Worldwide war on science

by John Quiggin on March 27, 2006

What do evolution, human-caused global warming and the adverse health effects of exposure to cigarette smoking have in common? All are well-established scientific facts and all have been vigorously denied by a network of thinktanks, politicians and commentators associated with the Republican Party in the United States.

Of course, disputes over environmental and health issues have been going on for many years, and evolution has always been controversial in the United States. The striking development of the last fifteen years or so is the development of a systematic approach hostile to, and subversive of, all the standard rules of scientific inquiry and treatment of evidence. This approach is referred to by Chris Mooney as The Republican War on Science.

The central rhetorical element of the War on Science is the abandonment of science, as the term in normally understood, in favour of what is called ‘sound science’, a term that first came to prominence with The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition, a body primarily funded by the Philip Morris tobacco company. Broadly speaking, ‘sound science’ is science produced at the behest of relevant industry groups, though mainstream scientific research may be included if its results are politically convenient.

Conversely, ‘junk science’ is any scientific research that produces results inconsistent with the financial and ideological interests associated with the Republican Party. Not surprisingly, research on the dangers of second-hand smoke has been a prominent target, along with climate science and other environmental research. The ‘junk science’ approach is most prominently represented at junkscience.com, a site operated by former TASSC head Steven Milloy and hosted by the Cato Institute, one of the network of industry-funded thinktanks that help to promote the attack on science.

Mooney documents the rise of the thinktank network, and the roles of commentators like Rush Limbaugh, industry-funded scientists like Willie Soon and David Legates, and politicians like James Inhofe and Tom Delay. He presents a series of case studies covering issues including global warming, stem-cell research, the preservation of endangered species and the effect of dietary sugar intake on obesity. In all these cases, factual conclusions based on extensive scientific research have been challenged, and in many cases rejected, on the basis of purely political considerations.

Even more notable is the way in which the war on science has exploited social norms of discussion to create a situation where proven falsehoods can be treated as defensible positions in public debate, then used as the basis of policy formulation. Particularly in the United States, journalists are inculcated with notions of ‘balance’ associated with the adage that ‘there are two sides to every story’. As a result, any proposition that is supported by a substantial body of opinion is automatically treated as being on a par with any other, even when there is an overwhelming body of scientific evidence on the other side.

Similarly concepts of peer review and accountability have been used to give business groups opportunities to challenge, and frequently suppress, research that produces conclusions antithetical to their interests. Fine-sounding names like the Data Quality Act are used to disguise political censorship of research.

Creationists have made particularly effective use of norms of fairness to argue that ‘Intelligent Design’ theory should be taught as an alternative to evolution. Mooney notes the ‘Wedge document’ prepared by the Discovery Institute in Seattle, which clearly sets out the way in which the nominally non-religious Intelligent Design model can be used a stalking horse for the reintroduction of Biblical creationism.

Mooney shows how the same strategies, and in many cases the same actors reappear in debates over many different issues, replacing objective scientific analysis with the kind of politicized treatment of evidence familiar from claims about weapons of mass destruction in the leadup to the Iraq war. The Marshall Institute, for example, first appears backing Star Wars, then denying the effects of CFCs on the ozone layer, and finally distorting historical climate records on climate in an effect to discredit research on global warming.

Repeated across almost every field of scientific research, the ultimate effect of the Republican strategy is to constitute a complete parallel universe. In which scientific ‘knowledge’ is derived from thinktanks and unqualified opinion writers rather than from actual scientists working on the topic in question. Rather than being confronted with actual evidence, approved views are amplified by the echo chamber of repeated mutual quotation until they appear as established facts.

A particularly striking case, discussed relatively briefly by Mooney, is that of DDT. This cheap and persistent insecticide was freely used for all sorts of purposes in the decades after World War II, but its environmental dangers were pointed out by Rachel Carson in her 1962 classic, Silent Spring. Carson’s book was met with vigorous criticism, but her main claims stood up well to official scrutiny and the US banned the use of DDT in 1972. Although some sniping continued, the case against broadscale use of DDT was almost universally accepted.

