The interference by the White House in the case of Terri Schiavo - the woman at the center of America's latest right-to-die controversy - marks another milestone in President Bush's campaign for faith over fact. More concerned with the wonder of miracles than Schiavo's 15-year irreversible vegetative state, Bush and his allies have blithely overturned multiple court decisions to maintain artificial feeding and let evangelical populism triumph over medical opinion.
Thanks to the policies and prejudices of the Bush administration, science has become a dirty word. The American century was built on scientific progress. From the automobile to the atom bomb to the man on the moon, science and technology underpinned American military, commercial and cultural might. Crucial to that was the presidency. From FDR and the Los Alamos laboratory to Kennedy and Nasa to Clinton and decoding the genome, the White House was vital to promoting ground-breaking research and luring the world's scientific elite. But Bush's faith-based, petro-chemical administration has reversed that tradition: excepting matters military, this presidency exhibits an abiding aversion to scientific inquiry that is in danger of affecting the entire country.
Neal Lane, former science adviser to Clinton, has spoken of "a pattern of abuse of science" in policy making within today's White House. What they don't like, they suppress and distort. Official publications on the science of climate change have been brazenly replaced with drafts from utility lobbyists. An Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report linking industry emissions to global warming had to be withdrawn at the behest of West Wing advisers - not many of them noted climatologists.
Uncomfortable data on stem cell research has been rubbished. Scientific advisory panels have been vetted for presidential supporters. Public interest groups questioning air pollution plans have had their tax records demanded by pliant senators. And in the push to open up wilderness for energy exploitation, submissions from coal, gas or oil corporations are given greater credence than evidence from government scientists. No wonder last year 20 Nobel laureates warned that "the scope and scale of the manipulation, suppression and misrepresentation of science by the Bush administration is unprecedented".
Given the cultural influence of the White House, it is no surprise this disregard for science is trickling down into civil society. In some school districts, the study of evolution is now in danger of extinction. A New York Times survey revealed that not only was it being replaced in certain curricula by creationism, but even where it was on the syllabus some teachers were too afraid to teach "the E word" for fear of evangelical reaction.
In many classrooms, the teaching of evolution is hampered by the teachers themselves - circumstantial evidence suggests that about a third of American biology teachers support the unscientific theories of "intelligent design". With the successful assault on evolution behind them, evangelicals are starting to train their sights on the earth sciences of geology and physics.
Meanwhile, in a belated attempt to stem the steady collapse in foreign students and scientists entering the US, the state department has begun to revise its onerous visa requirements. However, it will take more than a few shifts in security clearance to reverse the first enrolment decrease since the 1970s.
More broadly, science is playing a diminishing role within public debate. America is experiencing a range of irregular weather patterns from unprecedented rainfall in California to powerful storm cycles across Florida. The suggestion that such extreme weather - along with hotter summers and wetter winters - might just have something to do with climate change is rarely entertained. Instead, the Bush administration continues to befuddle the science (despite a consensus within the US National Academy of Sciences that human activity is causing climate change), and so quietly sanctions the culture of excess.
Just as it cut taxes during war, this presidency sees no need to foster resource conservation in the face of global warming. On the contrary, average house sizes are mushrooming while gas-guzzling sports utility vehicles are frankly passe. In American cities, the three-tonne Hummer is a regular sight, with a "drive-thru" at Starbucks starting to resemble a security sweep outside Falluja.
The talk of the Chicago Auto Show was the International CXT. Part of a new generation of extreme trucks, the CXT is nine feet high, weighs seven tonnes, costs $90,000 and does 7-10 miles to the gallon. TV stars Jay Leno and Ashton Kutcher are already proud owners. It won't be long before it hits Main Street.
Rather than attempting to mitigate climate change trends, the White House seems intent on encouraging them. Its most recent budget proposal cuts funds for the EPA while increasing resources for the truly baloney science of missile defense. The Orwellian Clear Skies Act lets industry polluters off the hook while its truth-speak twin, the Healthy Forests Initiative, encourages more logging and road-building in national forests.
Even if the department of homeland security starts to let foreign scientists back in, many have to be asking: given such official disdain, is there any point doing the science?
Tristram Hunt is a visiting professor of history at Arizona State University.
© 2005 Guardian Newspapers, Ltd.