Republican War on Science : Introduction to a Seminar

by John Quiggin on March 27, 2006

Political conflict over scientific issues has probably never been as sharp as at present. Issues like global warming and stem-cell research, that came to prominence in the 1990s are being fiercely debated. At the same time, questions that had, apparently, been resolved long ago, like evolution or the US ban on agricultural use of DDT, are being refought. A striking feature of these debates is that, in nearly all cases (the one big exception being GM foods) the fight lines up the political Right, and particularly the US Republican Party on one side, and the majority of scientists and scientific organisations on the other. Chris Mooney’s book, The Republican War on Science is, therefore, a timely contribution to the debate, and we are happy to host a seminar to discuss it, and thank Chris for agreeing to take part.

In addition to contributions from five members of CT, we’re very pleased to have two guests participating in the debate. Tim Lambert has been an active participant in the blogospheric version of some of the debates discussed by Chris. Tim, like the CT participants, broadly endorses Chris’s argument, though with some disagreement on analytical points and questions of emphasis and presentation. To broaden the debate, Steve Fuller was invited to take part in the seminar, and kindly agreed, knowing that he would be very much in the minority. Steve presents a social constructivist critique of Chris’ argument. We’re very grateful to Steve for taking part.

I won’t attempt to summarise the debate since Chris Mooney, in his response, has done an excellent job.

Like previous CT seminars, this seminar is published under a Creative Commons licence, with no prejudice to any material quoted from The Republican War on Science or other texts under fair use principles. Comments are open to all posts; we encourage people with general comments to leave them on Chris’s post. The seminar will be made available in PDF format, once discussion concluded.

If you wish to link to this seminar, use the URL http://crookedtimber.org/category/chris-mooney-seminar/

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Crooked Timber » » Republican War on Science : Introduction to a Seminar
03.27.06 at 3:24 pm
John Quiggin » Blog Archive » The Republican War on Science: CT Seminar
03.27.06 at 5:29 pm
Pharyngula
03.27.06 at 6:52 pm
Darwiniana » Seminar on Mooney book
03.27.06 at 8:41 pm
Deltoid
03.28.06 at 9:05 am
Crooked Timber Mooney Seminar | Cosmic Variance
03.28.06 at 11:23 am
Darwiniana » RWOS: index
03.29.06 at 9:46 pm

{ 23 comments }

1

Jaybird 03.27.06 at 5:27 pm

Man, if we have one more “War on Science” thread on the page, that’ll be a record!

2

Terje Petersen 03.27.06 at 5:41 pm

Issues like:-

1. global warming

I thought that the republican administration had now accepted the science behind anthroprogenic global warming. It is the Kyoto protocol that they continue to reject (as does Australia). I thought the Kyoto protocol was more a political policy response rather than a body of science. Most of the science seems to suggest that the Kyoto protocol will have very few benefits in it’s current form anyway.

2. Stem-cell research

I thought it was an ethical debate that was happening rather than a science one. Nobody rejects the existance of stem cells or the fact that we can probably manipulate them to do amazing things. It is much like abortion. Nobody rejects the technical fact that a fetus can be killed.

3. evolution

More of a debate about public funding of religious education. In any case this played out in the courts and seems to have been resolved for now. Even the Pope accepts the arguments for evolution. I must admit to being ignorant about the partisan nature of this debate.

4. the US ban on DDT.

I have heard the arguments. Again I did not know it was partisan. I thought it was mostly Michael Crichton. In any case I don’t think anybody rejects the science that says DDT has an impact on the egg shells of predator birds. The question is one about costs and benefits. Science can not tell us that we must save the bald eagle. It can only tell us about consequences and causes.

Science should inform public policy and politics. Science can help us take the politics out of some issues. However in the final analysis Science can not answer the political questions.

There is plenty wrong with the republicans and the Bush administration (eg pre-emptive war, over spending). But I think suggesting that science is under attack by partisan forces is kind of provocative. I suspect that such a book aims to be a part of the political landscape itself. However I have not read the book yet so I may have it all wrong.

Where can I find the book summary by Chris Mooney?

3

John Landon 03.27.06 at 8:17 pm

At the Darwiniana blog I have a number of posts working out the ‘democratic war on scientism’, quite possibly with a view to issue generation for the 2008 election. Mooney’s very fine book is flawed by the liberal confusion over Darwin, and the inability to see that this is a losing issue. To get this mixed up with global warming is potentially a disaster in the making.

