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One federal scientist thinks Interior has become a scientific gulag. He says he has lobbied anonymously in the press against specific decisions, but "when we're in Washington or in hearings, we have to talk the administration line or we're in hot water."
Another Interior scientist who received clearance to be interviewed for this report said, "Yes, absolutely," that the nature of his professional life had been changed. Could he talk about it? "Not without getting in a lot of trouble," he replied. Were scientists in the department able to disseminate information freely? "No, no," he said. "Just the fact that we have to get approval to speak to you shows that."
There has always been—at least in the West since the time of Plato—a strong body of opinion that finds the scientific process dangerous and corruptive. Most simply, science is an attempt to determine reality by examining nature and working inductively from particular facts to more general conclusions. In contrast, the ideologically inclined tend toward deductive reasoning, beginning with a principle or ideal and proceeding toward specifics that support it.
For True Believers of every persuasion, science is suspect because it searches rather than accepts. It rests on the premise that if observable natural fact is at odds with established belief, the latter must be modified or abandoned.
I do not share the opinion of many of Watt's critics who think that the secretary is a kind of bureaucratic poltergeist and that all of the problems and controversies now surrounding Interior can be laid to his idiosyncrasies; that they would go away if he did. These critics badly overstate Watt's role. He is, in fact, less an aberration than a product of a long-established ultraconservative factor in American culture and politics. He's acting in accordance with what may be the closest thing we have to an endemic American ideology, one that might be called the Frontier Response. It's not a formal, cohesive philosophy but a random collection of traditions, biases and beliefs. There's nostalgia for the good old days of 19th-century America—especially Western America—as portrayed not by historical records and studies but as romanticized in works such as John Wayne movies. There's an anarchistic touch stemming from the conviction that the effect of much law and other government activity is to unfairly restrain the most able and reward the most slothful segments of society. In regard to the environment, the dominionist theory prevails; rooted in Protestant theology, it holds that God gave the world to man to use as he damn well pleases. Accordingly, the notion that Rocks Have Rights may seem like a pantheistic blasphemy.
Dominionist attitudes and the behavior they helped inspire enabled America to accomplish its greatest national feat—winning the continent, particularly the Western regions of it. Because most Americans no longer believe in and practice the Frontier Response, conservatives of the Watt persuasion believe the country has become a confused, uncertain, problem-beset place. They believe the U.S. can recover if it returns to the ways and ideas that worked so successfully in the past. The people must trust and respect the class whose progenitors perfected the Frontier Response; i.e., white American men, who are the most favored of all God's creatures. In the context of environmental affairs, if America gives to white men the keys to things like oil, gas and coal production, they will treat nature as well as they think it should be treated and all will profit from their enlightened stewardship just as they did in the last century.
None of this is set down in a single memo, platform or document. Nevertheless, a number of words and deeds, some of which are noted above, indicate that it is essentially toward this end, a return to the past and its exploitation of nature, that the Interior Department is now being operated.