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.

They identified a different group as being against science, the postmodern “academic left”, which doesn’t seem to intersect much with Republicans. Are Mooney and Gross and Levitt just ignoring attacks on science from outside the groups they identified?

First Gross and Levitt’s target, the postmodernists — Mooney ignores them. I think that is interesting because he doesn’t ignore the left-wing abuse of science from opponents of genetically-modified organisms and animal rights activists. And he talked to plenty of scientists, so it seems that scientists don’t feel themselves under attack from the postmodernists any more. Still, it would have been worthwhile drawing out the connections with the other attacks on science. For example, the tobacco companies’ approach to “Good Epidemiology Practices” seems pretty postmodern — they felt they could get the rules of science changed by lobbying scientists the same way they lobbied lawmakers.

Next, the Creationists. Gross and Levitt ignore them, though Gross went on to help write Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design, while Levitt blames pomo for softening up intellectuals for the attack of the creationists.

Last, the anti-environmentalists. Here the two books intersect in the person of Dixy Lee Ray in Trashing the Planet, who made several pseudo-scientific arguments against ozone depletion. For example, (and people still keep bringing it up) “volcanoes put more chlorine into the stratosphere than CFCs” (debunked here if you are interested). Mooney shows how Sherwood Rowland debunked Ray’s argument and documents how despite this, Republicans used Dixy Lee Ray’s volcanoes to push for a repeal of restrictions on CFCs. On the other hand, Gross and Levitt recommend Trashing the Planet and describe Dixy Lee Ray as “straight-shooting”. And they must surely have known that her volcano theory was completely bogus because they concede that CFCs cause ozone depletion, citing an article by Gary Taubes that specifically debunks her volcano theory.

I believe that Gross and Levitt damaged their credibility by ignoring and endorsing right-wing attacks on science. I don’t think that is true about Mooney, but it still would have been better to devote more space to describing the left-wing attacks on science.

Notes: Chris Mooney, like me, blogs at ScienceBlogs. I learned about Ray and Taubes and Gross and Levitt from Jeff Shallit’s review of review of Higher Superstition.



Seth Finkelstein 03.27.06 at 3:20 pm

I would submit there’s a practical difference between the pomo attacks and the right-wing attacks, in that the pomos do not have large amounts of money or significant access to political power. The pomos are extremely easy to ignore – they basically don’t do anything besides publish in obscure journals, read only by other pomos and those who want to rattle their cages. The right-wingers have a huge lobbying apparatus, which affects grants.

I don’t think any scientists are worried about their research proposal because of something said by a French philosopher. But running afoul of Republican dogma is another issue entirely.

That’s why the two shouldn’t be equivalenced in emphasis.


wage slave 03.27.06 at 5:11 pm

Have the pomos just been taken less seriously in the last decade or so? It seems to me pomo ideas had a great deal of prestige (no better term comes to mind) across the humanities and social sciences through the mid-90’s. Probably Sokal’s hoax did damage.

I’m just not convinced post-modernism is a live enough issue (outside of academia, anyway) to need to be addressed by a book like Mooney’s.


ogmb 03.27.06 at 7:57 pm

“Republican”. Is that justified? Are the Republicans the only ones making significant attacks on science?

Answering the second question in the negative doesn’t imply that the first question has to be answered in the negative. If Mooney chooses to look at attacks on science from one group it’s his prerogative. The title is only unjustified if 1. this particular line of attack does not exist, or 2. it exists but has no point of contact with the Republican political organization.


Chris Mooney 03.27.06 at 8:16 pm

My point exactly; I add this in my response to Tim:

Wage slave: Again, see above; basically I agree with you, but the issue is out there and I really wish I had addressed it more in the book. I did address it in an online column, available at the link above.

OGMB: The attack definitely has links to the Republican organization. I hope you’ll check out the book and see that!


Mrs Tilton 03.28.06 at 5:28 am

In fairness to Gross and Levitt, they have written that, had HS been written later than it was, they’d have had to devote a lot of time to the right’s quarrels with science.


Scott Martens 03.28.06 at 5:36 am

I’m not connected to American academia anymore, but I have the impression that to whatever extent academic leftists were ever anti-science, they were also largely powerless and ignored. Derrida is popular, but he is popular for actual reasons and pretty much never talked about science. By far the most attacked figure in the so-called pomo anti-science movement is Bruno Latour, a guy who is clearly, manifestly, and at every turn pro-science.

On the other hand, being told that you can’t do stem cell research because there’s a Republican majority in Congress is pretty hard to ignore.


Steve LaBonne 03.28.06 at 9:42 am

If you want to understand why Republicans both get and deserve most of the blame, there’s also the fact that the Republican war on science is only one aspect of the Republican war on reality in general. You know the drill, Iraq was an imminent threat, had close ties with bin Laden, the people there will strew flowers at their American liberators, “We’re an empire, we create our own reality”. Or, the Social Security trust fund is about to go bankrupt, and it has to be “rescued” by diverting revenue from it into private investment accounts. Or, we’ll grow ourselves out of huge deficits caused (though we’ll never admit this, of course) by simultaneously cutting taxes and raising spending. Besides, running huge deficits forever is no problem, as long as Democrats aren’t in power. And so on ad nauseum. These people long ago forfeited any right to get the benefit of the doubt. Weak-kneed polite liberal gestures toward “balance” only bring to mind “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are filled with passionate intensity.”


Brett Bellmore 03.28.06 at 8:58 pm

“On the other hand, being told that you can’t do stem cell research because there’s a Republican majority in Congress is pretty hard to ignore.”

It certainly would be; I’m glad that so far they’ve limited themselves to saying that you can’t do it with federal money.


Barry 03.30.06 at 2:09 pm

Brett: “It certainly would be; I’m glad that so far they’ve limited themselves to saying that you can’t do it with federal money.”

Which is a major crimp in doing basic research.


Brett Bellmore 03.30.06 at 8:26 pm

Oh, I agree that it is, but being told that a particular level of government won’t fund your research is still not the same thing as being told that you can’t do it, period.

Or do you want the GOP to decide that if they’re going to do the political time, they might as well do the crime?

Comments on this entry are closed.