4

aaron 03.28.06 at 2:48 am

Republican War on Science is a big turn off. You sound like a loon. I would tone it down to Republican Scientific Incompetance or Republican Scientific Mis-Management.

5

Harald Korneliussen 03.28.06 at 3:28 am

Terje Petersen: There is a lot of misinformation coming from the right on issues 1, 3 and 4. There might be on 2, but I too thought the objections to that were mostly ethical.

I don’t rule ut the possibility that some think tank has been paid to write that embryonic stem cells are overrated or something, but if it has, then those things are not what are in the front of the debate.

On the other hand, with global warming and the so-called DDT ban, carefully crafted misinformation is everywhere you look. And at least one conservative think tank (the Discovery Institute) has been a vocal advocate of intelligent design creationism.

6

Chris Mooney 03.28.06 at 4:44 am

Terje, Harald–
Please see my book chapter 12. You will learn all about the science-abusing campaign to elevate adult stem cells over embryonic stem cells, which has been very much at the center of this debate.

7

jet 03.28.06 at 9:19 am

Perfect timing.

I guess I’ll have to read chapter 12, but I don’t recall the talking heads on Fox ever saying adult stem cells were equal or superior to embryonic stem cells. I don’t recall totipotency being discussed. I don’t remember Bush claming embryonic stem cell research was in its prime and required no further research. Like Harald Komeliussen (9), I’m positive some hacks pushed those lines of thought in order to lend force to Republican arguements. But the debate centered around ethics, not scientific facts.

Course now I have to buy the damned book and read it to see what all the excitement is about ;)

8

Jim Norton 03.28.06 at 9:47 am

Terje: Not sure how you can be so wrong. For example, #4. Steven (the junk “scientist”) Milloy very much denies any effect of DDT on birds:

http://www.junkscience.com/ddtfaq.htm#ref6

Of course Milloy is very wrong. For example, he fails to note the differences in the reproduction of birds that lay many eggs, like the fowl used in the feeding experements, and those that lay a few.

http://www.environmentalreview.org/vol01/anderson.html

9

sfb 03.28.06 at 10:06 am

Unfortunately, the left is just as willing to avoid scientific evidence when it conflicts with desired political goals. Some of the folks protesting evolution and the fossil record are not right-wing Christians. Red Earth White Lies ought to be on the reading list for anyone who thinks only the conservative right is fighting science. Perhaps the people who see a Republican war on science would like to explain why none of them have commented on the scientific arguments Red Earth White Lies advances.

SFB

10

abb1 03.28.06 at 12:25 pm

I don’t see how this Red Earth White Lies thing is left. Sounds more like Indian nationalism or something. Is this really what’s usually understood as ‘left’?

11

Bro. Bartleby 03.28.06 at 1:03 pm

Okay, let me get this straight, we mass murder all sorts of fowl because of an evolving flu virus that may kill lots of humans, yet we ban DDT because it will thin the shells of said murdered fowl, but then again eagles are so pretty and it cool to watch them soar and then nose dive for the kill, and then the mosquitoes, are not they the primary reason for DDT use, yet then again, malaria is only an Africa problem, so how many die annually in Africa from malaria? Or does anyone care?

12

Crystal 03.28.06 at 1:05 pm

“Red Earth, White Lies” was written by the late Vine Deloria, Jr. He was a Lakota historian who was very much into Native American rights and very militant. Much of what Deloria wrote (more in other books than REWL) was about reclaiming his culture from anthropologists and outsiders into the hands of the Indians themselves. Hardly anti-science or even a bad thing, AFAIC.

In any event, the likes of “Red Earth, White Lies” hardly make any impact outside of some parts of academia, as well as radical Greens, deep ecologists and the like. However, the right-wing anti-science types are mainstream and hold power in the US – unlike the deep ecologists. This is why the Republican war on science is a threat and Deloria is not.

13

Walt 03.28.06 at 2:18 pm

SFB: I’ve been on the left my entire life, and I’ve never heard of Red Earth White Lies. Try again.