Since about 2000 however, a pro-DDT campaign has gone into overdrive with the publication of a string of newspaper opinion pieces and other articles, in publications ranging from FoxNews to the New York Times. The central tenet of these pieces is the claim that Carson’s book and the resulting US ban on DDT have led to the loss of millions of lives from malaria in developing countries.

It takes only a few minutes work with Google to determine that this story is false in almost every particular. The new stories apparently arose from debates leading up to the 2000 Johannesburg conference on persistent organochlorine pollution, during which some environmental groups advocating setting a date for a phaseout of DDT use. This proposal was ultimately withdrawn, but the debate produced some overheated pro-DDT rhetoric which was then amplified by the echo-chamber of righwing thinktanks, blogs commentators into a legend that bears almost no relationship to reality.

There has never been a global ban on DDT use as an antimalarial, and it has been in continuous use in a number of countries. The abandonment of DDT in particular countries has been mainly due to the development of resistance by mosquitoes, which has rendered infeasible the original goal of eradication.

The most important remaining use of DDT is as a spray inside houses or huts. This strategy is supported by the agencies such as WHO and USAID in some cases, but is commonly regarded as less effective than the use of insecticide-treated bednets. In middle-income and richer countries, and where resistance is a problem, insecticides other than DDT have been used.

A striking feature of the true story is that bans on the agricultural use of DDT (such as the US ban in 1972) have actually saved lives by inhibiting the development of resistance.

The same parallel universe may be observed in relation to global warming. The consensus view, that the increase in greenhouse gases arising from human activity has driven a warming trend that will accelerate in future is backed up by thousands of scientific studies, painstakingly assembled by the IPCC. Against this, Republicans and their allies solemnly quote the work of such luminaries as science fiction writer Michael Crichton and retired mining executive Steven McIntyre.

All of these innovations have been exported to Australia, though they have sometimes struggled to take root here. As in the United States, a large group of commentators has preferred to take its scientific information from the parallel universe created by the Republican machine than from mainstream science. Miranda Devine and Michael Duffy have peddled the DDT myth. The Institute of Public Affairs has rejected mainstream science on passive smoking and promoted research commissioned by the (now-dissolved) Tobacco Institute of Australia.

The teaching of creationism is much less of a hot button issue in Australia than in America, partly because belief in Biblical literalism is much weaker here and partly because of public funding of religious schools, which are effectively free to treat the issue as they please. Nevertheless, it has received support in surprising quarters. Andrew Bolt, for example, has attacked critics of intelligent design, while maintaining a studied neutraltity regarding his own views on the question. And obviously lobbyists have been pushing the issue to Education Minister Brendan Nelson, who raised the possibility that Intelligent Design might be taught in Australian schools.

The central issue of concern, though, has been global warming. In addition to regular visits from US contrarians, Australia has its own Lavoisier Institute. The adoption of famous names to push positions that would probably have horrified the eponymous individuals is a characteristic feature of the war on science.

Despite valiant attempts, though, the war on science has been far less successful in Australia than in the US. Although the Australian government has fallen into line with the Bush Administration in opposing the Kyoto protocol, it has repeatedly reaffirmed its support for mainstream climate science.

Not surprisingly, Mooney’s book has received plenty of criticism. The first line of argument, made routinely in response to any criticism of the Bush Administration is that their opponents, and in particular Clinton’s Democratic Administration, were just as bad. Mooney is prepared for this line and sees it off in his opening pages. While noting some instances of exaggeration or misuse of scientific evidence among opponents of the Republicans, on issues such as genetically modified foods and the short-run therapeutic potential of stem cells, Mooney argues persuasively that these offences are trivial by comparison with the systematic assault on science launched by the Republicans.

One way of defending this conclusion is to compare the range and scale of these spurious claims. It’s easy enough to find scientifically dubious claims about the dangers of genetically modified foods, but even these have come mostly from radical green groups, such as Greenpeace and from individual campaigners. There are few issues on which Democrats in the US, or social democrats and liberals elsewhere have taken a position that is obviously at variance with the findings of mainstream science. By contrast, there is almost no scientific discipline, from geological analysis of the age of the earth to epidemiology to climate science that has not been subject to ideological attack from Republicans and associated interests.

