Man, You Guys Worked Me Hard….

by chrismooney on March 27, 2006

First, I want to thank all the contributors here for launching a very high level discussion. Because the separate commentaries overlap in a number of thematic areas, they almost lend themselves to being read in a particular order for greatest effect—and that’s the sequence in which I will address them. Here’s the game plan:

First I’ll touch upon what I view as the argumentative overview posts. Ted Barlow provides a useful and accurate review of my book’s main thesis, and then John Quiggin’s first post goes into more detail, expanding the argument’s applicability beyond the U.S. to Australia, and beyond the issues I discuss to related ones like DDT. (Quiggin’s first post also helps me out with some of my critics, and I fully endorse his rebuttals.) My brief reaction to these posts will comprise phase one.

Phase two: John Holbo, Daniel Davies, and Henry Farrell dive in with thoughtful attempts to advance or reframe my argument, or to press me on matters such as what’s causing the “war on science,” whether I’m too polemical, and whether I can account for the Newtoids or please the “Enterprisers.” This is where things start to get fun.

Phase three: Tim Lambert raises the issue of the academic left and science, and then Steve Fuller gives us a case study in continuing antagonisms between said academic left and the scientific community, including the dreaded National Academy of Sciences. This part is also fun.

Phase four: John Quiggin, who somehow seems to understand my arguments even better than I do (and no, I am not being facetious), steps in to further elucidate what I’m saying. Other authors should be so lucky as to have such an apt defender. I basically agree with everything Quiggin says, so at the end I will call “tag team” and leave you in his capable hands.

With that introduction, let me discuss the entries in more detail. Ted Barlow accurately summarizes my argument when he notes of political science abusers that “The Republican leaders in question could have made arguments for their position by arguing that moral or economic criteria sometimes trump science.” They certainly could, and for the sake of intellectual honesty and quality of debate I wish that they would. To be fair, most of today’s conservative Republicans at least try to yoke science-based argumentation to economic appeals or moral considerations. George W. Bush’s early speeches on climate change, for instance, feature both a selective emphasis on scientific uncertainty and complaints about the cost of mitigation measures like Kyoto. Similarly, Bush’s 2001 stem cell policy speech contained the false claim that “more than 60” embryonic stem cell lines were in existence—but it also contained plenty of moralizing. So it’s not that the right doesn’t make any other arguments besides scientific ones; and in fact, I suspect that conservatives often disregard expertise in economics or bioethics just as they do in science. But science gave me enough to tangle with, so I carefully limited myself to challenging specifically scientific distortions and abuses (a point that will be relevant later when I discuss Steve Fuller’s post).

Moving on to the other summary-type post, John Quiggin shows that he has really gotten inside of my argument, allowing him to steer the vehicle to other locations with ease. I particularly enjoyed this comment: “The ultimate effect of the Republican strategy is to constitute a complete parallel universe, in which scientific ‘knowledge’ is derived from thinktanks and unqualified opinion writers rather than from actual scientists working on the topic in question.” Exactly. This attempt to construct a conveniently walled-off alternate reality is particularly prevalent on the Christian right, whose adherents do their best to insulate themselves and their children from traditional university-based sources of scientific expertise. Not only do they flock to alternative universities like Liberty or Bryan College; they’re constantly minting their own scientific “experts.” Chapter 13 of my book was entitled “Sexed-Up Science,” but it might just as well have been titled “Three Daves and a Joel,” because it presents a kind of picture gallery of Christian right scientists who provide politically convenient arguments on emergency contraception (David Hager), adult stem cell research (David Prentice), and the health risks of abortion (David Reardon, Joel Brind).