14

Alex R 03.28.06 at 3:19 pm

bro. bartleby: I highly recommend the postings of Tim Lambert, also commenting in this seminar, on the subject of DDT, here and also here. There is no ban on DDT for control of malaria, although use has declined as resistance to DDT has increased.

15

lemuel pitkin 03.28.06 at 3:58 pm

Could we think about segregating the posts in the next one of these seminars in some kind of sub-site? The way you do it now, you’ve got ten posts on one topic going up all at once and pushing everything else off the front page.

(which means I missed my chance to comment on the Nebulas — I wanted to weigh in in support of Spin!)

16

Luis Villa 03.28.06 at 5:57 pm

These seminars are brilliant, but maybe you guys could experiment with some form other than the blog for them? They are fairly hard to follow and read this way.

17

Bro. Bartleby 03.28.06 at 6:08 pm

Bro. Alex,

Thanks for the links, and I had heard about the effectiveness of the ‘insecticide treated netting’ for combating malaria, but have also heard from some missionaries in Africa that the frustration is that when given free netting (treated), the netting ends up being sold in the open marketplace. Some being so destitute that food for the next meal trumps the threat of a possible mosquito bite.

Bro. Bartleby

18

jet 03.28.06 at 6:12 pm

Bro. Bartleby,
As sad as that situation is, I don’t see how that is an indictment of DDT. Tim Lambert makes a pretty good case that there is a good chance that the retraints on DDT use cause less malaria rather than more.

19

Jack Strocchi 03.29.06 at 1:35 am

I wholeheartedly agree with Chris Mooney’s thesis that the Republican party is at war with science, to the extent that science impedes its drive to power. This is obvious accross a range of issues, from Creationist ID, stem-cell research, gun control, anthropogenic global warming.

One should also add to that list the Bush admins headline foreign policy adventure in Iraq. Within the US government most non-partisan foreign policy professional experts opposed the War, basicly on scientific-logistic grounds.

Although, to be fair, there was a special faction of Right Wingers dubbed “Republicans who know what they are talking about” who based their opposition to Iraq war on social scientific and realistic foreign policy grounds. Steve Sailer has been an insistent critic of the Bush Republican party’s opposition to the reality-based community. He likens the Bush Republicans to post-modern deconstructionists.

The Foucault-ification of Republican ideologues continues apace. In French postmodern thought, there’s no such thing as “truth,” just power. More and more, Bush is dependent upon “Fundamentalist Post-Modernism,” the belief that belief is all that matters and that reality is trivial compared to having a positive mental attitude.

…the mood of the country seems to be moving increasingly toward what I call Christian post-modernism: the feeling that reality is less important than thinking positive thoughts, that problems don’t so much exist in the real world as merely in the heads of those awful, negative-thinking cynics. They are the real problem!

Increasingly, that way of thinking is popular among the more frenzied defenders of the Iraq Attaq. Thus, the WSJ is outraged that the Niger Yellowcake hoax wasn’t “investigated” by a gung ho Republican fanatic who would have reported back exactly what the WSJ wanted to hear.

Look, guys, the President has already admitted that Wilson was telling the truth — we got pranked by forged documents. (Of course, I am as shocked as you are that all communications from Africans purporting to be high government officials with interesting deals to discuss might not be completely on the up and up.) It’s time to pull yourselves out of your deconstructionist death spiral.

Bush’s contempt for science is shown by his appointment of a Democrat as science policy adviser.

the official science advisor for the last three years has been John H. Marburger III, a Democrat. Since Bush is the most postmodern President ever, in that he doesn’t believe in truth, just political will, you can see from the science advisor’s party registration the high priority Bush places on the job.

All this led Sailer to call this period of US political history The Heroic Age of Epistemology:

Between CBS’s dogged defense of their apparently forged documents and the Republican Convention’s repeated conflation of the War on Terror with the actual War in Error in Iraq, American elites appear to have entered into a collaboration to prove Foucault right: that power and the will to impose one’s interpretation are all-important and that “truth” is obsolete in our post-modern era.

I suspect, however, that reality gets the last laugh.

The Bush admins opposition to politically inconvenient sci-tech is not of purely intellectual interest. The US government is by far and away, measured by assets and income, the most powerful and wealthy corporation in the world.

This has immense social consequences, particularly in the area of ecological and technological policy, where the Bushies are definitely running a political agenda.

