The Republican War On Science is a good read. But also – broadly – the same genre as this (shudder) and this (shuddershudder). The title hints at a sinister plot to – well, you see what I mean. The worry is the thing is afflicted with a touch of the paranoid style. Now I quite like a little hyperventilation. I know book marketing makes lurid demands. I’ve read a couple reviews that accuse Mooney of polemic; some seriously, excessively polemical negative reviews. Mooney has had chunks taken out of him. I’m not so interested in more of that. Still, a potboiling polemical style will deform presentation in predictable ways. Let’s consider.
First, there’s concern about choir-preaching. Consider the recent Pew Research Center Report that found, among other things, that substantial numbers of Republicans are so-called Enterprisers: "The staunchly conservative Enterprisers have perhaps the most consistent ideological profile of any group in the typology. They are highly patriotic and strongly pro-business, oppose social welfare and overwhelmingly support an assertive foreign policy. This group is largely white, well-educated, affluent and male more than three-quarters are men. While Enterprisers are a bit less religious than the other GOP groups, they are socially conservative in most respects." What you’ve got here is your basic Newt Gingrich – to a significantly lesser extent, your Glenn Reynolds, Tech Central Station-type. Being pro-science is, on average, part of your self-conception if you are an ‘enterpriser’. You are an optimistic believer in the power of technology and science to generate wealth and improve human life. This lot will look at Mooney’s cover and feel personally slandered. ‘How can I be part of a war on science? I think the X-Prize is great! I want science to make me live forever! I love my new digital camera! Liberals are the ones who are always refusing to look at the facts. Look what they did to poor Larry Summers because he tried to speak truth to power! They buried their heads in the sand when The Bell Curve came out! Whimpering about ‘frankenfood’. Postmodern nonsense! What the academy needs is a return to reason! They’re arrogant and elitist and they want to cram their lefty values down everyone’s throats, packaged as ‘science’! (Like that smug scientist bastard in The Day The Earth Stood Still, who helped the alien turn everyone’s cars off to teach them a lesson. That’s academic science for you. Telling everyone how to live their lives.’
However many grains of truth you think may be in this heap, it’s clear there will be enough sand in some eyes to keep War on Science from a fully considerate reception. I don’t want to be naive and say: if only you reasoned with them in a friendly, respectful way, you could make them see. One of the things the Pew research shows is that this lot is ideologically consistent, which suggests a certain partisan hardening, etc. They aren’t going to peel easy. The more libertarian ones will probably stick with ‘pox on both your houses.’ Still, one ought to try. At any rate, a less polemical performance of the thesis is worth rehearsing if only to the choir. (Not that you can’t sing the other version. There are actually good reasons to have two versions.)
Let’s start with ‘war on science’. I’m guessing that was marketing’s idea. The notion is suggestive of the absurd. A meeting of the cabal: ID-supporter (Ned Flanders) and ‘sound science’ industry apologist (Homer hired as a flack). Roll clip of Homer and Lisa debating on Kent Brockman’s show. Lisa is cut off before she can finish. "Well, the only reasonable thing to conclude is that you’re both half right. And that’s my two cents." Monty Burns explains that he paid to have Lisa’s school report on nuclear waste trashed not because the truth would have cost him millions but because there’s a war on science: "We must prevail, because – so it has been written – against stupidity, even the Gods must strive in vail. These Democrats, gentlemen, are no Gods! To ignorance! TO IGNORANCE!" Professor Frink suddenly falls through the skylight: "ah, with the biasing and the fringe sciencing and the phony journalistic balancizing ba-hey!"
(I hope Mooney knows I’m laughing with him, not at him. Really, I like his book.) Anyway, being anti-science is not anyone’s idea of an end, with respect to which individual acts of stupidity are perpetrated as calculated means. Mooney never says otherwise. But, preoccupied with bringing our indignation to a steady boil, he does not lay out, clearly and comprehensively, exactly what he thinks instead of any silly conspiracy theory. He quotes the Union of Concerned Scientists on misrepresentations, suppressions and sundry tamperings (p. 224): "Other administrations have, on occasion, engaged in such practices, but not so systematically nor on so wide a front." Grant the wide front (I do, and not just for the sake of argument); the systematicity is still a BIG question-mark. Is the claim really that the corruption is qualitatively different, i.e. more ‘systematic’, in addition to just plain being more? Or is the charge just that there is a bigger pile because it’s a bigger elephant (because it certainly has grown.)
