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The Republican War on Science
By Chris Mooney
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Praise for The Republican War on Science
"A frankly polemical survey of scientific finding and procedures in collision with political operations."
—New York Times Book Review, Editor's Choice 12/25/05
"The American conservative movement, as Chris Mooney points out in this fiercely anti-Republican book, has brought together two powerful constituencies—big industry and the religious right—both of which have an interest in skewing scientific advice so that it says what they want to hear."
—The New Statesman
"The Republican War on Science by Chris Mooney: There's a man who doesn't hide his views. But Mr. Mooney needs to be listened to. Among other things, he wrote a piece for The American Prospect a few months ago titled 'Thinking big about hurricanes: It's time to get serious about saving New Orleans.' Alas, nobody listened."
—Paul Krugman recommends RWOS on his interactive page at NYTimes.com
"Mooney makes a strong case that science policy is often shaped by partisan expedience and ideology, that there often is a "war" on science—or at least an unhealthy disregard for it."
—The Weekly Standard
"Mooney performs a useful service by researching all the details and interviewing as many of the protagonists as possible. He also enriches the narrative with much historical context, tracing over decades a gradual politicization of science that has culminated in the present farce."
"[Mooney] is a talented and energetic young Washington correspondent for Seed, an excellent and relatively new popular-science magazine. In writing a book about science-policy-making in America today, Mooney has bravely tackled a gigantic and complex topic."
—Washington Post 9/18/05
"The Republican War on Science . . . does score some major hits when it takes on ideological campaigns against embryonic stem cell research and for intelligent design."
—New York Sun
"The connections Mooney discusses are crucial, because they provide proof that these [antiscience] actions are politically and economically motivated, rather than based on principled scientific worries."
—Science Magazine 10/7/05
"Chris Mooney's book detailing the Bush administration's attitude toward science will either horrify or annoy you. Either way, though, it's an essential piece of detective work on the nature of science policy-making."
—Newark Star Ledger
"Chris Mooney has written a stinging indictment of the Republican Party's attitudes toward science, focusing particularly on the manipulative and dismissive thinking and policies of the current administration."
—The Christian Century 11/15/05
PREFACE TO THE PAPERBACK EDITION
I wish I could say that since the original publication of the hardcover edition of The Republican War on Science in the fall of 2005, the situation I denounced at that time had visibly improved. If anything, it has gotten worse. New attacks on science have emerged continually from the Bush administration, from Republicans in Congress, and at the state level (the latter most prominently involving the teaching of evolution). In light of these developments, I believe the argument presented in this book, which centrally attributes today's glut of politically motivated outrages against science to modern conservative ideology and attempts to appease key Republican interest groups, holds up very well. But because so much has happened, I would be remiss to release this paperback without exploring more recent events and their significance to the increasingly high-profile saga of science and politics in the United States.
This preface, along with updates at the end of Chapters 7 through 13, seeks to accomplish that task. But first, it seems fitting to reflect here on why The Republican War on Science has attracted such a high level of attention. As a first-time author, I was a bit staggered. I am confident that I wrote a strong and needed book, but I also believe that something else was afoot. Call it zeitgeist: Science policy rarely counts as a high-profile issue, but in recent years, the notion that the Bush administration might in some sense be "antiscience" has increasingly resonated. It has become a kind of Ur-narrative regarding this presidency, I suspect, because it reaffirms central suspicions about Bush nourished even by many who once supported him: that he's in a bubble walled off from reality; that he takes matters on faith; that he allows ideology to trample expert opinion; that he staffs the government with cronies who run it incompetently.
In other words, widespread concerns about the mistreatment of science by Bush's administration cannot be fully understood except in the context of related worries about the overselling of the Iraq war based on dubious intelligence, or about our government's pathetically inept response to Hurricane Katrina. After all, one key case study of science abuse on the part of top Bush administration officials lies in their repeated promotion of the dubious notion—as a rationale for preemptive war, no less—that Iraq's confiscated aluminum tubes were intended for centrifuges and uranium enrichment rather than for rocketry (a claim that nuclear experts almost uniformly rejected). Does that sound familiar? If so, it's because the administration has shown a similar reliance on scientific outlier perspectives on any number of other issues.
Or consider New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina. President Bush himself arguably misrepresented the state of knowledge when he so confidently declared, just after the storm, "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees." In fact, countless engineering and hurricane experts knew that New Orleans's underfunded levee systems might not withstand a direct hit from a major storm; in the event, even a sideswipe from Katrina did the city in. No wonder that when the hardcover edition of this book appeared at around the time of the destruction of much of New Orleans, my audiences repeatedly asked me to interpret recent events in light of my "war on science" thesis. (Perhaps my story also resonated because my mother's home, in the city's Lakeview neighborhood, had just been swamped by ten feet of floodwater.)
The politics of science manages to snuggle up alongside these higher-profile subjects of war and disaster because they're all part of a package, a collection of anecdotes that together speak the same message: The president doesn't seem to care about what's going on in the "reality-based community." If mistreatment of science reverberates as an issue, it is because it is emblematic of why so many Americans oppose George W. Bush to begin with. They think that he is unfit to lead and that those he appoints cannot competently administer a government with such a wide range of duties, virtually all of which require some form of expertise (often scientific) if they are to be carried out properly. Bush's meeting with the controversial novelist Michael Crichton to discuss global warming—according to journalist Fred Barnes, the two "talked for an hour and were in near-total agreement"—typifies the president's disregard for the critical role of legitimate expertise in decision-making.
