Commentary Magazine


The Republican War on Science by Chris Mooney

The Republican War on Science
by Chris Mooney
Basic. 342 pp. $24.95

Ever since John Stuart Mill identified Britain’s Conservatives as “the stupid party,” it has been fashionable for leftists to deride their political opponents as anti-intellectual, backward-thinking clods. The trope has figured prominently in recent American presidential politics, with candidates of the Democratic party posing, sometimes ostentatiously, as defenders of reason and all things scientific. Al Gore, known in some circles as the inventor of the Internet, preached tirelessly that the Republican refusal to combat climate change would soon result in global catastrophe. In 2004, John Edwards implied that paraplegics would soon be able to walk again—if not for George W. Bush’s benighted policies on stem-cell research. Unfortunately for Gore and Edwards, these admonitions did not impress the electorate.

Chris Mooney is not about to give up the fight. A correspondent for the left-liberal American Prospect and for Seed magazine, which covers the role of science in culture, Mooney has long been interested in the intersection of technology and politics. But he is no neutral sociologist of science; he is a political journalist, and a frankly partisan one at that. In The Republican War on Science, he makes the case that conservatives in general, and President Bush in particular, have adopted an attitude toward science that is not merely skeptical but actually hostile. As a result, he argues, the government is becoming estranged from the scientific establishment, and is rapidly depleting its capacity to make decisions based on the best available knowledge.

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How did this come about? The first several chapters of Mooney’s book are intended to provide some historical perspective. One early turning point, as Mooney tells it, came during the presidential campaign of 1964, which pitted Barry Goldwater and his zealous young followers against scientists concerned about the arms race with the Soviet Union and the possibility of nuclear war.

Then, in the 1970′s, new conservative think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation began to supply business-friendly research and expertise, supposedly at odds with the scientific mainstream—thereby setting the stage for the “politicization” of science. This trend accelerated under the Reagan administration, which Mooney accuses of marginalizing and manipulating scientific advisers, ignoring the crises of AIDS and acid rain, promoting creationism, and recklessly pushing for missile defense despite a “consensus” that it was unworkable.

Mooney grants that the abuse of science in the Reagan era was haphazard, and not yet part of a systematic effort to undermine mainstream research. But that changed in 1994, when the new Republican majority abolished the Office of Technology Assessment, Congress’s clearinghouse for scientific information. With this non-partisan body out of the way, elected representatives could consult whichever experts suited their purposes, including industry shills and fringe contrarians who were happy to drum up phony controversies by disagreeing with the majority of researchers in their fields.

Simultaneously, Republican congressmen began to push for the use of what they disingenuously trumpeted as “sound science” in the making of government decisions, including the requirement of peer review for science-based assessments. To the naive observer, this might seem like a laudable idea, but Mooney describes it as an industry-backed attempt to raise the bar on regulation, obstructing the enactment of tougher environmental standards and more aggressive public-health initiatives. By the time George W. Bush was elected to office in 2000, the stage had been set for the wholesale subversion of science that is now under way.

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When it comes to current abuses, Mooney describes basically two kinds: those motivated by the desire to appease business interests (particularly the energy and agricultural sectors) and those intended to mollify religious traditionalists.

Into the first category falls the familiar issue of global warming, along with slightly less apocalyptic battles over herbicide use, fast food, and the regulation of mercury emissions. On all of these issues, Mooney accuses Republicans of paying undue attention to scientists who are skeptical of the need for government involvement to avert crisis, when in fact, he says, “mainstream” scientists are united in the opposite view. He also notes that these contrarian scientists often receive funding from the private sector—which, to his mind, renders them suspect, even though he concedes that the validity of scientific research does not depend on the means by which it was financed.

Religious conservatives, for their part, have misused science to promote a moral agenda that includes opposition to abortion, stem-cell research, and the teaching in public schools of evolution by natural selection, the cornerstone of modern biology. At the same time, writes Mooney, they prop up the thinly-veiled creationist pseudoscience of Intelligent Design. The net effect has been to alienate life scientists and to undermine their work, potentially jeopardizing the United States’s position at the forefront of biomedical research.

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Mooney is no doubt right to expect the “damning stuff” in his book to gain attention; it has already begun to serve as a source of talking points for Democratic politicians and assorted left-wing interest groups. But he cannot expect it to be taken as a serious indictment of conservative Republicans, because The Republican War on Science is not a serious book.

