War on Science

by Ted on March 27, 2006

I had to be on guard while reading Chris Mooney’s The Republican War on Science, because it’s a sterling example of a book that tells me what I want to hear. For the lion’s share of the readers of this blog, it’s what you want to hear, too. So take this with a grain of salt.

Mooney does not argue that Republicans or conservatives are anti-science in the way of the forces of liberalism are alleged to be anti-Christmas or pro-death. There’s no doubt that Republicans enjoy their iPods and CT scanners as much as Democrats.

Rather, he believes that the leadership of the Republican party has taken specific steps to reduce the power of the scientific consensus on public policy. Mooney largely ignores the low-hanging fruit of conservative commentators, who barely appear in the book. Instead, the book predominantly focuses on top policymakers in Congress and the White House. In one thread, Mooney tells the story of how the Gingrich Congress eliminated the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), a scientific body that used to provide Congress with independent expert analysis of science issues.

“Gingrich’s view was always, ‘I’ll set up one-on-one interactions between members of Congress and key members of the scientific community,’” recalls Bob Palmer, former Democratic staff director of the House Committee on Science. “Which I thought was completely bizarre. I mean, who comes up with these people, and who decides they’re experts, and what member of Congress really wants to do that?”

It wasn’t long before this latitude was abused. Rep. Senator James Inhofe, the man who called the EPA a “gestapo bureaucracy” and who famously suggested that manmade global warming was “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people”, was awarded the chairmanship of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in 1999. Mooney relates how Inhofe reacted to the solidifying scientific consensus on global warming. Says Mooney, “The IPCC, the National Academy of Sciences, the American Meteorological Society, the American Geophysical Union- all agree that human activity is causing climate change.”

Inhofe led a committee hearing in 2003 which set two global warming sceptics with ties to the energy industry against one scientist, Michael Mann, to represent the mainstream view. Mooney again:

At Inhofe’s hearing, Mann defended both his own work and the conclusions of the IPCC, which channels the work of hundreds of experts. But for those keeping track of the Senate that day, the intellectual ticker showed a score of two to one, not a handful versus a horde. Such was Inhofe’s conception of “balance.” At one point, for example, the senator asked the panelists whether they agreed or disagreed that rising carbon dioxide levels can “produce many beneficial effects on the natural plant and animal environments of the earth.” Here were the results:

DR. SOON: I agree.
DR. MANN: I find little there to agree with.
DR. LEGATES: I would tend to agree.

… By now, the problems with Inhofe’s attempt to turn Congress into a science court should be apparent. The validity of Michael Mann’s particular “hockey stick” analysis remains open to debate among experts, and has in fact been prominently challenged in the peer-reviewed literature. But holding a heated public hearing between mainstream scientists and contrarians will hardly help determine its merits. “That’s why the federal government turns to the National Academy of the Sciences for advice, or the governments of the world turn to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,” explains Princeton University climate expert Michael Oppenheimer.”

The book catalogues a series of incidents in recent years in which the Republican leadership battled, ignored or muddied the mainsteam scientific consensus when it conflicts with the policy preferences of either large industrial interests or fundamentalist Christians.

It’s hard to argue that the answers to each of these political arguments absolutely have to lie in a test tube or a climate model. The Republican leaders in question could have made arguments for their positions by arguing that moral or economic criteria sometimes trump science. There’s no objectively correct answer to the question of when life begins; if one accepts that a fertilized egg is the moral equivalent of an infant, then it’s logical to consider stem-cell research the moral equivalent of murder. Many global warming skeptics have argued that the economic costs of Kyoto-like greenhouse gas emissions measures swamp the forseeable benefits. Mooney mentions legislation protecting food and drink companies from obesity-related lawsuits, which 40% of House Democrats voted for, and which many people (including me) would be happy to support, even knowing the connection between fast food and obesity.

What is not acceptable is the distortion of science to win the argument. Mooney argues (successfully, I think) that this has become a common modus operandi when the scientific consensus threatens the policy preferences of a Republican interest group.

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{ 4 comments }

1

greensmile 03.27.06 at 7:55 pm

“I had to be on guard … because it’s a sterling example of a book that tells me what I want to hear. “
I appreciate the maturity of this self imposed caveat. I had the same reaction to “American Theocracy”…so much so that I essentially concluded from reviews and descriptions of the book that I didn’t even need to read it because it only confirmed and detailed what I already accept as the unfortunate truth.

Starting when I was in the 6th grade, in a small college town, I absorbed the notion that science is neutral about religious and political matters and sticks to its theories as tentative and its measurments as difinitive only in a certain context and only to a certain precision. As such science was trustworthy, benign and above sect, faction or party in its conclusions…an ideal referee for policy. My view now is a bit more nuanced but not essentially different.

The demise of science as a force in policy seems to me to coincide with and be related to a capitulation, or maybe just a realization that we do no live in a meritocracy. Money and power are what they always were since kings roamed the earth and our brief infatuation with real democracy has passed.

2

Brandon Berg 03.27.06 at 11:35 pm

The Republican leaders in question could have made arguments for their positions by arguing that moral or economic criteria sometimes trump science.

It’s not that economic or moral criteria sometimes trump science—it’s that science isn’t designed to tell us what we should do. All science can do is help us to understand how the world works and what consequences will follow from any given course of action. The rest depends on our values and preferences.

3

Barry 03.28.06 at 5:00 pm

That’s why it’s called ‘war on science’. The GOP has figured out that, if the facts were laid out (to the extent that science can determine them), people wouldn’t support GOP positions. Therefore, the facts are biased, and must be destroyed.

4

Functional 03.29.06 at 1:34 pm

I had to be on guard while reading Chris Mooney’s The Republican War on Science, because it’s a sterling example of a book that tells me what I want to hear. For the lion’s share of the readers of this blog, it’s what you want to hear, too. So take this with a grain of salt

This is a great intro. In fact, I believe it’s the first blog post that I’ve ever seen — anywhere — where the blogger has enough self-awareness to acknowledge that maybe he’s too willing to believe a book that tells him what he wants to believe.

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