Bringing up these characters, incidentally, allows me to clear up an issue that arises in John Holbo’s post (and thereby transition into phase two of the discussion). That issue is intentionality. After all, political science abuse, as I’ve described it on the American political right, is not necessarily committed knowingly. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t; my sense (after going for a swim in some of the tobacco documents) is that the plotting and cynicism tend to be more prevalent on the pro-industry side of the aisle. By contrast, I have little doubt that strong Christians like the “Three Daves and a Joel” believe deeply in what they’re saying. Reardon has even made a comment, quoted in my book, suggesting that since a moral God made the universe, it must operate in such a way as to lead to his particular scientific conclusions about the health risks of abortion: “Because abortion is evil, we can expect, and can even know, that it will harm those who participate in it. Nothing good comes from evil.” Someone capable of making such a statement probably isn’t consciously aware of conducting a “war” on science; rather, he would appear to believe (devoutly, if also conveniently) in a divinely designed world in which his conclusions must be valid by definition. But that doesn’t mean no “war on science” exists: Add up enough foot soldiers like the “Three Daves and a Joel” and you’re sure to get one. So I continue to view the phrase “war on science” as a useful metaphor to describe the comprehensive assault upon scientific expertise across so many different areas of political salience, even if not all of these assaults are consciously intended. A “war on science” is not necessarily the goal, but it is clearly the cumulative outcome. (See Quiggin II for more on this.)

Holbo raises another key issue that comes up sometimes at my public talks. He’s worried about the polemical packaging of my argument (which, incidentally, I do not deny). Will some people be turned off by the title The Republican War on Science? Undoubtedly. Last I checked there are still plenty of Republicans out there. Still, I maintain that it is an accurate title: The abuses I’m describing really have become integral to mainstream Republican political strategy. However, if we are discussing issues of tact rather than of substance, then my reply to Holbo’s concern about polemicism would be the following: There are considerations of timing as well as zeitgeist to take into account. I might have written a less polemical book, and it might have been more persuasive to conservative “Enterprisers” who view themselves as pro-science (or at least to those Enterprisers who bothered to read it). But that book would not have spoken so directly to a moment in which outrage over the treatment of science by the Bush administration had reached a boiling point. There is a time for reaching out across the aisle, and there is a time for denouncing abuses in no uncertain terms. I think that we are in the latter period with respect to the treatment of science in the USA, and my tone reflects that.

But I suspect that Holbo still won’t be entirely satisfied: He wants a “polemic free” version of my book, one in which I “specify and document systematic tendencies on the right which are absent, or less present, on the left, and which are not counterbalanced by uniquely leftish bad tendency.” Without demanding an advance from Holbo for the new project, let me counter that I do highlight and explore these tendencies (which are generally not present on the left). They include 1) a distrust of government (which funds lots of science and uses science as a basis to regulate); 2) a general tenor of anti-intellectualism; 3) a broad distrust of universities (where much of science is conducted); 4) a strong embrace of Christian conservatism; 5) powerful pro-industry and free-market sentiment; 6) widespread proliferation of pseudo-academic (and pseudo-scientific) think tanks; and so on. These factors, when pulled together, take us pretty darn far towards understanding why the right in the US behaves in the way that it does towards science. Perhaps I don’t cover all of this in enough detail for Holbo—which is fine—but on the other hand, I do seem to provide enough detail for Quiggin. Or at least so I assume, because he unintentionally answers Holbo’s request with this left-vs-right comparison, which pretty much sums up my own thinking:

There are few issues on which Democrats in the US, or social democrats and liberals elsewhere have taken a position that is obviously at variance with the findings of mainstream science. By contrast, there is almost no scientific discipline, from geological analysis of the age of the earth to epidemiology to climate science that has not been subject to ideological attack from Republicans and associated interests.

This makes for a good segue into Daniel Davies’ helpful comments. He’s right that RWoS is a very American book, albeit one that’s had a pretty good reception in the UK (I suppose because they’re so worried about us Yanks going off the deep end). Davies says I’ve got the “causation wrong” in my argument, but I actually think my causal picture (which, if I could draw it, would look more like more a web of arrows than a single arrow pointing in one direction) is complex enough to accommodate Davies’ comments nicely. The American “anti-intellectualism” described by De Toqueville, in its modern incarnation, is a core ingredient fueling the war on science. The same goes for what Davies depicts as a human longing after a kind of unshakeable certainty that neither science nor reality can really deliver (this, I submit, characterizes the Christian right). However, I think Davies may be underselling the power of sheer economic self-interest to explain much of what we’re seeing, especially when he writes: “there is rather less obvious economic interest in trying to deny the facts about global warming….” Um, come again? Global warming exposes the dark underbelly of the entire carbon-based economy. There is therefore a huge economic stake in attacking this upstart “theory” and preserving the status quo.

