Readers of my blog will know that I have written about some of the same issues that Mooney describes in The Republican War on Science. For example, the way tobacco companies used groups they secretly funded to lobby epidemiologists to adopt “Good Epidemiology Practices“, “Practices” that would rule out finding second-hand smoke to be harmful. So I certainly agree that there is some sort of war on science going on, and I can vouch for the accuracy of Mooney’s book on the topics that I have also researched. What I am concerned about is the other part of the title: “Republican”. Is that justified? Are the Republicans the only ones making significant attacks on science?
The title put me in mind of a book from the 90s: Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science by Gross and Levitt.
They identified a different group as being against science, the postmodern “academic left”, which doesn’t seem to intersect much with Republicans. Are Mooney and Gross and Levitt just ignoring attacks on science from outside the groups they identified?
First Gross and Levitt’s target, the postmodernists—Mooney ignores them. I think that is interesting because he doesn’t ignore the left-wing abuse of science from opponents of genetically-modified organisms and animal rights activists. And he talked to plenty of scientists, so it seems that scientists don’t feel themselves under attack from the postmodernists any more. Still, it would have been worthwhile drawing out the connections with the other attacks on science. For example, the tobacco companies’ approach to “Good Epidemiology Practices” seems pretty postmodern—they felt they could get the rules of science changed by lobbying scientists the same way they lobbied lawmakers.
Next, the Creationists. Gross and Levitt ignore them, though Gross went on to help write Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design, while Levitt blames pomo for softening up intellectuals for the attack of the creationists.
Last, the anti-environmentalists. Here the two books intersect in the person of Dixy Lee Ray in Trashing the Planet, who made several pseudo-scientific arguments against ozone depletion. For example, (and people still keep bringing it up) “volcanoes put more chlorine into the stratosphere than CFCs” (debunked here if you are interested). Mooney shows how Sherwood Rowland debunked Ray’s argument and documents how despite this, Republicans used Dixy Lee Ray’s volcanoes to push for a repeal of restrictions on CFCs. On the other hand, Gross and Levitt recommend Trashing the Planet and describe Dixy Lee Ray as “straight-shooting”. And they must surely have known that her volcano theory was completely bogus because they concede that CFCs cause ozone depletion, citing an article by Gary Taubes that specifically debunks her volcano theory.
I believe that Gross and Levitt damaged their credibility by ignoring and endorsing right-wing attacks on science. I don’t think that is true about Mooney, but it still would have been better to devote more space to describing the left-wing attacks on science.