Mises Wire

The “Acid Rain” Scare and the Science-Industrial Complex

People who can recall or who are aware of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s farewell speech to the nation in January 1961 usually remember it for his use of the phrase “military-industrial complex.” Eisenhower wrote:

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence—economic, political, even spiritual—is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

It is not an understatement to say that Eisenhower’s warning not only was unheeded but also was prophetic, and the endless military involvement of US armed forces around the world for the past half century is proof that the president was right. However, the speech contained another warning about the role of science and scientists in our society that also went unheeded:

Akin to, and largely responsible for the sweeping changes in our industrial-military posture, has been the technological revolution during recent decades.

In this revolution, research has become central; it also becomes more formalized, complex, and costly. A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government.

Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers.

The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded. Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite. (emphasis mine)

One can say Eisenhower was describing “capture theory” long before it became embedded in the economics journals, and for all of the advances that have been made in science, the melding of science and politics has proven to be disastrous to how we live our daily lives as the “scientific-technological elite” Eisenhower feared has come to power.

Another speech, this one given recently by Mises Institute president Jeff Deist to the Ron Paul Institute, does not have the fame of Eisenhower’s, but it is no less important to understanding how that elite, from lifelong medical bureaucrats like Anthony Fauci to the tech billionaires that seek to remake the world through coercion, has used science not to enlighten, but rather to push dangerous policies through outright obfuscation. He writes:

And we’re still living with it [COVID-19]. Consider we still don’t have definitive answers to these simple questions:

Do masks really work?

Do kids really need masks? As an aside, our great friend Richard Rider reports that San Diego County—population 3.3 million—shut down its public schools for a year with one student death!

Is there asymptomatic spread?

Does the virus live on surfaces?

How long does immunity last after having covid?

How many vaccines will someone need to be “fully” vaccinated? How many boosters? Annual?

Aren’t delta and other variants simply the predictable evolution of any virus?
How do we define a “case” or infection if someone shows no symptoms and feels fine?

Can covid really be eradicated like polio? If so, why haven’t we eradicated flu by now?

And so on. We never get clear answers, but only fog.

These are not unanswerable questions, but because covid-19 became a political malady, the political side has overwhelmed the medical/scientific aspect of this virus and its effects, because mystification happens to be politically useful. In other words, politics ultimately overwhelms science, and when politics comes to the fore, science itself disappears and is replaced by something akin to Lysenkoism, which is the ultimate result when everything in society becomes politicized.

Much of the present corruption—no other word will suffice—of science via politics has come through environmentalism, and I present the case of acid rain as proof. While most readers probably are not familiar with the subject, forty years ago it was the environmental crisis. As I laid out in an article that I published in Reason magazine in 1992, environmentalists and their media allies believed that the sky literally was falling:

[I]n the late 1970s. Scientists in the United States, Canada, and Scandinavia became alarmed at what they believed was massive environmental degradation caused by sulfur dioxide-laced rain that came from coal-fired power plants. The media followed with hundreds of apocalyptic stories, such as “Scourge from the Skies” (Reader’s Digest), “Now, Even the Rain is Dangerous” (International Wildlife), “Acid from the Skies” (Time), and “Rain of Terror” (Field and Stream).

In 1980, the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] declared that acid rain had acidified lakes in the northeastern United States a hundredfold since 1940, and the National Academy of Sciences predicted an “aquatic silent spring” by 1990, declaring in 1981 that the nation’s number of acid-dead lakes would more than double by 1990.

As news stories on this new and deadly terror proliferated, the Jimmy Carter administration convinced Congress to fund a scientific study about acidic rain, with the idea being that the scientific findings would quickly validate the need for more environmental regulation of coal-fired electric power plants. However, after Ronald Reagan was elected, he extended Carter’s National Acid Precipitation Assessment Program (NAPAP) into a full-blown study that was charged with taking an in-depth look at the problem and recommending solutions. It would be the last study of its type.

The most worrisome problem that lawmakers and environmentalists allegedly faced was massive acidification of lakes and creeks in the Adirondack Mountains, and a cursory view seemed to indicate that the claims could be true. At the turn of the twentieth century, most of these now acidic lakes (about 5.0 pH factor) that were void of aquatic life at one time had been favorite fishing spots of President Theodore Roosevelt, who was known for his love of the outdoors. Eight decades later they essentially were dead lakes, and acid rain had to be the culprit.

However, acidic precipitation was decidedly not the reason for lake acidity, something that intuitively doesn’t make sense. After all, if rain has a low pH factor and it falls into a body of water, would it not be affecting the lake’s acidity? That viewpoint was seen as the default position and few people believed it could be challenged.