Economics brings us to Henry Farrell, who gently confronts me with a couple of characters who are not the political equivalent of cardboard cut-outs and who perhaps complicate my story: Newt Gingrich, Glenn Reynolds, and maybe (I’m struggling with this one) the folks at Tech Central Station. Farrell has a lot of insight into the ideas driving this crowd, and I don’t question his descriptions; in fact, I would add others, like John Tierney and Ron Bailey, to the list. And I will also admit that there is something that is at least rhetorically powerful about techno-optimism; hell, five years or so ago I was a near-convert. Finally, I will concede that the techno-optimists are great fun to make temporary allegiances with; I like to say that I agree with Reason’s Ron Bailey precisely half of the time.

But I’m not sure this crowd is quite as difficult for me to explain as Farrell thinks. The fact is, many of the techno-optimists are often very closely tied to industry—can anyone say Tech Central Station, or Michael Fumento’s love letters to ag biotech? More generally, if it weren’t for the proliferation of conservative think tanks, I doubt there would be such a chorus of techno-optimism. This helps bring the phenomenon back under the umbrella of the “war on science” thesis in the sense that it links the libertarian technophiles to one of the right’s key interest groups—industry. I don’t doubt that the philosophy of techno-optimism exists or that it is a firmly held view on the part of serious thinkers; but let’s not forget the political mileu in which it arises.

Okay, on to phase III. Tim Lambert hits me in something of a weak spot: In the book I really ought to have discussed, at least briefly, the 1990s saga of the academic left vs. science, which has largely subsided since that time. For what it’s worth, I did give my thoughts on this matter in a 2005 American Prospect column, wherein I pronounced the “Science Wars” of the 1990s over, having been supplanted by the dramatically more consequential “Science Wars” of the 2000s. Here’s a brief excerpt:

Even at the time [the 1990s]…the quest to root out anti-science tendencies in academia seemed a strange deployment of resources. After all, the Gingrich Republicans had just taken over Congress, set out to radically slash science budgets, and preached denial about global warming. If there was a war on science afoot, university professors probably weren’t the leading culprits. Certainly they weren’t the most powerful ones.

Indeed, despite some undeniable academic excesses, the “science wars” were always somewhat overblown. The sociological, historical, philosophical, and cultural study of science is a very worthwhile endeavor. If scholars engaged in such research sometimes take a stance of agnosticism toward the truth claims of science, perhaps that’s simply their way of remaining detached from the subject they’re studying. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that these scholars are absolute relativists, to the extent of thinking that concepts like gravity are a mere matter of opinion. Social Text founding Editor Stanley Aronowitz has himself written that “[t]he critical theories of science do not refute the results of scientific discoveries since, say, the Copernican revolution or since Galileo’s development of the telescope.”

So my basic take on the “Science Wars” is that, although there might have been some genuine anti-science sentiment on the politically ineffectual academic left, the phenomenon was exaggerated and in any case, it’s hardly as worrisome as a similar sentiment on the part of our actual leaders. I do thank Tim for raising the point, though. And I might add that I was unaware that Gross and Levitt, who so powerfully slammed academic leftists during the 1990s for attacking science, had promoted Dixy Lee Ray’s outlandish ozone depletion contrarianism (or her book generally). If so, that’s a significant hole in their pro-science armor.

But of course, there are some elements of the academic left that are actually still attacking science. Or, at least, there’s Steve Fuller, controversial intelligent design booster. I don’t plan on engaging with Fuller on evolution and “intelligent design”; he has taken enough licks on this subject. But let me respond to some of his other points.

