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.