Its unserious nature is evident from the first few pages, where Mooney attempts to provide the reader with a primer on conservative thought—summed up in his capsule definition as “a political philosophy that generally resists change.” No less ignorant is his claim that the alleged Republican hostility to science is fueled by conservative distrust of “big government,” the benefactor of much scientific research. Yet he does not actually discuss science funding in this book, and for good reason: in fact, public expenditures for research have exploded since Republicans took control of Congress, with the budget of the National Institutes of Health, for example, having roughly doubled between 1998 and 2003. If Republicans really are at war with science, they are employing an awfully dumb battle plan.

Such diverting lapses aside, is there really evidence that scientific knowledge has been systematically suppressed or distorted for political gain? In some cases, Mooney’s charges are clearly overblown; for example, he rips President Bush for having “lied” in 2001 about the number of stem-cell lines available for federally funded research, when in fact the President merely cited the most accurate information available at the time.

Moreover, it is difficult to understand exactly what is so bad about scientists receiving financial support from the business sector. According to the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences, industry funded about 62 percent of research and development in the U.S. in fiscal year 2004, far outstripping the amounts spent by the federal government and non-profit institutions. Biotechnology firms already provide much of the funding for embryonic stem-cell research, a field that Mooney takes pains to praise as important and promising. Why should this be any less suspect than petroleum-industry funding for energy research, or agrobusiness funding for research on food safety?

In other instances, Mooney merely parrots the views of his informants, most of whom are left-leaning scientists and ex-government officials—not exactly disinterested parties. On the issue of climate change, for example, he approvingly cites prophets of global warming, while portraying skeptical scientists as cranks (at best) or dishonest (at worst). He even insinuates, quite wrongly, that there is no meaningful scientific dissent on the issue. He knows this, evidently, because proponents of global warming have told him so.

Even the few credible examples of alleged right-wing scientific distortion in the book hardly rise to the level of genuine political abuse. Intelligent Design is an unscientific theory, but the Republican party has hardly made a systematic effort to promote it; the effort has instead been spearheaded by private institutions with only vague ties to some conservative politicians. Mooney is probably correct in claiming that the Bush administration has over-emphasized the health risks of abortion, but it seems doubtful that this will have any meaningful impact on the availability of abortion in the United States. And perhaps it is true that Republicans in Congress have been overly reluctant to recognize the link between sugar consumption and obesity—but this is a far cry from asserting that the food industry should be held responsible for the detrimental effects of overeating, a position Mooney seems to endorse.

At times, indeed, it is Mooney and his sources who are clearly the ones guilty of misrepresenting or distorting scientific work. Take the controversy over mercury contamination in fish. On the one hand, it is fairly certain that the ingestion of mercury (in the form of methylmercury, an organic metabolite) is harmful to brain development. On the other hand, and contrary to Mooney’s rather hysterical assertions, there is no good evidence that the consumption of ocean fish containing trace amounts of methylmercury poses any real danger. Mooney heaps praise on a study conducted in the Faeroe Islands that claims to establish such a link, while disparaging a different study, of Seychelles Islanders, that shows no such link. But the Seychelles study was the better designed of the two—and probably more relevant to the question at hand, since its subjects actually ate large quantities of fish, while the Faeroe Islanders consumed mostly whale meat.

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Many of Mooney’s “abuses” boil down to complaints about the tendency of conservative politicians to err on the side of caution when it comes to using science in order to justify an expansion of federal power. By contrast, Mooney himself seems to be a believer in the “precautionary principle,” popularized by the biologist and environmental activist Rachel Carson in the 1970′s. This holds that the government should act to combat environmental threats even before there is incontrovertible evidence of damage.

As it happens, many scientists—some of whom spend their careers straining to provide proof of elusive correlations in the natural world—share this view. But the precautionary principle is not, properly speaking, a scientific proposition; nor is it inherently anti-scientific to insist on a higher standard of evidence when formulating government policies—especially those with far-reaching consequences and enormous costs.

In this light, Mooney seems almost unhinged in his rant against Republican efforts to institute peer review and data-quality standards for reports by federal agencies and advisory committees. In effect, he is compelled to argue that, while there should be a high standard of scrutiny for publishing a paper in a scientific journal that may be read by a few hundred people, it is unreasonable to demand similar scrutiny for a policy decision that could affect untold numbers of people at a price tag of billions of dollars.

In the end, the Republican “war” on science has less to do with any demonstrable pattern of abuse than with a series of political battles over the notion that government should be free to put science at the service of potentially costly and unpopular liberal programs. The fact that many scientists support these programs is interesting, but irrelevant; deserving as they may be of respect for their work, scientists, unlike politicians, are not answerable for the public good.

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About the Author

Kevin Shapiro is a research fellow in neuroscience and a student at Harvard Medical School.




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