology."  But, as is the wont of this man who promised to eschew the old, divisive rhetoric of politics, his statement begs the fundamental question and makes ad hominem attacks on his opponents, inferring that the past policy is hostile to science and, therefore intellectually backward.

But this decision is not a scientific one.  It is an ideological one.  It may or may not be the right decision, but it is a fundamental misrepresentation to claim that it is not based on an ideological, rather than scientific, difference with the previous administration.  The question is whether or not we, as a nation, will engage in scientific experimentation on otherwise potentially viable embryos.  This is not a scientific question.  No one in the Bush administration ever denied that any scientific gain could be made from embryonic stem cell research, they just held the opinion that such gains were not worth what they felt was the moral wrong of using embryos to do it.  No matter how you look at it, that appears to be a difference in policy that breaks, more or less, along political lines.  Therefore, it is a political decision.

These semantic distortions are becoming the gold standard of the administration and are beginning to erode its credibility and standing with moderates who so longed for an end to the incessant political spin of Washington.  It's not that they necessarily disagree with the policy, they just despair that this administration is appearing every day to be just as disingenuous as any other.

This type of spin also can get you into trouble when you don't apply it consistently.  And the Obama White House is already hypocritically manipulating science for political advantage just down the street at the Commerce Department where they are feverishly trying to make sure that the 2010 census creates a "scientific" win for Democrats.

Democrats, especially their special interest bosses among aggrieved minorities, big city mayors and social program advocates, have long claimed that the decennial Constitutional process of "the actual Enumeration," of the nation's population did not adequately count their constituents.  Many have attempted to estimate how many people were left off the census and these educated guesses have varied significantly.  To address this situation, and, purely coincidentally, win their political turf more power and taxpayer funding, advocates have demanded that the census use statistical sampling techniques to establish how many illegal immigrants, minorities, children, city dwellers and renters there are.  The fact that the Supreme Court in 1999 ruled that sampling for the purpose of Congressional reapportionment was illegal appears only a minor deterrent. 

The Congressional Black Caucus pulled back the curtain on this effort in its ham fisted reaction to Senator Judd Gregg's abortive nomination to be Commerce Secretary, and, thus, oversee the Census Bureau.  The CBC demanded that the Census operation be removed from Gregg's direct control out of fear that he would not implement the population estimation techniques they desired.  That fear was based entirely on the "R" after Gregg's name, not on any scientific data.

The administration immediately sought to assure its bosses that the Census Bureau would "work closely with White House senior management."  The message was that Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel would make sure that Democrat interest groups' policy positions would be enforced in the 2010 census.  But they then backtracked and claimed that such White House oversight was "a simple restatement of existing practice," according to Time magazine.  But Judd Gregg, no firebrand partisan, cited this politically motivated interference in the census as one of the reasons he bailed out on the Commerce post.

Here we see a situation where numerous statisticians claim there are sampling tools that can be used to extrapolate a total number out of a partial sampling by using mathematical formulas based on certain assumptions.  This is fine if the Washington police are trying to estimate the total crowd that attended the Obama inauguration.  It is another thing when it has fundamental impact on every decision of the federal government and we are relying on theory instead of fact.

There is no consensus on the best formula for population sampling.  Statisticians admit that there is an error factor in every sampling-based population estimate that could be used.  How big an error factor is (yes, indeed) only an estimate.  But when the methodology being used is being selected and approved by the advocates oozing conflicts of interest, should we just set aside skepticism?  These special interest groups want the census to reflect the highest possible number of constituents.  Is it reasonable to assume that they will push for the methodology that they feel will result in a maximization of their political clout?

So what is driving this effort to ensure White House involvement with the census?  Is it the desire to place science above politics?  No.  If it were, the administration would be committing itself wholeheartedly to ensuring an accurate "enumeration" of the population as called for in the Constitution.  Instead, they are caving in to the demands of political supporters to manipulate the numbers to achieve a desired political outcome.  If scientific integrity were paramount, the administration would be seeking to reduce rather than increase our reliance on conjecture, assumptions, estimates and other statistical uncertainties.

The President stated his goal earlier this week that "scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda."  But the process of population sampling to ratchet up the numbers of Democrat constituents is the perfect example of just such a distortion.

Douglas O'Brien is a public affairs consultant.