Books about the politics of science policy and other complicated policy areas have a hard time doing justice to the politics and the technical aspects both; they usually emphasize one and underplay the other. On the one hand, many journalistic accounts ham up the politics, and underplay the analysis, documenting the atrocities, one after another after another. Raw outrage supported by anecdotes gets partisans’ juices flowing, but it’s not likely to persuade the unpersuaded, or provide any good understanding of how to solve the problem (other than to kick the bums out, which is a start, but only a start). On the other, there are books that do an excellent job of discussing the underlying policy issues, but that lack political zing. Marion Nestle’s Food Politics is a good example; it provides a nuanced (and utterly damning) account of how the technical processes of food regulation have been corrupted by special interests, but it’s written by a policy wonk for policy wonks. There’s lots and lots of technical nitty gritty. The good news is that Chris Mooney’s book pulls off the difficult double act of talking about the politics in a fresh and immediate fashion while paying attention to the underlying issues of institutions and policies, and does it with considerable aplomb. The Republican War on Science is written with an eye for a good story, but it still has a real intellectual punch. There’s an underlying argument as to why the relationship between science and politics is in a parlous state. While I think that there’s an interesting piece missing from this argument (on which more below), it links the very different issues of science politics under the current administration (regulation, intelligent design, global warming, stem cell research) into a more-or-less coherent narrative.
One of the key moments in Mooney’s story – the tragedy of modern science policy – was the decision of the Gingrich Congress to get rid of Congress’s Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), which provided impartial assessments of scientific issues that had policy implications in the 1990s. As Mooney documents, there were a number of reasons for this. The Congress claimed to want to cut down on ‘government waste;’ getting rid of OTA was a cheap way to demonstrate their commitment to doing this. OTA sometimes took some time to deliver its reports (although it was widely lauded for doing an excellent job). But the key problem, in the eyes of Gingrich Republicans, was that its reports were often politically inconvenient. OTA had made a number of enemies during the Reagan era, by issuing reports which reflected the scientific consensus on the “Star Wars” program of missile defence – that it was unworkable, and stood a significant chance of “catastrophic failure.” That these claims were true did little to endear them to Star Wars’ defenders. The result was that some Republicans began to see OTA as an enemy stronghold. Mooney’s account makes it clear that this wasn’t an universal perception among Republicans – one moderate Republican congressman mounted a defence of OTA that might well have succeeded. Unfortunately, this last-ditch initiative failed.
Of course, the demise of OTA isn’t the only factor contributing to the corruption of science politics. However, it did play a quite significant role. OTA was the most important structure through which impartial science advice could enter the policy-making process, and commercial interests and religious fundamentalists have rushed to fill the vacuum that it left. While there were abuses of science under the Reagan administration, and indeed under previous Democratic administrations too, they weren’t systemic. As Mooney argues, they are now. To mention only some of the corruptions of the policy process that he discusses at length, the “Data Quality Act,” an Orwellian misnomer if ever there was one, tries to give business an effective veto power over scientific advice. Tobacco firms pioneered political attacks on “junk science” (i.e. science that suggested that smoking was bad for your health) and sought to magnify scientific uncertainty (in the words of a Brown and Williamson internal document, “doubt is our product”), writing a playbook that oil companies and others eagerly adopted. Senators like James Inhofe blatantly misrepresented and continue to misrepresent the scientific consensus on climate change so that they could claim that manmade global warming was a “hoax … perpetrated on the American people.” Bogus “sound science” arguments are used to attack the Endangered Species Act. George W. Bush makes patently incorrect claims about stem cell research in order to block federal funding. And so on.
A second, and even more troubling set of attacks go hand-in-hand with the corruption of the policy making process. It’s an attack on the basic norms of the scientific community – peer review, principled argument, and the reaching of (always tentative, always open to revision, but nonetheless real) consensus on issues where the science on a topic appears to be more or less settled. The “intelligent design” movement is a quite deliberate and conscious attempt to drive a wedge into this consensus (or the public perception of this consensus), to make it appear that there’s substantive scientific debate where there’s none. So too global warming contrarians, and, a couple of decades ago, people who denied the link between CFCs and ozone depletion. Websites like Steven Milloy’s junkscience.com exist in order to spread doubt, and to make non-debates appear to be real controversies.
Mooney’s book delivers a damning indictment precisely because it shows that these various abuses aren’t unrelated; they’re all symptoms of the same problem, a deep-seated corruption of the policy process, linked to an attack on the basic principles of scientific integrity. Disinterested scientific advice is increasingly marginalized both in policy and in public debate. Just last week, a New York Times journalist gave near-equal hearing to biologists and Intelligent Design cranks, defending this with the claim that it’s the controversy that’s newsworthy. The problem is deep-rooted; Mooney argues that the solution isn’t simply to turf Republicans out of office. Indeed, he claims that “[e]ncouraging the electoral success of Republican moderates with good credentials on science could potentially have just as constructive an effect as backing Democrats.” More fundamental institutional reforms are needed, both to the policy process and to the ways in which journalists and others report public debates on scientific issues.
This is a terrific book – I strongly recommend it. There is however, one piece of the puzzle that’s missing; Mooney does an excellent job of describing the consequences of the Republican relationship with science, but misses out on some of its causes and intellectual justifications. There’s a complex ideological knot there that needs to be unentangled. The ‘anti-science’ agenda of the modern right wing often goes hand-in-hand with an infatuation with the power of technology. Newt Gingrich is the prime example (Mooney more or less admits that there’s something he doesn’t get about Gingrich) – on the one hand presiding over the gutting of the infrastructure of science policy advice, but on the other pushing for a major increase in NSF funding. What gives? I think there’s an ideological substrate to a certain flavour of Republicanism, which finds its purest form in a certain kind of science fiction (the “competent man” SF of the 1940’s and 1950’s) and extropian varieties of libertarianism. It’s an implicit belief that science doesn’t impose limits, but instead provides tools, and that there’s no problem that can’t be solved by a combination of engineering prowess and can-do spirit. This combines a dislike for science, when it suggests, say, that the environment can be seriously degraded by human activity, with a boundless optimism in technology’s ability to solve whatever problems we face, and an underlying faith in a universe of effectively limitless resources. Thus the dislike for scientific consensus, whenever it says that we face constraints on our freedom of action, e.g. the faith that Star Wars would work, despite the many good reasons for believing that it wouldn’t. Hence also the refusal to believe that global warming is a real problem. This set of beliefs clearly has a strong elective affinity with pro-market values and is doubtless often highly convenient for business interests (hence the continued funding for Flack Central Station). But it can’t simply be reduced to a cynical smoke screen for material interests – there’s a real set of social beliefs there. Indeed, it’s a set of beliefs which is sometimes justified in practice – we do often underestimate the ability of human ingenuity to solve problems. However, in the end of the day it’s based on faith (in the boundless powers of human creativity) rather than science; there are material limits to our powers, even if we may sometimes be mistaken about where those limits lie. This secular religion – which has far fewer followers than religious fundamentalism but rather more intellectual coherence – helps explain the ideological staying power of the anti-science tendency in the modern Republican movement.