The book concludes: "This political movement has patently demonstrated that it will not defend the integrity of science in any case in which science runs afoul of its core political constituencies. In so doing, it has ceded any right to govern a technologically advanced and sophisticated nation. Our future relies on our intelligence but today’s Right – failing to grasp this fact in virtually every political situation in which it really matters, and nourishing disturbing anti-intellectual tendencies – cannot deliver us there successfully or safely. If it will not come to its senses, we must cast it aside" (p. 255).
The first sentence says it: there isn’t a war on science. Science is collateral damage in a driveby shooting aimed at … what? What way is it science gets in, and why? I should stop right here, for I am no science journalist like Mooney. Nevertheless, a few suggestions. Obviously I’m inducting from the data set Mooney himself has provided. Really, it’s a great read. Obviously Mooney sees perfectly well what I am suggesting. But I feel that … well, the polemic sort of prevents Mooney’s own pretty clear implications from ever getting expressed with sufficient analytic clarity. Getting clear is both important in itself, and probably genuinely important for purposes of converting at least a few on the other side.
Let’s start with a philosophical point. Chris Mooney is not made of stone, so he helps himself to the most delicious slice of sweet philosophic stupidity served up these past five years. The ‘reality-based community’ thing from the ‘senior advisor’ to the President quoted in the 2004 Ron Susskind NY Times article:
The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." I nodded and mumbled something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. "That’s not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality."
And so we have gotten endless (genuinely funny) jokes about the ‘postmodern presidency’. Mooney rifs a bit. I’ve done a spot of that myself. (My personal version of the schtick is that Bush is an ideal, Zizekian Knight of Faith. Now is not the time for my schtick.) Kidding aside: with these folks we’ve got a compound of ruthless Machiavellianism, old-fashioned zealotry, and – in foreign policy matters – hegemonic hubris. That last ingredient may presently be evaporating upon contact with reality. At any rate, let’s consider Machiavellianism and zealotry. I think we know what this is. It’s clear that sometimes ignoring facts – lying – can rather shrewd. You know what you want. An inconvenient fact obtrudes. Ignoring it, trying to blow past, may work: first, if you suspect those who unearthed the fact are your political enemies, they may be coloring things in to suit their ends and values, so you may as a matter of heuristic strategy opt always to lean the other way; second, someone may find a solution to the problem later – happens all the time in science; third, by the time it gets really bad it may be someone else’s problem. Or at least you will have enough power not to take responsibility. Zealotry compounds this. Machiavellians on a mission from God are the best when it comes to ignoring inconvenient facts. There really is not much mystery in the fact that politics more or less selects for, rather than against, personality types that can easy bend this way.
And there you have the Bush/Rove problem. But why pin it on Republicans generally? Well, yes, they have to take the blame for Bush.
But what systematic tendencies are there that led us to this dreadful pass? Obviously in the past it has been the case that some on the left sacrificed science to political values – or at least to specific goals. Mooney himself mentions Lysenko. There you go. Zealous leftists are capable of disregarding, of being blindly arrogant, etc. Activists, reformers, revolutionaries on both wings tend to get tired of ‘it’ll never work’, because they feel this is almost always a lazy excuse for not trying, or just a straightforward attempt to block what is properly an argument about ends. So they tune out skepticism, often with disastrous results. Technocrats smuggle values into their findings, disguised as facts, or just feel it is their privilege to impose values on others … Walter Lippman-type consent manufacturers. They neglect to consider that every man is the best judge of where his own shoe pinches (at least in some cases.) Of course the line on the right is to claim precisely that this is what we have in fact got – entrenched, detached, arrogant academic elitists. the MSM etc. This is not plausible, but protesting against the very notion will fail to convince. They’ll just think you are Walter Lippman, lying to them for what you think is their own good. Let me quote another bit from Mooney:
Testifying before a National Academy of Science panel in July 2004, Michigan Republican congressman Vernon Ehlers, himself a physicist and generally regarded as a champion of science, defended the practice of asking advisory committee appointees about their voting records and party affiliation. "I think it’s an appropriate question. I don’t think scientists should consider themselves a privileged class – that politics is for everyone else and not for them," Ehlers stated, In effect, he blessed the notion of dividing science into "Republican" and "Democratic" camps. (To some extent, scientists may well divide this way, but there is no reason to make matters worse.)
