Chris Mooney’s book, “The Republican War on Science” seems to me a very American book. It’s not that Europe is bereft of “sound science” hacks trying to influence the process by which regulations are made, or even of our own brand of home-grown irrationalists of one kind or another. However, America does seem to have a hell of a lot of them, and they seem to pick battlegrounds (like creation science, to take the clearest example) which suggest that the purpose of a lot of the Republican War on Science is not so much to push an alternative pseudo-scientific agenda for political and economic gain, but rather to knock scientists off their pedestal for the sake of doing so.
Because I’m not really familiar with the ins and outs of American regulatory politics which are the meat of TRWOS, I thought I’d pursue this line of thinking a bit further. What I mean to suggest is that to a certain extent Chris has got the causation wrong in his underlying analysis of the Republican War on Science. In other words, it’s not so much a case of vested interests wanting to tear down good science in order to replace it with bad science that supports economically convenient conclusions, as a case of the hack science being generated in order to fill a vacuum created by an original desire at the heart of right wing politics to bring down good science for the sake of doing so.
I think that this causal story fits the facts at least as well as the more obvious one and perhaps even a bit better. After all, there is a clear economic interest in trying to ensure that rare species are miscounted or that the impact of pollution is underestimated; there’s no need for any other explanation there. But there is rather less obvious economic interest in trying to deny the facts about global warming, still less in pretending that DDT (a commodity chemical) is a panacea for malaria and as far as I can see none at all in “intelligent design”. Intelligent design isn’t even a particularly congenial theory for fundamentalist Christians to be pushing, as it appears to me to be inconsistent with the literal truth of the Book of Genesis, which was surely the only point in opposing the teaching of evolution in the first place.
So if there’s a unifying reason behind all these different phenomena (and it is surely the thesis of TRWOS that there is), then I don’t think it can be narrow self-interest. I think it’s something more like the “authoritarian irrationalism” that Theodor Adorno identified in books like The Stars Down To Earth, and that, in its guise of anti-intellectualism, De Tocqueville identified before that as being particularly common in American public life. I realise that Adorno’s theory is right out of fashion these days, but it’s always appealed to me and I think it has decent explanatory power over this phenomenon.
There is a particular kind of irrationalism, Adorno identified, which is characteristic of authoritarian politics (and therefore also, I hardly need to say, of the kind of authoritarian politics which these days calls itself “libertarian” but never saw a pro-business law it didn’t like). It’s rooted in status insecurity and a consequent distrust of ambiguity. Adorno’s book carried out an analysis of the astrology columns in the Los Angeles Times, demonstrating how their underlying theme was always the same; they encouraged the readers to believe that there was an underlying order to the world, that following simple rules was always the right thing to do, and that behaving in the “right” fashion would always have the right results. The readers of the astrology column probably didn’t believe that the stars controlled their destiny, but by pretending that they did, they were able to reduce the stress caused by the fact that whatever controlled the readers of the astrology column’s lives, they themselves didn’t.
This is the root of authoritarian irrationalism; for people who are status-insecure (which Adorno argues is the root of authoritarian politics; he notes that second-generation immigrants systematically score much higher for right-wing politics than other groups), the fact that the real world is a complicated, ambiguous and uncertain place creates intolerable stress, and the defensive reaction to this stress is a retreat to somewhere safer and more predictable; a world in which the unpleasant facts of the matter are simply denied and their occasional intrusions explained away as being most likely the result of some shadowy conspiracy.
And when you look at the Republican War on Science through this sort of a lens, it makes a bunch of sense. It is intolerably stressful for technological process to be both good for the economy and bad for the environment. Or for science (which is good) to contradict religion (which is also good). Or for the companies that create the modern world to be also selling us dangerous products. So, the “science” that shows that all of these things are happening has to be denied and rejected. Thus, a world of “sound science” is created, and real science is portrayed as a conspiracy of ideologically motivated men. I think that Mooney is correct to identify “sound science” as a creation of the PR industry, but the PR industry can’t create something unless it has some basic desires to work with. If the audience for “sound science” was thinking at all, nobody would be fooled, so we do need a theory of why it is that they aren’t thinking, and I think that Adorno’s is quite convincing. Or in other words, it makes no sense for scientists to tear their hair out about the state of science politics and blame it on “the low quality of scientific journalism”. There is no other kind of scientific journalism possible. It’s certainly not realistic to hope for popular acceptance of confidence intervals, the tentative nature of scientific theories and the differing standards of proof and certainty, because this is just more of the ambiguity that has already been judged intolerable by a large chunk of the American polity in much more diluted form. The underlying problem is one of political psychology and it’s not going away.
Which leaves two questions; could there be a “Democratic War on Science”, and is this purely an American phenomenon?
I think that the answer to the first is yes there could. There are authoritarians on the political left of the spectrum as well as the right, and I can’t help but notice that it is in the American university system that quite sensible French theories of literary criticism have been given a specifically irrationalist interpretation that was never really there in the originals. But I think that the answer to the second is also yes it is. There is a lot of anti-science thinking in Europe (and I’m sure there is in Asia too, but I don’t know much about it), but it has a much less specifically irrationalist cast to it, using the term in Adorno’s sense. It is probably irrational (in the everyday language sense) of Europeans to be so implacably opposed to genetically modified food, but their opposition is not in general cast in “irrationalist” terms; it’s based on “despite what the science says, I don’t believe it” rather than “the science cannot possibly be saying that because I don’t want to believe it”. And I don’t think that this is a coincidence; authoritarian politics in general are these days much less common in Europe than in America. I don’t know why the politics of status insecurity are more common in the last remaining great world power, or why they have got more rather than less influential since the end of the Cold War, but I suggest that this is the root of the troubled relationship between American politics and American science, and that because of this, the Republican War on Science is likely to get worse rather than better.