War over Science or War on Science

by John Quiggin on March 27, 2006

Since my initial contribution was a fairly straightforward review, I thought I’d have another go, taking advantage of the contributions I’ve read.

It’s pretty clear that there is some kind of war going on involving Republicans and science, but, as with Iraq, I think it’s possible to distinguish two competing stories. One is that we are seeing a War over Science, considered as valuable territory. In this story Republicans like science, and particularly the technology produced by science, but would prefer a more politically reliable science that always generated the kinds of results that suit their backers.

The other is a War on Science, in the sense of an attack on the entire scientific community and their claim that scientific method is a route to knowledge that, while not infallible, is so much more reliable than any alternative as to render non-scientific approaches, such as magic, religion or rhetorical argument, irrelevant in any domain where the scientific method can be applied. Attacks on, and defences of, this claim were the central feature of the Science Wars of the 1990s.

Indeed, a striking feature of the Science Wars was the absence of a great deal of substantive concern over particular outcomes of scientific research, though there was more concern about technological applications. When the critique of the claims of science went from the general to the particular, it was quite common to see a focus on early 20th century eugenics or 19th century claims about the inferiority of women rather than on particular outcomes of contemporary scientific research.

As I read Chris Mooney, his central claim is that the War over Science, driven by the desire to get the ‘right’ results on issues like stem cell research, global warming, evolution and so on is being pursued with such vigour and lack of scruple as to become, inevitably a War on Science. Most of the commentators so far have suggested that Chris has been overly polemical here, and that there is a large body of people, exemplified by Newt Gingrich, who have a very positive view of science, but assume that good science must produce results favorable to their notion of individual liberty. The influence of science fiction, much of it libertarian in tone, is, as Henry points out, significant here.

I think the position is more complicated. While the Newts like an idea of science, it is not the idea associated with the scientific method, and still less with the social institutions of science: peer review, replication, formal and informal meta-analysis and so on. Just as Steve Fuller attacks these institutions from an ostensibly leftwing position, the Newts attack it from the right.

Their favored idea is that of the inspired individual genius, who sees the truth in a blinding flash of insight, and overcomes the scepticism of the mass of plodders through faith in himself (there may be female versions, but I don’t recall any) and the support of a small but loyal band of followers. More or less distorted views of Galileo, Einstein and others provide the basis for this view of science, as does the vast bulk of pulp science fiction.

This model has been adopted by a string of critics of mainstream science, and of other academic disciplines. As I observed a while back, the pattern was set by Immanuel Velikovsky and has been followed by creationists, global warming ‘sceptics’ and so on.

As the lack of scientific support for favored Republican positions becomes more evident, we are seeing the transition from a War Over Science to a War On Science, involving attacks on the social institutions of science, including journals like Science and Nature (here’s Michael Fumento at Powerline), the idea of peer review , and scientists as a group, stigmatised by Tom Bethell as a white-coated priesthood of political correctness . The fact that Bethell’s work is promoted by the Heritage Foundation, and that the same terms are being recirculated by the global rightwing commentariat is an indication that this is already a mainstream Republican position, although perhaps not yet the dominant one.

Not surprisingly, the shift to a War on Science has seen a realignment of positions from the Science Wars. The Republicans are now lining up with some of their erstwhile opponents, postmodernist and social constructivists in the humanities and social sciences, who can provide more sophisticated arguments in the War on Science than those derived from Velikovsky and his successors.

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{ 14 comments }

1

Ryan J. Cook 03.27.06 at 4:51 pm

I would argue that the archetypal outside castigator of science would be Charles Fort, whose published works predate the Velikovsky affair by several decades. With Fort you first get the image of an ossified scientific priesthood guarding the battlements of their Ivory Tower against inconvenient or ambiguous data by either docta ignorantia or damnation. Despite this lineage, I rather doubt Fort’s “intermediatism” (the idea that most phenomena occupy the weird expanse between true existence and complete absence) would be congenial for either faction in the rhetorical combat Mooney surveys.

2

John Quiggin 03.27.06 at 5:06 pm

There’s all sorts of fascinating stuff in Fort, but as you say, he was too idiosyncratic to be easily imitated in the way Velikovsky has been.

3

QrazyQat 03.27.06 at 7:15 pm

(there may be female versions, but I don’t recall any)

Elaine Morgan, of aquatic ape notoriety, is an example.