When the National Academy released its final report, it unequivocally rejected Ehler’s position. "It is no more appropriate to ask S&T [science & technology] experts to provide nonrelevant information – such as voting record, political-party affiliation, or position on particular policies – than to ask them other personal immaterial information, such as hair color or height," wrote the committee. But the damage had been done. A prominent Republican and scientists had taken a stance in favor of science politicization to defend the administration … " (p. 244)
Mooney, following the National Academy statement, protests too much. Ehlers looks to be engaged in partisan water-carrying. But – as Mooney himself says at other points – it’s unrealistic to think partisan affiliation is as irrelevant as, say, hair color. Mooney would be suspicious of a scientific committee that found in favor of policies favored by Republicans … which turned out to be stacked with Republicans. That would send up a little warning flag. Mooney advocates full-disclosure in ‘science court’ cases. "Congress should implement mechanisms to ensure full disclosure of any potentially relevant conflict of interests by witnesses invited to testify at hearings at the time of their testimony. such a step would at least partially deter the worst excesses of the "science court" tradition" (p. 250). Obviously an apologist for these courts might say: ‘scientists may indeed divide between ‘industry-friendly’ and not. But there is no need to make matters worse by dragging this fact into the light.’ Well, the goose-gander concern is clear enough. Even if they are engaged in a bit of partisan maneuvering, there is every reason to think that the likes of Ehlers seriously think full partisan disclosure would be a salutary ‘sunlight’ measure.
Let me conclude by modestly suggesting that what is needed is a more explanatory argument for the systematic inferiority of the Republican party on science matters. This needs (first) to take seriously, if only hypothetically, the view that right partisanship just balances out left partisanship. The way to rebut this line is to 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. There are, by my count, really just two major candidate factors: culture war and corruption by deep-pocketed industries/corporations. The right has a significant constituency that is not exactly anti-science, but deeply pleased by a sense of science as culturally subordinate to Christianity. Fights over evolution are all about pride. But this is only true of those fighting from the right. PZ Myers didn’t go into biology to fight with ID’ers. But the ID’ers definitely went into biology primarily to achieve a sense of superiority over the likes of PZ. All the same, there is a certain tokenism to this culture war. Science must be compelled to bend the knee on a few public occasions. But everyone knows science makes DVD players, and we want those. Attacks on science on the cultural front are never going to go too far. As annoyed as PZ is by the ID’ers, I suspect that straightforward corruption is the much bigger ticket item. If it is possible to buy influence in Washington, if politicians can cherry-pick science ‘results’, rather than having to acknowledge the findings of independent committees, then money can buy facts. Certain sorts of facts (or their suppression) are so valuable to businesses that they will be bought if they are for sale. Republicans are the party of business, so they will be disproportionately corrupted. There is no way to ‘privatize’ this sort of scientific inquiry so that the profit motive follows finding truth, rather than pleasing those willing to pay for certain truths. So gung-ho X-Prize boosterism as a model of how science should be done doesn’t fly in these contexts. (Please note: this is not an argument, it is an outline of an argument.) So then you have, not a ‘war on science’ but a money-trail, leading to a ‘science sold to the highest bidder’ model.
What I want is for Mooney to present a polemic-free version of his thesis, just to get clear about these things.
And that is where my draft post stopped. I’ve edited it lightly, more or less for clarity. Chris has responded – not fully, but I did basically ask him to write a new book. I wish I had made clearer in my draft that I can perfectly well see that what Chris writes in his response is already clearly implied by his book. The only issue is that, because it is somewhat contradicted by the rhetoric – which builds extra indignance by sort of laying on the intentionality – the implications are never really analyzed explicitly, though they are really unmissable. Anyway, I ended up asking for a proof that the systematic tendencies on the Republican side will continue to be worse than any on the other side. Since that is a flagrant impossibility, I should have asked for something saner. Maybe: a rhetorically compelling response to the narrative frame invariably deployed by the other side on the science question. I linked to Instapundit above, and the day after I wrote my draft he posted this. And then this. (Links are about politicization of psychology.) In his response to my post Mooney quotes Quiggin:
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
The problem with this is that, although plausibly true and crucial (I don’t see a problem), it doesn’t really address one of the main sources of conservative concern: namely, trumped up social science. I think a big part of the response to this sort of concern should be: but this really isn’t all that consequential, even if it’s true that earnest lefty academic scientists do engage in it (which I really don’t doubt.) You can be annoyed by it, if you are on the right, but it’s just not that big a practical factor in politics. So you shouldn’t pretend it balances out the the cases Mooney discusses, which are more serious. (Again, this isn’t an argument, just a possible outline of one.)
Thanks for showing up and discussing your book with us, Chris. Glad to meet you.