Political conflict over scientific issues has probably never been as sharp as at present. Issues like global warming and stem-cell research, that came to prominence in the 1990s are being fiercely debated. At the same time, questions that had, apparently, been resolved long ago, like evolution or the US ban on agricultural use of DDT, are being refought. A striking feature of these debates is that, in nearly all cases (the one big exception being GM foods) the fight lines up the political Right, and particularly the US Republican Party on one side, and the majority of scientists and scientific organisations on the other. Chris Mooney’s book, The Republican War on Science is, therefore, a timely contribution to the debate, and we are happy to host a seminar to discuss it, and thank Chris for agreeing to take part.

In addition to contributions from five members of CT, we’re very pleased to have two guests participating in the debate. Tim Lambert has been an active participant in the blogospheric version of some of the debates discussed by Chris. Tim, like the CT participants, broadly endorses Chris’s argument, though with some disagreement on analytical points and questions of emphasis and presentation. To broaden the debate, Steve Fuller was invited to take part in the seminar, and kindly agreed, knowing that he would be very much in the minority. Steve presents a social constructivist critique of Chris’ argument. We’re very grateful to Steve for taking part.

I won’t attempt to summarise the debate since Chris Mooney, in his response, has done an excellent job.

Like previous CT seminars, this seminar is published under a Creative Commons licence, with no prejudice to any material quoted from The Republican War on Science or other texts under fair use principles. Comments are open to all posts; we encourage people with general comments to leave them on Chris’s post. The seminar will be made available in PDF format, once discussion concluded.

If you wish to link to this seminar, use the URL “https://crookedtimber.org/category/chris-mooney-seminar/”:https://crookedtimber.org/category/chris-mooney-seminar/

Chris Mooney’s book, “The Republican War on Science” seems to me a very American book. It’s not that Europe is bereft of “sound science” hacks trying to influence the process by which regulations are made, or even of our own brand of home-grown irrationalists of one kind or another. However, America does seem to have a hell of a lot of them, and they seem to pick battlegrounds (like creation science, to take the clearest example) which suggest that the purpose of a lot of the Republican War on Science is not so much to push an alternative pseudo-scientific agenda for political and economic gain, but rather to knock scientists off their pedestal for the sake of doing so.

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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.
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Worldwide war on science

by John Q 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.

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War over Science or War on Science

by John Q 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.

Mooney Minus the Polemic?

by John Holbo on March 27, 2006

The Republican War On Science is a good read. But also – broadly – the same genre as this (shudder) and this (shuddershudder). The title hints at a sinister plot to – well, you see what I mean. The worry is the thing is afflicted with a touch of the paranoid style. Now I quite like a little hyperventilation. I know book marketing makes lurid demands. I’ve read a couple reviews that accuse Mooney of polemic; some seriously, excessively polemical negative reviews. Mooney has had chunks taken out of him. I’m not so interested in more of that. Still, a potboiling polemical style will deform presentation in predictable ways. Let’s consider. [click to continue…]

Perhaps authors should not be judged by the quality of insight expressed in their epigraphs. But were one so inclined, one would have to conclude that Chris Mooney is profoundly naïve about how science works. Indeed, he displays a level of naivete about the sociology of science unbecoming in any other field of journalistic inquiry. (He may need my course on the ‘Epistemology of Journalism’!) Readers of The Republican War on Science are initially regaled with an epigraph from Steven Pinker, the first sentence of which reads:

The success of science depends on an apparatus of democratic adjudication – anonymous peer review, open debate, the fact that a graduate student can criticize a tenured professor.

The pages that follow clearly indicate that Mooney believes not merely that this is a normative ideal toward which science as a whole aspires or to which pieces of scientific research might be, in principle, held accountable. Were either the case, I would be on side with him. Unfortunately Mooney also seems to believe that science is normally conducted this way. Journalists, if anyone, should be scrupulous about distinguishing what people do from what they say they do. The ethnographic methods so beloved in the more qualitative reaches of social science are historically indebted to just such first-hand coverage of previously neglected features of the life circumstances of workers and immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. However, Mooney’s trust in the peer review system is based purely on high-minded hearsay. So let me report briefly as an ‘insider’ to the process.

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War with the Newts

by Henry Farrell on March 27, 2006

I’ve already reviewed Chris’s book “at length”:https://crookedtimber.org/2005/08/30/the-republican-war-on-science/, and talked there about why I liked it. What I want to do in this contribution is to develop on what I argued back then was missing from the book. Short version: Chris presents latterday Republican science policy as the product of an unholy alliance between big business and the religious right. He laments the powerlessness of traditional moderate Republicans who believed that science and scientific truth was good and important. This allows him to get at an awful lot of what is wrong about the Republican party’s current approach to science. But it misses out on something important. There’s a strand of Republican thinking – represented most prominently by Newt Gingrich and by various Republican-affiliated techno-libertarians – that has a much more complicated attitude to science. Chris more or less admits in the book that he doesn’t get Newt, who on the one hand helped gut OTA (or at the very least stood passively to one side as it was gutted) but on the other hand has been a proponent of more funding for many areas of the sciences. I want to argue that getting Newt _is_ important.

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The war and the quarrels

by timlambert on March 27, 2006

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.

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Man, You Guys Worked Me Hard….

by chrismooney on March 27, 2006

First, I want to thank all the contributors here for launching a very high level discussion. Because the separate commentaries overlap in a number of thematic areas, they almost lend themselves to being read in a particular order for greatest effect–and that’s the sequence in which I will address them. Here’s the game plan:

First I’ll touch upon what I view as the argumentative overview posts. Ted Barlow provides a useful and accurate review of my book’s main thesis, and then John Quiggin’s first post goes into more detail, expanding the argument’s applicability beyond the U.S. to Australia, and beyond the issues I discuss to related ones like DDT. (Quiggin’s first post also helps me out with some of my critics, and I fully endorse his rebuttals.) My brief reaction to these posts will comprise phase one.

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On Beauty

by Chris Bertram on March 27, 2006

I finished Zadie Smith’s “On Beauty”:http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1594200637/junius-20 at the weekend and very much enjoyed it. For those who don’t know it’s a novel about academia, loosely modelled on Forster’s “Howard’s End”:http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/014118213X/junius-20 , and centred on the relations between the Belsey and Kipps families. Howard Belsey, an post-modern art historian from an English working-class background is bitterly antagonistic to Monty Kipps a black conservative critic/pundit who has made a career out of baiting liberals. They are forced to deal with one another thanks to the involvement of Belsey’s son with Kipps’s daughter. There are no plot spoilers so far (you’d know all that by about page 6) and I don’t want to post any — just to recommend it. I liked it more than her “White Teeth”:http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0375703861/junius-20 , which she didn’t know how to end, but like that book it is witty and well-observed and has much to say about the lies people tell to themselves about themselves.

(I wrote something like the previous paragraph yesterday, but when I pressed “publish” WordPress sent me to a login screen and then eat my post. So I had to do it all again. In between I’ve read a few of the online reviews and reader reactions at places like Amazon. And I’m astonished by how many people seem to have just hated the book. Now like Smith, I’m British, and I’ve noticed that many of the complaints are from Americans who thinks she gets America wrong in various respects (most of the action is set in Cambridge/Boston) and has a poor ear for American dialogue. I’d be interested to hear if any commenters had that same reaction. Anyhow, I thought it was terrific.)