But I would take the non-Right’s criticism of the Bush admins anti-science political agenda more seriously if the critics were prepared to direct the same criticism towards the anti-scientific Left. Over the past generation the academic Left has placed a heavy blanket of censorship on the application of Darwinian socio-biological analysis to human beings. This does not have immediate political consequences. But it does discredit the Left’s ostensible committement to rational science and free speech.

Chris Mooney, a moderate Leftist, is willing to concede this point.

Let’s be fair: those on the political left have undoubtedly abused science in the past….groups have occasionally allowed ideology to usurp fact…In fact, in politicized fights involving science, it is rare to find liberals entirely innocent of abuses. But they are almost never as guilty as the Right.topics such as the genetic underpinnings of human behavior have often gone unstudied out of a “general left-of-center sensibility that anything having to do with genes is bad.”

Remember, in the Levitt fiasco you guys got your fingers burned by overly gung-ho acceptance of a head-line thesis. So come on Crooked-Timbers, lets make a full confession and see some ideological even handedness in denunciations of politicised anti-scientists.

20

Tim Lambert 03.29.06 at 5:06 am

“Levitt fiasco”???? Oh right, John Lott totally debunked his work. Give me a break.

Jack do you actually believe that Levitt is a “politicised anti-scientist”?

21

Crystal 03.29.06 at 12:31 pm

Oh please. Not that Steve Sailer who uses the work of racist pseudoscientist Philippe Rushton and writes for white supremacist site Vdare…that’s right-wing war on science, all right. *facepalm*

That’s blatantly racist pseudo-science Sailer is spouting there.

22

Jack Strocchi 03.29.06 at 7:04 pm

Posted by Tim Lambert · March 29th, 2006 at 5:06 am

“Levitt fiasco”???? Oh right, John Lott totally debunked his work. Give me a break.

I dont know or care much about Lott. Levitt’s work has been debunked by Steve Sailer and later Foote and Goetze.

The “fiasco” I refer to was the way in which mainstream intellectuals, including CT’s, were overawed by Levitt’s cocksure attitude and headline-making claims. Possibly because they were impressed by his celeberity status. Or perhaps because they secretly agreed with Levitt’s implicitly eugenic proposal that the best way to cut US crime was to indiscriminately mete out pre-natal capital punishment to a whole cohort of African-Americans.

Jack do you actually believe that Levitt is a “politicised anti-scientist”?

No. But the Left-of-Centre pro-abortion Crooked-Timbers were practising mildly “politicised science” by giving Levitt’s manifest errors a free pass.

Both the Right and the Left oppose parts of the Darwinian theory of evolution that are politically inconvenient. The Right’s spiritual creationists oppose Darwin’s evolutionary theory of the genesis and development of organic life. The Left’s social constructivists oppose Darwin’s evolutionary theory of the adaptive differentiation of human minds.

I think that the CT’s are in danger of making the same sort of error again with the RWOS seminar. By focusing solely on the Right’s War On Science they give a free pass to the Left’s War On Science.

The LWOS is mainly waged against Darwinian socio-biology. This is less politically damaging than the RWOS. But it is more intellectually damaging in the long-run since it is waged on campus, which affects the minds of all future opinion makers.

23

sfb 03.31.06 at 9:43 am

Interesting that no one has picked up on Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and its Quarrels With Science yet. The authors include a professor of mathmatics, who is admittedly well to theleft of center. The point is, they correctly note that many on the left, especially academics, have given shoddly scholarship a pass when it supports a cherished political goal. This would aplly to Red Earth White Lies as well.

Also, it is interesting that no one has mentioned the name which used to be synonymous with politically motivated bad science – T. Lysenko.

Having read the comments in this and the other sections of this project, I have enjoyed reading them, but I am not overly impressed with the arguments that the Republicans are waging war on science. It’s a nice sound bite, but not supportable by any research methodology that would pass muster in the natural sciences. It seems to me that a real problem is one of people who bring their politics into their science. This applies on both sides of the political spectrum, and it is why weprobably should be somewhat skeptical of reports issued by scientists paid by any organization with a stake in the outcome. That applies to scientists employed by natural resource extration companies as much as it does to those who are paid by Friends of the Earth or the Sierra Club.

All attempts to manipulate science to support political motives should be condemned.

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