Even more striking though is the institutional record. The Republicans, in Congress and in the Bush Administration, have scrapped or undermined institutions that promoted objective scientific analysis as a basis for policy formation and turned instead to procedures designed to give control to ideologues and financial interest. This process began in the Gingrich era, when the Office of Technology Assessment was scrapped, apparently because of its role in discrediting the Strategic Defensive Initiative missile-defence system, better known as ‘Star Wars’. The process has been expanded greatly under Bush

A more subtle and effective criticism, put forward by Daniel Sarewitz is that, in effect, the Republicans are right. The kind of purity set forth as an ideal by Mooney, is in Sarewitz’s view unattainable. Mooney’s

‘polemical fervor blinds him to the political content inherent in all discourse that connects science to human affairs.’

As an example, Mooney attacks Republicans for making false claims about the usefulness of adult stem cells as a substitute for embryonic stem cells in research. Sarewitz suggests that, since Germany has prohibited embryonic stem cells research, Germans must also, in Mooney’s analyis share a disdain for science with Republicans.

But Sarewitz is missing the point here. Mooney does not deny that it is open to societies to decide, on ethical grounds, to forgo the medical progress that might be achieved as a result of stem cell research. Rather, he suggests that such a decision should be made in the light of the best available evidence on costs and benefits and criticises Republicans for fabricating and distorting that evidence. In his critique, Sarewitz provides no evidence that similar distortion was practised in Germany.

In effect, here, we are back to the fact-value distinction that was at the centre of 20th century debates about positivism. In Mooney’s view, scientists do their best (or should do their best) to determine the facts that should inform public debate. It is then up to political processes to determine the course of action most consistent with the values held by the public. By contrast, Sarewitz views the two as inextricably entwined, to the point where he does not appear to be aware that such a distinction might be suggested.

In the 20th century, rejection of the fact-value distinction came mostly from the left, first from Marxists who saw all truth-claims made in a class society as being incorrigibly saturated with ideology and then from postmodernists and social constructivists who attacked the whole idea of an independently existing truth, which might be ascertained, or at least approached, by scientific inquiry.

One of the central conceits of postmodernism has been to pluralise abstract nouns like truth, abandoning attempts at a unified view of the world in favour of a celebration of difference. The great lesson learned by postmodern Republicans has been that, where multiple ‘truths’ contend, the ‘truth’ favoured by powerful interests is likely to prevail. Since scientific truth is refractory and not amenable to political control, its claims to special privilege must be challenged, in order that politically reliable alternatives such as ‘sound science’ can replace it.

While the adoption of postmodernist positions has mostly been done without acknowledgement (perhaps because of memories of the 1990s ‘Science Wars’ when denunciation of postmodernism was de rigeur on the right), there have been exceptions. Leading Intelligent Design advocate Philip Johnson has noted the influence of postmodernist critical theory on the development of his views.

The social constructivist position is represented in this seminar by Steve Fuller who testified on the ID side in the recent Dover court case over the teaching of Intelligent Design, so rather than attempt to summarise it, I’ll leave him to put it forward, then respond in discussion.

Mooney’s suggests a range of institutional responses to these developments most notably the revival of the Office of Technology Assessments. It is clear, however, that the crucial changes involve political debate and its reporting. In particular, it is necessary to overcome the presumption that scientific propositions should be treated as matters of political opinion,

As regards the established media, we have a long way to go. The Australian and US press give more space to ideological attacks on climate science than to the actual findings of science. For example, in the week leading up to the meeting of the Asia-Pacific Climate Pact in Sydney all of the major Australian ‘quality’ dailies published opinion pieces by contrarians attacking climate science.

The rise of the Internet has been a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it has generated an almost hermetically-sealed echo chamber, in which science warriors can circulate, adapt and modify the factoids, talking points and bogus quotations that are the stock in trade of opinion pieces like those mentioned above.

On the other hand, for anyone who is aware of the general strategy adopted by the advocates of ‘sound science’, resources like Google and Wikipedia provide immediate confirmation in particular instances. In the past, an opinion piece by say, Steven Milloy, would appear with an uninformative or misleading byline, and would be given the benefit of the doubt by most readers. Now, anyone who performs a basic check can discover, with little effort, the full history of his efforts as tobacco lobbyist and hired gun for polluting industries.