Generally speaking, Fuller doesn’t seem particularly concerned about correctly limning my argument; most of the times that he actually engages with me it’s not the real me. Like the point about the Superconducting Supercollider—this is no gap in my account. I deliberately avoided discussing fights over how to apportion and invest research funding because they raise complicated political issues that go far beyond mere matters of distortion, suppression, and so on. And contrary to Fuller’s suggestions, my descriptions of the scientific process hardly suggest someone who’s sociologically naïve about the matter:

Scientists are human. They have plenty of foibles, and in some cases outright myths they tell about themselves. They also have values and agendas that factor heavily into their research decisions. Moreover, the inquiries and investigations of scientists take place in a social and cultural context that shapes both their underlying assumptions and even (at least to some extent) how they measure and interpret nature itself. (p. 14)

It may be convenient to depict me as a sociological babe-in-the-woods about science, but it wouldn’t be accurate. I simply think that science matters despite its obvious shortcomings (hardly a very radical point of view). As for graduate students criticizing tenured professors, funny how that very thing just happened at the Oregon State College of Forestry. Maybe Steven Pinker wasn’t so off base after all.

Moving on, I found Fuller’s comparison between the Office of Technology Assessment and the National Academy of Sciences interesting, especially since he claims the OTA was staffed by “social scientists.” While I’m sure there were a couple, I’ve met a lot of former OTA staffers, and none of them that I recall have been social scientists. Jack Gibbons, who headed the office for over a decade (and during the entire period of its significant influence), was a physicist. This is important because Fuller is trying to make the OTA appear more sophisticated than the Academy; perhaps he does he not realize that several OTA staffers went to work at the NAS when OTA disbanded.

The point is, both OTA and the NAS are needed and important institutions, and their differences are more a strength than a weakness. We need both; losing OTA was a severe blow and we would be further hobbled without the NAS. I would really like to know how we are supposed to get actual quality assessments of the state of scientific understanding if not from convening some of the leaders of the field, getting them to argue it out and write a consensus report, getting the consensus report reviewed, and so forth and so on. The process is messy and imperfect, and occasionally even fails, but these reports have to be done by scientists, and there has to be a careful and uniform protocol set up. And of course, when you do set up the advisory process properly, you are pretty well assured of getting more reliable information than if, say, you just have the president sit down and talk with a sci-fi novelist (to choose a non-random example). And everyone pretty much accepts this…except maybe for Steve Fuller.

Just one more point in reply to him, on the subject of science and democracy. I obviously don’t want to suspend the democratic process in favor of some form of technocracy (talk about a straw man). Rather, I want to forge a more productive relationship between scientists and policymakers within the context of democracy, which will inevitably require setting up the scientific advisory process right. But that doesn’t mean I should have been out doing man-on-the-street interviews about science policy. This is obviously a fairly rarefied area, one in which political abuses will not even be noticed by much of the public, much less punished at the ballot box. We need a public that better understands science, and we need better science education, but I’m not sure that improving either of these situations will necessarily help us to cope with the extremely sophisticated political attacks on scientific information that we’re seeing right now in American government.

And that, I think, provides an adequate reply to the Fuller treatise. Anyway, I needn’t defend myself further: John Quiggin has got my back in his second post. What he says. And thanks to you all for contributing.

{ 19 comments }

1

Steve Fuller 03.27.06 at 3:31 pm

Thanks to Chris for his civil response. First of all, I do indeed think science is very important – not least because it’s socially authorized knowledge. To claim – or, even better, to show – that a knowledge claim is ‘scientifically valid’ has been the main non-violent means of empowerment in the modern era. (Since the early 20th century, it’s also been the main violent means.)

I put matters this way because, in the end, I don’t believe that scientists own science, just like politicians don’t own politics. Both groups are representing all of us – in different ways and means, to be sure. This point is important to stress because to be technically competent in a field of science (i.e. can do the math, the experiments, earn the respect of peers, etc.) is to say nothing yet about the intellectual, cultural, economic or political import of the field or the knowledge it produces. Most disputes about science concern these latter matters, though they are often presented misleadingly as turning on matters of competence. Of course, people make technical errors, but their significance can always be maximized or minimized to suit one’s interests. In any case, one should adopt an even-handed approach on matters of competence, regardless of one’s sympathies – especially if one is interested in resolving, rather than exacerbating, an ongoing conflict.