Yet that is what happened when scientists were permitted to do their research and field work without political interference, at least for a while. In 1983, one of the researchers, a soil scientist named Ed Krug, and a partner coauthored a paper in Science that not only challenged the status quo, but also laid it to rest. Their own research, along with that of scientists in Scandinavia, where acid rain supposedly was also destroying lakes, demonstrated that historical land use patterns in lake watersheds were highly significant, while they also found that much of nature—even bare rocks—effectively buffets low-pH factor rain and pretty much neutralizes it even before it reaches lakes, streams, and rivers.

According to Krug and other researchers, the reason that many lakes went from hosting aquatic life to becoming relatively sterile was not the advent of acidic precipitation, but rather the way that people had used land in the lake watersheds over the centuries. During eras when land use involved slash-and-burn agriculture, the soil runoff was relatively alkaline, thus allowing the lakes to support life.

However, as watersheds reverted to their more natural uses, especially in the Adirondack Mountains, which were being transitioned into “Forever Wild” territories, the soil became more naturally acidic—and so did the lakes that took in the runoff. For that matter, as the NAPAP scientists found, the largest concentration of acidic lakes was not found in the Adirondacks, where rain is relatively acidic, but rather in northern and central Florida, which doesn’t receive acidic rain at all.

As the research into historic Adirondack land use patterns deepened, scientists found, using core samples from the lakes’ bottoms, that these lakes had been naturally acidic well before the appearance of Europeans in the upstate New York region. In his article “Fish Story” for the Heritage Foundation publication Policy Review, Krug wrote that the word “Adirondack” was a Native American term meaning “bark eater.” The Irish Times reported:

The situation turned out to be much more complex than had been predicted. The acidity of a lake is determined as much by the acidity of the local soil and vegetation as it is by acid rain. Many lakes in north-eastern America, dead in the 1980s, had plenty of fish in 1900. It was surmised by environmentalists that 20th-century sulphur dioxide emissions had choked these lakes to death with acid rain. But the NAPAP showed many of these lakes were acidic and fishless even before European settlement in America. Fish survived better in these lakes around 1900 because of extensive slash and burn logging in the area. The soil became more alkaline as the acid vegetation was removed, reducing the acid flowing into the lakes and making the water hospitable to fish. Logging stopped in 1915, acid soils and vegetation returned and the lakes became acidic again. The study also found that in many cases forests were suffering debilitation due to insects or drought and not acid rain.

The publication continued:

The NAPAP reported in 1990. The findings were explosive: first, acid rain had not injured forests or crops in US or Canada; second, acid rain had no observable effect on human health; third, only a small number of lakes had been acidified by acid rain and these could be rehabilitated by adding lime to the water. In summary, acid rain was a nuisance, not a catastrophe.

If one would think this good news (The sky really isn’t falling!), think again. Irish Times continues:

The findings of NAPAP were not welcomed by the powers-that-be, many of whom had staked their reputations on the impending Clean Air Act which would call for drastic reduction of sulphur dioxide emissions. The NAPAP was ignored.

Indeed, Democrats in Congress accused the NAPAP team of “politicizing” its research, as though three thousand scientists of varying political persuasions would march in lockstep to the desires of Ronald Reagan. When President Carter’s administration first formed NAPAP, it seemed that the main purpose of the research was to confirm what “everybody already knew” about acid rain. However, after the Reagan administration expanded the research mission of the organization, the research lost popularity, as the findings did not fall in line with environmental narratives.

In the end, the scientists were condemned for not politicizing their research, and the lesson was not lost on anyone. The US Environmental Protection Agency specifically went after Krug, making it difficult for him to continue to pursue his research career, something I expounded in my Reason article. Another scientist associated with the NAPAP program told me that never again would the EPA and environmental advocates ever again conduct the same kind of research agenda. He told me when I interviewed him in 1991: “There is no NAPAP for global warming.”

We mostly remember Eisenhower’s speech for his near-prophetic words on the “military-industrial complex.” However, what he said about government-influenced corruption in scientific research was just as foretelling. So much of what we have known as “science,” from the university research faculties to the research laboratories to the scientific journals, research that at one time was based upon applying theories and data to reach conclusions that were to be “discovered,” as opposed to being predetermined, has become utterly rigged.

Moreover, science as much as possible was to be a meritocracy in which education, ability, insight, and perseverance determined the success of a scientist. Today, success depends more upon one’s ability to promote progressive narratives, and entry into the research fields themselves are now increasingly determined by one’s sex, ethnicity, and other characteristics that have nothing to do with one’s ability to conduct scientific inquiry.

These are situations that do not end well, for so much of politics is based upon lies and rigging outcomes to satisfy progressive political constituencies. And just as progressives have proven to be destructive at governance, they are equally destructive of science and inquiry themselves. Nothing that progressives touch remains uncorrupted.

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