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
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.