I wasn’t asking Chris to have done an ordinary ‘man on the street’ study in his book, but perhaps a study of the ordinary scientific ‘man on the street’. As in so much else, Marx was right: one’s views are conditioned by one’s relationship to the means of production – and that includes knowledge production. Studies of the various higher education sectors in the US (and elsewhere) reveal that scientists prioritise areas of research differently, and how those areas are best conveyed in the classroom. Generally speaking, institutions closer to the research frontier, focussed on doctoral education, will tend to tow a line rather like the one Chris upholds in his book. But are these people representative of the wider scientific community, which of course include many people outside academia altogether? Those at doctoral institutions are certainly ‘superior’ by many standards, but not necessarily in terms of having an informed opinion about both science policy and science for policy.

Here I should say something briefly about the shibboleth of ‘relativism’ that always seems to be lurking around sociologically oriented critiques of science. I must confess I can see why people might think I’m some sort of postmodernist but I’m not sure why they would think I’m a relativist. After all, I’m not the one who believes that science journalists should privilege the self-understanding of scientists when trying to make sense of science. I’m the one calling for establishing an independent standard against which insiders’ opinions can be evaluated.

Chris is, of course, right that there are social scientists working at both NAS and OTA. But just based on eyeballing reports from both bodies over the years, the OTA’s stuff always looked like it was touched by the hand of a social scientist, if only because greater care was taken to represent the full range of scientific opinion, not simply The Great and the Good. (An influential senior analyst at the OTA, later with the NSF and now AAAS, was Daryl Chubin, one of the founding members of the Society for Social Studies of Science.) Survey techniques in the social sciences have become quite sophisticated, as shown time and again in public opinion and marketing research. Such methodological cleverness needs to be applied to scientists more often. I suppose the tenor of Chris’ response to me is that he really does believe that there is a tension between science and democracy that somehow needs to be negotiated or compromised. But my point is that this tension is simply reflects the extent to which science by itself is not democratically organized.

I didn’t go into more parts of the book, mainly for reasons of space. But two other things influenced my judgement. One, I would actually be on Chris’ side on many of the issues discussed, especially concerning biomedical research. Two, whatever else The Republican War on Science was meant to convey, it really does leave this reader with the impression that it’s all about the revenge of the politically repressed – where science is now proposed as the means by which Democrats and Moderate Republicans can get back at the right-wingers in power, since the ballot box has failed them miserably. That the angels and devils in both science and politics should line up so neatly is implausible, and suggests that science is not, at bottom, at issue here.

Finally, that example of the Oregon graduate student who dared to question his professor – well, he seems to have done it in the pages of Science magazine, not necessarily in the classroom!

2

Daniel Davies 03.27.06 at 3:33 pm

After all, I’m not the one who believes that science journalists should privilege the self-understanding of scientists when trying to make sense of science. I’m the one calling for establishing an independent standard against which insiders’ opinions can be evaluated.

Steve is dead right on this point; it always massively distresses me that so many of the self-appointed crusaders against “relativism” end up with a standard which boils down to “Nature said it, I believe it and that’s the end of it”, or treat “peer review” as magic oofle dust that you scatter onto research to turn it into Scientific Truth. I really have not yet found anything in the natural sciences which is soooo very difficult that an intelligent layman cannot form a judgement on it if he is willing to apply himself.

3

Chris Mooney 03.27.06 at 3:33 pm

I think this is tricky and we have to be careful here. Michael Crichton might be said to have come to an intelligent layman’s judgment about climate science. Look how that ended up.

4

jacob 03.27.06 at 3:47 pm

Will you all be publishing this as a .pdf, the way you did for some (all?) of the others? I’d like to read it, but I for things this long, I like printing them out much better.