4

Alex 03.28.06 at 5:50 am

a more politically reliable science that always generated the kinds of results that suit their backers

Which, of course, would not be science.

5

Barry 03.28.06 at 10:52 am

John Quiggin: “The Republicans are now lining up with some of their erstwhile opponents, postmodernist and social constructivists in the humanities and social sciences, who can provide more sophisticated arguments in the War on Science than those derived from Velikovsky and his successors.”

Like Steve Fuller?

The Republicans have a far better combination than any academic dreamed of: right-wing churces, AM radio, lushly funded ‘think tanks’, magazines, etc.

6

msf 03.28.06 at 2:01 pm

Quiggin makes an astute observation – the focus on individualism or heroic science as good science by righty libertarians like Gingrich. Let’s not forget Ayn Rand’s influence on this kind of thinking – teamwork (as is done in almost all science these days) – is not appreciated by John Galt.

7

Lars 03.28.06 at 2:46 pm

A website discussing the libertarian Right’s influence on North American science fiction is http://fascistoar.blogspot.com/, for those who might be interested.

8

agm 03.29.06 at 2:31 am

Interestingly, this is precisely the way the first 2/3s or so of the movie Kinsey runs. Funny how it ended a bit differently.

9

Larry 03.29.06 at 3:48 pm

It’s rather interesting that the Science article about Biscuit salvage logging hasn’t been considered a bit “junky”. Yes, they DID prove what they wanted so dearly to prove; That cutting snags kills some baby trees. DUH! It did NOT, however, prove that salvage logging of snags alone dooms an ecosystem’s recovery. If the study would have been done years from now and included other adverse impacts on the survival of seedlings, it may have had some validity but, the narrow premise of the study makes it value rather dubious. I’m surprised that a publication of Science’s stature would have printed it so garishly.

A more significant and valuable study would be to survey the area at 5 year intervals and gauge how well those little baby trees are doing against brush, wildfires and additional impacts within an unsalvaged area. Indeed, there will be HUGE opportunities to do just that with the 97% of the Biscuit Fire that remains unsalvaged. We also have vast areas of National Parks to look at and see how unmanaged burns recover. For example, the A-Rock fire burned into Yosemite National Park in 1989 and here’s some links to pictures that show what has happened since then, without “man’s hand” in the picture.

http://rogueimc.org/images/2006/02/6134.jpg

http://rogueimc.org/images/2006/02/6135.jpg

Even without seeing the hidden large woody debris under the manzanita, you can see that this area near Foresta is ready for the next inevitable ground searing burn to bring us back to square one, after 17 years of “natural recovery”.

10

Michael Fumento 03.29.06 at 9:19 pm

Nice sophistry! You just offer up examples of writing or of people that you say represent politically-motivated science without making the least effort to show that there is anything wrong with that science. It would be all too easy for me to just say, “Chris Mooney is a lefty; don’t trust anything he says.” But I don’t. I present science that shows he is wrong. Only at that point does motivation, political or otherwise, come into play. How convenient for you to simply skip that vital step.

11

FDB 03.29.06 at 10:17 pm

Discrediting a scientist or a scientific study does NOT discredit science. Showing that a particular scientist is wrong, or politically motivated or anything else is a wonderful thing to do. The scientific community at large thanks you for it!

Fumento doesn’t want to talk about science that’s done well, because… well… there’s just SO VERY MUCH OF IT!!! The VAST MAJORITY!!!

How much has the Republican Party told us that it enduring and useful and true and original?

12

FDB 03.29.06 at 10:20 pm

And sophistry? Don’t be throwing stones in that glass house, Fumey ol’ chum. Here’s betting you only know the word from having it thrown at you.

13

John Quiggin 03.30.06 at 5:45 am

Michael Fumento writes:

“You just offer up examples of writing or of people that you say represent politically-motivated science”

On the contrary, the last thing I’d accuse Fumento of writing is science of any kind.

On the substantive claim, all the examples he gives have been refuted at length (several in Mooney’s book). Search this blog for links to demolitions of his attacks on the Lancet study.

14

Steve LaBonne 03.30.06 at 9:11 am

Discrediting a scientist or a scientific study does NOT discredit science.

Not that Fumento has ever actually done that…

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