What is needed, therefore is more awareness in the general community, including those involved in making and debating public policy, of the existence of an organised campaign against science, in which the Bush Administration plays a leading role. Mooney’s book has raised this awareness substantially, and thereby made a substantial contribution to the cause of science and of evidence-based public policy.

{ 1 trackback }

Crooked Timber » » Man, You Guys Worked Me Hard….
03.27.06 at 3:23 pm

{ 8 comments }

1

Sebastian Holsclaw 03.27.06 at 5:51 pm

In effect, here, we are back to the fact-value distinction that was at the centre of 20th century debates about positivism. In Mooney’s view, scientists do their best (or should do their best) to determine the facts that should inform public debate. It is then up to political processes to determine the course of action most consistent with the values held by the public. By contrast, Sarewitz views the two as inextricably entwined, to the point where he does not appear to be aware that such a distinction might be suggested.

In the 20th century, rejection of the fact-value distinction came mostly from the left, first from Marxists who saw all truth-claims made in a class society as being incorrigibly saturated with ideology and then from postmodernists and social constructivists who attacked the whole idea of an independently existing truth, which might be ascertained, or at least approached, by scientific inquiry.

One of the central conceits of postmodernism has been to pluralise abstract nouns like truth, abandoning attempts at a unified view of the world in favour of a celebration of difference. The great lesson learned by postmodern Republicans has been that, where multiple ‘truths’ contend, the ‘truth’ favoured by powerful interests is likely to prevail. Since scientific truth is refractory and not amenable to political control, its claims to special privilege must be challenged, in order that politically reliable alternatives such as ‘sound science’ can replace it.

This is a key insight. I’m not going to defend the Republicans one bit on the Intelligent Design front–stupid political pandering. But the climate change issue has had some key problems with both sides pretending that the facts and values are identical. The climate change people of the late 1970s (Ice Age Fearmongers) and the current Global Warming Agitators (as opposed to the investigative scientists) both act as if the nearly inevitable fact of climate change (human driven, sun output driven, or otherwise driven) absolutely insists on a human response. The fact that the climate changes does not mean that climate change must be stopped. Even assuming we could stop it (not proven in any case) it is not at all obvious that it would be the best use of our resources to do so. The reaction to that has been very unfortunate–in an ideal world, Republicans would have reacted with a “lets focus on the facts” type of response. Responding to “you just don’t caaaare about the Earth” (with its social equivalent of “you just don’t caaare about people starving”) is always difficult when you do in fact care about the Earth and don’t want people to starve.

The proper response from either side from those who care about science ought to be that we should focus on getting accurate answers for scientific questions and then focus on helping people understand them enough to apply moral reasoning.

I think it is ok to call it the Republican war on science, because it currently is. But a better understanding might come from seeing the ugly cycle of which the Republican reaction is only the most current iteration. The overconfident social sciences (especially Marxism) did a number on reasoned analysis of facts with the full support of huge swaths of the university. You note that post-modernism had a similar trajectory. We need to get off the ride, not just change cars.

“The great lesson learned by postmodern Republicans has been that, where multiple ‘truths’ contend, the ‘truth’ favoured by powerful interests is likely to prevail.”

Yes and this is best battled by embracing the idea of TRUTH again, not by merely fending off the current Republican attack.

And I don’t have time to retype, but as I read it my comment sounds more like a criticism than I intended. It is a focus-based clarification.

2

Barry 03.27.06 at 10:51 pm

Sebastian: “The overconfident social sciences (especially Marxism) did a number on reasoned analysis of facts with the full support of huge swaths of the university.”

This is a huge claim, Sebastian, and I’m eagerly looking forward to you backing it up.

3

Alex 03.28.06 at 5:55 am

Far from being an insidious assault on Truth and Reason by academic Marxists, it seems increasingly clear that postmodernism does in fact describe the way a large percentage of people think, and that the global Right has not only understood this but has operationalised its premises as a means to power.

That it also demonises postmodernists fits the pattern with uncanny accuracy.