5

rollo 03.27.06 at 4:22 pm

Steve Fuller-“I put matters this way because, in the end, I don’t believe that scientists own science, just like politicians don’t own politics. Both groups are representing all of us – in different ways and means, to be sure. This point is important to stress because to be technically competent in a field of science (i.e. can do the math, the experiments, earn the respect of peers, etc.) is to say nothing yet about the intellectual, cultural, economic or political import of the field or the knowledge it produces.”
Both groups represent something a little more difficult to parse than “all of us”.
They represent, differently and distinctly, portions of us. Factions. It’s vital that those factions see themselves as representing the true center of humanity, and they do. And their actions and attitudes reflect that.
Politicians favor some groups above others, science produces techniques and technologies that benefit some groups above others.
The various economic laws create social filters that favor the prosperity and continuity of certain types of individuals, and the marginalizing and discontinuity of others.
Favoring and benefit meaning prosperity meaning biological gain.
Over time those groups become more generally “us”.
Over time this shapes what “we” are.
That’s where the war is. Scientists, who work and live in an artificial world where true things have intrinsically more value than untrue things; and religionists who live in a world where perceived moral truth outranks the rational – both insist the contest take place on their home ground, and both win repeatedly there. But the contest is for dominance – biological, physical, material. And as always in the flux of Darwinian struggle, winning is everything.
That’s what animates the partisans on all sides, masked as their endeavors are behind the banners of “truth” and “morality”.

6

Jacob T. Levy 03.27.06 at 4:39 pm

Hm. From the perspective of a libertarian disgusted with the war on science, I’m struck by the following:

The emergence of the parallel institutional universe has something to be said for it in the social sciences and the humanities. It has essentially nothing to say for it in the natural sciences. But the (chronologically prior) rise of the counter-establishment think tanks and insulated academic spaces like Hoover, the Committee on Social Thought, and Law & Econ centers may have softened some people up to see that as a norm. That is, a right-leaning law professor, social scientist, or philosopher may be well-disposed toward the growth of institutions outside mainstream academia– regardless of whether he or she has benefitted personally from such institutions, even been employed by them. Part of our lore is about stifling left-wing consensuses in mainstream academia. (And then the triumphant denouements when the disciplines must recognize the errors of their ways: Hayek and Friedman win their Nobels, the neoclassical synthesis supplants Keynesianism, neoliberalism supplants dependency theory in development economics, originalism and law & economics become major research agendas within the mainstream legal academy, and so on. Victory is reincorporation into the disciplines.)

Of course, I’m sympathetic to a number of the ideas that were so cultivated. I’m sure lots of the symposium participants aren’t. But I assume we can all agree that those ideas are actually within their disciplines, in the way that ID is not actually within biology. The human sciences are a) less amenable to decisive proof and disproof than thenatural sciences; b) sometimes appropriately tied up with normative values; and c) even when not, easily conflated with normative political positions. So the social sciences and the humanities may well be prone to genuinely important research agendas getting frozen out for essentially political reasons; and alternative institutions may well cultivate ideas that can later be reincorporated into the disciplines, to the latter’s benefit.

The catch is: two generations of conservative and libertarian intellectuals know this story and have habits of mind shaped by it. That might– might– have made it easier for some of them (us) to look favorably on pseudo-scientists claiming to represent the same kind of thing in the natural sciences. Too many habits of mind that say, “We know that the established consensus in an academic discipline can be wrong, and wrong because of ideological blinders! So we should give this ID’er a fair hearing.”

As I say, the analogy is actually entirely wrong. Even someone who thinks neoclassical economics is wrong will, I think, acknowledge it to be wrong in a different way from how ID is wrong or how the “abortion is evil so it must cause cancer” folks are wrong. And probably no one consciously said, “We need to create the Hoover Institution or Federalist Society of climate science!” But there may have been a temperament of distrust of disciplinary consensuses, a distrust of the mechanisms of peer review working in ideologically neutral ways, etc., that may have been a precipitating factor. This doesn’t explain where ID people come from; but it may explain why AEI people are willing to give them a platform, a bullhorn, and a respectful hearing.

A long digression, sparked by the “parallel institutional universe” idea, and not something I’ve thought out carefully. Just… maybe.

7

aphd 03.27.06 at 4:45 pm

I really have not yet found anything in the natural sciences which is soooo very difficult that an intelligent layman cannot form a judgement on it if he is willing to apply himself.

