From the monthly archives:

March 2006

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 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.

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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.

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 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.)

For Cosma Shalizi, Daniel Davies etc

by Henry on March 26, 2006

Avram Grumer on power law extrapolations and the “Gillette Singularity”:http://agrumer.livejournal.com/414194.html.

(Via “Making Light”:http://www.nielsenhayden.com/makinglight/)

Monopoly and technology

by Henry on March 26, 2006

Something which I hadn’t ever thought of before jumped out when I read this “piece”:http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/27/technology/27soft.html?ei=5094&en=482f269e6e35b1c3&hp=&ex=1143435600&partner=homepage&pagewanted=print/partner/rssnyt in the _New York Times_ on problems with the new version of Windows.

bq. Skeptics like Mr. Cusumano say that fixing the Windows problem will take a more radical approach, a willingness to walk away from its legacy. One instructive example, they say, is what happened at Apple. … The approach was somewhat ungainly, but it allowed Apple to move to a new technology, a more stable, elegantly designed operating system. The one sacrifice was that OS X would not be compatible with old Macintosh programs, a step Microsoft has always refused to take with Windows. “Microsoft feels it can’t get away with breaking compatibility,” said Mendel Rosenblum, a Stanford University computer scientist. “All of their applications must continue to run, and from an architectural point of view that’s a very painful thing.”

Presumably Microsoft doesn’t want to break compatibility because by so doing it might undermine its enduring monopoly – if the mutual lock-in between Microsoft’s operating system and office productivity software is weakened, people might quite possibly move away from both. Apple, not being a monopoly (but having high customer loyalty) was much better placed to make the jump. While in contrast, Microsoft customers can look forward to a piece of bloatware that will be extraordinarily obese even by its previous standards. I suspect I’ll be switching to Mac meself next time I have the chance.

Overheard Conversation

by Jon Mandle on March 26, 2006

The other day I overheard a conversation between two guys in ROTC at my school. They were talking about a public presentation about the war that one of them had been to the day before, where the speaker had asked rhetorically, “When has war ever solved anything?” The ROTC guy was fuming – hadn’t the speaker ever heard of Germany? He continued: “they all say they believe in free speech, but never want to hear opposing views.” This launched an extended whining session between the two of them on this theme, disregarding the salient fact that he hadn’t said anything when he had the chance to ask questions of the speaker.

My first reaction was to be surprised that ROTC guys had to reach back to WWII to find an example of an uncontroversially just war – it occurred nearly half-a-century before either of them was born. I mean, what are they teaching in ROTC these days?

But my second reaction was how easily they slipped into thinking of themselves as oppressed victims. I certainly can imagine that the environment of the presentation had been strongly anti-war, and a defense of the war may well have drawn a heated reaction and maybe even some “boo”s. But I find it impossible to believe that the ROTC guy would have felt seriously threatened in any way. He just didn’t want to risk the possibility of being ridiculed for his support of the war. This is what so much of the right is reduced to: crying that they’re being oppressed – these guys genuinely believed that their rights had been taken away – whenever they don’t find themselves in the majority.

Oh frabjous day!

by Chris Bertram on March 25, 2006

I had tickets to “Welsh National Opera”:http://www.wno.org.uk/ ‘s production of “The Flying Dutchman”:http://www.wno.org.uk/what.opera.106.html last night (my second trip in a week, having seen “Figaro”:http://www.wno.org.uk/what.opera.107.html on Wednesday). We Bristolians had been feeling slightly sore, since “Bryn Terfel”:http://www.bbc.co.uk/wales/music/sites/brynterfel/ had sung the lead in Cardiff but had been replaced by Robert Hayward for later dates on the tour. Just before the was due to rise there was an announcement: Hayward was unwell and couldn’t sing. So now we get the third choice….? Not a bit of it! They had located Terfel on a golf course in North Wales that afternoon, put him in a car and rushed him down the M6/M5! Apparently it was touch and go whether he would make it in time. When the announcement was made the audience went wild (which made me feel extra sorry for poor Hayward). Terfel was, naturally, simply fantastic. A great singer with a tremendous presence. And a great guy … thanks for stepping in.

A Shameful Confession

by Belle Waring on March 25, 2006

Until recently, I thought that famous quote about the king and the priests and the entrails and the running and the explosions and the monkeys was from Professor Frink Diderot. I learn now that the source of the quote was Jean Meslier, whose bloody aspirations ran as follows: “Je voudrais, et ce sera le dernier et le plus ardent de mes souhaits, je voudrais que le dernier des rois fût étranglé avec les boyaux du dernier prêtre.” Worse, the form of the Diderot quote I had in mind was wrong. Diderot actually had this to say, in Les Éleuthéromanes, “Et ses mains ourdiraient les entrailles du prêtre/Au défaut d’un cordon pour étrangler les rois.” In a move reminiscent of a young Ben Domenech, however, one dastardly Jean-François de La Harpe attributed to Diderot the following version in his Cours de Littérature Ancienne et Moderne: “Et des boyaux du dernier prêtre/Serrons le cou du dernier roi.” Due to a distinct lack of blogswarms in the 1840’s, the error was never uncovered. I hope that after a sufficient period of contrition, perhaps involving live-cam self-flagellation, you all will someday be able to give my judgments about wankery the respect they deserve. In the meantime, Hitchens is still a wanker.

Hugos

by Henry on March 24, 2006

Via “Patrick Nielsen Hayden”:http://nielsenhayden.com/makinglight/archives/007354.html#007354 I see that the Hugo nominees have been announced. They’re

Learning the World, Ken MacLeod (Orbit; Tor)
A Feast for Crows, George R.R. Martin (Voyager; Bantam Spectra)
Old Man’s War, John Scalzi (Tor)
Accelerando, Charles Stross (Ace; Orbit)
Spin, Robert Charles Wilson (Tor)

For once, I’ve read all of them, and liked each of them quite a bit – it’s a very good field this year. That said, if I had to pick, it would either be McLeod’s _Learning the World_ or Wilson’s _Spin_. Both of these books see their authors reaching a new level of achievement. The McLeod book combines the political edge of his earlier work with a real degree of human warmth; it’s a little reminiscent of Vinge’s _Deepness in the Sky_ in its setup, but more subtle in how its plot plays out. _Spin_ strikes me as even more subtle, albeit chillier – using a gonzo science-fictional conceit and a slightly unreliable narrator to explore how we construct fantasies about an uncaring universe. As for the others, _Accelerando_ is very impressive, but I couldn’t entirely warm to it – I found that I was reading it more for the infodumps than the plot development. I prefer his “Merchant Princes” series which has less bells and whistles, but does a better job in my opinion of combining plotline with sociological speculation. More on this series later. That said, _Accelerando_ has some very nice sardonic touches. Most libertarian Singularities see the geeks inheriting the earth, but Stross’s version of the Singularity is dominated by feral intelligent financial instruments; hedge funds with stratospheric IQs run amok. _A Feast for Crows_ is a not-entirely-wonderful installment in a mostly wonderful series of books – the next should be better (it’ll have Tyrion). _Old Man’s War_ is great entertainment – I suspect Scalzi is getting a little tired of being compared to a modern Heinlein but there’s good reason for the comparison; he resurrects the feeling of golden age SF, but somehow manages to make it feel fresh. All good books in my opinion – feel free to agree/disagree in comments.