4

Scott Martens 03.28.06 at 6:03 am

John, I think you’re missing a lot of the point here. There’s a lot of grounds to be cyncial about truth claims, including scientific claims, and their relationship to power. Marxists didn’t invent that. (Hell, if there was an ideology that came closer to worshipping the hard sciences than Marxism, I’m hard pressed to think of what it was.) Nor did the pomos. And God knows Republicans didn’t come up with it.

(I’d like to see Sebastian explain when science polict has ever been about “reasoned analysis of facts” too.)

There are real questions about how scientific claims are made and whether any non-ideologically driven way exists, or even can exist, to decide between them. These questions aren’t silly. They affect the lives of everyone. Millions of people use alternative medical therapies – and swear by their efficacity – because they have explicitly rejected some claims to scientific authority. People eat organic food because they do not trust claims that food raised otherwise is just as safe and nutritious. Practically every person in America has been on a diet at some time in their lives with little no scientific support because people with impecable scientific credentials tell them that the only way they can loose weight is to change their lifestyles in ways that they can’t afford.

It’s not even clear that a neutral, factual, clear, certain, scientific way to address these issues exists. Every person who gets relief from a medicine that they’re told has no value; who feels better after switching to organic produce; who loses weight on a diet that they’re told is nonsense; every such person starts to ask how much credence they really can give to scientific claims to authority. It’s not too hard to see how such people can start to question evolution, a doctrine that as far as they can see concerns events in a distant and remote past that can’t be known with certainty anyway. It makes it easier to believe the renagade “sound scientist” who says that smoking is good for you, that there’s no global warming and that science proves there’s a god.

If Republicans are manipulating this, I submit that they’re not really the cause.

5

John Quiggin 03.28.06 at 6:26 am

There are some good points here, Scott, but I think you’re overstating your case, and the example of dieting illustrates this.

It’s a somewhat counterintuitive finding that dieting doesn’t work, but that’s what the scientific method shows. And, once science has demonstrated the results statisticially, it’s easy for people to find confirming instances in their immediate circle of acquaintances – people who’ve tried dozens of diets and are still fat, or at least unhappy about their weight. A Google search for “dieting” suggests, contra your point about people who lose weight on a diet that they’re told is nonsense, that scepticism about dieting is gaining ground, and may already be the dominant view.

As you say, this is problematic in a society that makes achievement of a healthy weight difficult in all sorts of ways, but I still don’t think this example supports your case.

6

Scott Martens 03.28.06 at 6:54 am

John, fair enough, attitudes about dieting are changing. But you’re missing my point. I lost about 20 pounds on the Atkins diet, and I know someone who lost about twice as much. Now, I am the kind of person who stays sceptical in the face of such results, and truth be told I couldn’t actually stick to it. However, there is still no shortage of Atkins advocates, and each one holds to it despite quite well researched claims to contrary. Many of them – perhaps a large majority of its strongest advocates – have lost weight with it.

Now, should they stick to a diet that works for them, and reject the truth claims of scientists to the contrary, or should they stay fat? I should think most of them will reject the scientific conclusion as either wrong or inapplicable to them.

Dieting is just one example. You may argue that it’s false to think the choice is between Atkins and being fat, but if science stands opposed to the doctrine that if it works you should probably stick to it, it’s not going to gain much traction with people.

Alternative medicine, organic foods, the utility of prayer, astrology, feng shui – call it placebo effect or confirmation bias or whatever you like. The world is full of people who will tell you this stuff works for them and will suggest you’re full of it if you expect them to believe scientific studies rather than their own eyes.

7

John Quiggin 03.28.06 at 7:04 am

Coming back to Chris Mooney’s theme, I have the impression that Atkins is politicised, being pushed as an article of faith by Republican science warriors, presumably because it annoys vegetarians – it hasn’t really reached Australia though, so I may be wrong about this. Can you comment?

I’ll post more on your general point, I hope, but it’s late at night here, and I’m off to bed.

8

Barry 03.28.06 at 5:02 pm

I’m still waiting, Sebastian. Let’s start with ‘Marxism’ being a ‘Social Science’. I’ve never heard of a field called ‘Marxism at any university.

Comments on this entry are closed.