I think the problem is that too many people (layman and scientists in other fields) think that they’re competent to make judgements in scientific fields where they know too little to evaluate the material. I’ve got a Ph.D. in physics, but I’m honest and realistic enough to admit that I don’t have the background to evaluate topics outside of my area like string theory.

8

Robert 03.27.06 at 5:45 pm

Chris,

Sherwood Boehlert, who (as you know) is the Republican congressman chairing(?) the House committee on science and technology(?), is retiring this year after n terms. He is one Republican who is on the side of science. Inasmuch as his district includes an Air Force research laboratory, he has an institutional interest in these matters. (My salary comes from the funding of that laboratory.) Self-interests and positions can be related in complicated fashions.

Now I’ll go read the other blog posts in this seminar – they come out on my browser in weird order.

9

armando 03.27.06 at 6:04 pm

Steve is dead right on this point; it always massively distresses me that so many of the self-appointed crusaders against “relativism” end up with a standard which boils down to “Nature said it…I really have not yet found anything in the natural sciences which is soooo very difficult that an intelligent layman cannot form a judgement on it if he is willing to apply himself.

The last sentence is certainly true. But is there any way to really distinguish an informed layman from someone uninformed when we democratise science? That is, if the overwhelming expert scientific opinion agrees on the most probably resolution of a scientific controversy – and, like Steve Fuller, one wants to claim this isn’t enough – then what do you really have except straight democracy? How can you judge competency, if you have already discarded expert opinion as insufficient?

My impression is that Steve Fuller is unwittingly aiding this “War on Science” by taking the line he does. One does get the impression that he is frustrated by the political naiveity of the science “supporters” and he is certainly right that if scientists were to loosen up their professional ethics and play more politics, the fight would be a lot fairer. But one really does have to believe that there is nothing but politics and sociology to science to believe that this would actually be of benefit to scientific enquiry.

10

Drm 03.27.06 at 6:25 pm

Seconding comment #7, science really is hard to do well, hence over their careers most scientists function within a fairly narrow niche.

With respect to the reliability of peer-review, on short time scales (publications and grant review panels) an error prone process is actually necessary and desirable. Hence, peer review is best at eliminating things that are clearly wrong, rather than establishing which things are correct. To find truth, one needs to take a long view.

11

Robert P. 03.27.06 at 8:04 pm

Point of clarification: Gross and Levitt did not promote Dixy Lee Ray’s nonsense about CFC/ozone. They recommended her first book (_Trashing the Planet_) for its treatment of unrelated subjects (IIRC, the environmental effects of nuclear power which Ray actually did know something about). The CFC/ozone discussion in _Trashing_ is very short (about 4 pages, in which I managed to find a mistake in nearly every sentence) and Gross and Levitt may not have noticed it. Yes, they should have (as Shallit very properly pointed out), but not everyone has the kind of detailed attention span that you, Shallit, and most especially Lambert have demonstrated.

12

Chris Mooney 03.27.06 at 8:35 pm

Robert: I agree with you completely about Boehlert and have praised him in the past. Not exactly representative of his party politically, however.

Robert P: Thanks for the clarification.

Jacob: I think that really casts a light on what the mindset behind this might be. As I said, the “war on science” may not be intentional, but when you get enough think tanks attacking mainstream science, it becomes actual.

All: On peer review, it’s obviously not perfect, but there have to be some standards for the judgment of scientific work–some way of setting up the game in order to hopefully ensure reliable answers in the long run. We do the best we can.

Finally, a few more points in reply to Steve Fuller, who writes: “I suppose the tenor of Chris’ response to me is that he really does believe that there is a tension between science and democracy that somehow needs to be negotiated or compromised. But my point is that this tension is simply reflects the extent to which science by itself is not democratically organized.”

Maybe science could be more democratically organized–and we can talk about that–but I’m trying to rescue science from present day political attack. These are separate issues.

Fuller also writes: “Two, whatever else The Republican War on Science was meant to convey, it really does leave this reader with the impression that it’s all about the revenge of the politically repressed – where science is now proposed as the means by which Democrats and Moderate Republicans can get back at the right-wingers in power, since the ballot box has failed them miserably. That the angels and devils in both science and politics should line up so neatly is implausible, and suggests that science is not, at bottom, at issue here.”

All I can say is that, au contraire, science *is* the issue here. Think about it this way. Suppose I wanted to unseat George W. Bush. From an electoral standpoint, does anyone seriously think that I would make *science policy* my issue to use against him? Can anyone think of an issue *less* likely to have broad mainstream appeal?

Elections are won on matters of economics and healthcare–bread and butter stuff–or else matters of war. Or perhaps “moral values.” But they’re not won on matters of science policy.

If unseating George W. Bush is my goal, I have chosen a curious way to go about it.

13

Barry 03.28.06 at 9:01 am

Jacob T. Levy: ” but it may explain why AEI people are willing to give them a platform, a bullhorn, and a respectful hearing.”

Considering AEI’s recent record, including the Iraq war, I’d put the burden of proof on the other side – when has AEI ever shown evidence of honesty?

14

Barry 03.28.06 at 9:04 am

Chris: “…and then Steve Fuller gives us a case study in continuing antagonisms between said academic left and the scientific community, …”.

Chris, IMHO this is too strong a statement. Steve Fuller is one guy. One who has been a useful tool for the right’s war on science. To my eyes he’s more of a parody of a left-wing ivory tower relativist fool than representative anything singificant in academia.

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Barry 03.28.06 at 9:55 am

About the techno-optimists, such as Newt and Reynolds: there was a saying about Naziism, that it was in love with technology, but hated science. Presumably the same could be said about Stalinism.

The key is that they like bigger guns, bombs, airplanes, trains, crop yields, steel tonnage, etc. National power, national prosperity.

However they don’t like political freedom, which means that truth is untrustworthy. As was said on the ‘Daily Show’ once, ‘John, the facts are biased against the administration’.

These people will go along with the war for the most part, heartily support it sometimes, and oppose it very little. In the end, they’ll support it, because it’s so useful to suppress inconvenient facts. The end result is that those facts inconvenient to any signficant faction of the GOP coalition are in danger, unless they are of significant and direct value to another.

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Tim Lambert 03.28.06 at 10:59 am

Robert P, while missing four pages on ozone depletion in a book is excusable, Taubes’ article “The Ozone Backlash” is only four pages long and Dixy Lee Ray’s bogus volcano theory is thoroughly debunked. Gross and Levitt cites Taubes as demonstrating that CFCs really do deplete ozone and on the next page refer to Dixy Lee Ray as “straight-shooting”.

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Robert P. 03.28.06 at 2:04 pm

Tim, you are assuming that just because Gross and Levitt cited Taubes’ article, they had actually read it. I suspect that they didn’t do more than skim it – anyone who refers to “depletion of ionospheric ozone” as they did clearly hasn’t made much of an effort to read up on the subject. They can certainly be charged with sloppiness; I just wanted to make clear that they hadn’t actually climbed aboard this particular bandwagon.

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Tim Lambert 03.28.06 at 10:59 pm

I think “ionospheric” was just a typo (and Shallit was unfair for beating them up over it). Here is where they first cite Taubes:

[CFCs] are clearly significant reactants in the chain of processes causing the seasonal hole in polar stratospheric ozone.[22]

Seems to me they did more than skim Taubes — they considered the evidence and come to a conclusion.

And even if you skim Taubes, it is hard to miss Dixy Lee Ray, since there is a picture of her book on the front page.

Nor does it seem plausible that they had forgetten about Taubes when they recommended Ray — they cite him again on the same page in note 24 and then note 25 (in the next paragraph) is the favourable cite of Ray.

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Sylvia S Tognetti 03.31.06 at 11:26 am

I have really enjoyed this discussion – this comment is just to let you all know I posted some rather longish commentary on postnormaltimes.net, mostly picking up on Daniel Davies and John Quiggins observations – i.e., “why do we have this parallel universe that is so well documented in RWOS.” I haven’t tried to cross-post it here because it also goes into issues that have been discussed on PNT – but if there is a way to trackback to this site I will do so. Permalink to the post is:
http://www.postnormaltimes.net/blog/archives/2006/03/difficult_scien_1.html

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