So prominent have complaints about the administration's "war on science" become that even president Bush has responded, albeit obliquely, to them. To be sure, Bush did not explicitly acknowledge the criticisms that have become so widespread (and that this book epitomizes). Nevertheless, I believe that Bush sought at least in part to neutralize his detractors by announcing, in his 2006 State of the Union address, a new plan to promote science education and shore up America's scientific competitiveness. Then Bush got himself photographed peering into a microscope at a high school in Dallas (in Texas, at least, Bush and science are still chums).
But while Bush professes admirable goals for American science, they are hard to take seriously from a president who has been science's worst enemy when it really counts. Consider Bush's personal record—not his administration's record, but his own statements and actions—on the three most politically fraught scientific topics of the day: evolution, embryonic stem cell research, and global climate change. On evolution, Bush has endorsed teaching pseudoscientific "intelligent design" in public high school science classes (thereby shattering any credibility he might otherwise have had to talk about science education). On stem cells, as shown in Chapter 1, Bush misled the nation in 2001 about the scientific basis for his policy, and after it became clear that his promised "more than 60" embryonic stem cell lines did not exist, never bothered to amend his statement or to revise that policy. And then there's global warming, where Bush has falsely claimed that a "debate" exists over whether the globe is warming due to natural or manmade causes.
On matters of science, then, the president's credibility can be expressed as an empty set. As for the rest of his administration, the problems begin at the top but then filter down into the agencies of the federal government. Almost no major agency with science as a significant part of its portfolio or mandate has gone untouched by charges of politically motivated abuse of science during Bush's presidency. What began in 2002 as a list of allegations about the Department of the Interior (see Chapter 14) has expanded into charges concerning the National Cancer Institute, the CDC, FDA, EPA, NOAA,. . . the litany of abbreviated federal agencies goes on and on.
In this context, it can hardly be deemed irrelevant that these agencies, collectively, overflow with hundreds more political appointees than roamed the government at the end of the Clinton years. According to Princeton University political scientist David E. Lewis, the spike upwards under Bush has been on the order of about 350 appointees. Some of these appointees have sought, in very heavy-handed fashion, to keep government scientists (or "science moles," as one conservative put it) in line. So if we seek to understand why so many science fights have erupted at so many diverse agencies during the Bush administration—and why they continue to break out with considerable regularity—the role and the zeal of Bush administration political appointees becomes essential.
Perhaps somewhat unfairly even for this bunch, their archetype has become George Deutsch, the 24-year-old NASA public relations official who reportedly described his job as being to "make the president look good" and who sought to rein in famed climate scientist James Hansen (who had merely attempted to warn that we may lose the polar ice sheets if we don't move quickly to address climate change). Hansen got the better of Deutsch in that episode, going public in early 2006 and drawing a new wave of attention to the fraught relationship between the Bush administration and its own scientists (dramatically undercutting Bush's newly announced competitiveness initiative in the process). Meanwhile, Deutsch resigned, even as the New York Times revealed that, contrary to his résumé, he had not graduated from Texas A&M University. With stories like this, can anyone seriously wonder why Americans have become so worried about the way this administration treats not just science in general, but its own scientist employees?
Seriously addressing such concerns for perhaps the first time, the Bush administration—or at any rate, NASA—responded seriously to the Deutsch-Hansen affair with an avowal that it would relax restrictions on interactions between government scientists and the media. But the spirit of Deutsch lives on in episode after episode of conflict between federal scientists and administration political appointees, as well as in the broader political fights over science that continue to resound in American public life. So many of these conflicts have emerged since the final text was set for the hardcover edition of this book that I felt it important to provide updates for the paperback edition. The broad story of abuse of science told here has not appreciably changed; the newly accumulated details, however, make the argument considerably stronger, especially since most of them merge seamlessly into the book's preexisting framework.
Therefore, at the end of each of the main chapters covering present-day events (Chapters 7-13), I have set aside a section to fill the reader in on subsequent developments (this preface itself is, in a sense, an extension of Chapter 14). These updates aren't too lengthy, but they give you a flavor for how the stories told in the chapters have progressed. Meanwhile, the text has also been revised to fix any typographical or other errors discovered in the previous edition, as well as to include minor editorial changes. (For example, I have frequently replaced the rather imprecise and ill-defined phrase "politicization of science" with something more specific.) For those wishing to compare editions—an activity guaranteed to overcome insomnia—I have made a complete list of changes to the text available at the book website, www.waronscience.com.
In closing this preface, I would like to address what I view as one problem with of the first edition of The Republican War on Science: its rather clipped description of possible solutions to the crisis I had spent the entire book describing. I can't tell you how many readers responded that the book made them exceedingly angry but provided little in the way of a release valve for the built-up steam. In part, that springs from the very nature of the problem of science abuse: It is inherently difficult to fight against. The incentives to attack politically influential scientific information are vast, and those who opt for this strategy have a built-in advantage over science's defenders. It's much easier to sow confusion and misinformation than it is to generate new and reliable knowledge. It's much easier to spin the media than to correct errors once they've been broadly disseminated. It's much easier simply to make something up than to do the hard work required to prove or disprove a hypothesis.
Nevertheless, that's no reason for the allies and defenders of science to give up. When science falls under political attack, responsible people—scientists especially—cannot simply stand on the sidelines. They must speak out and defend the knowledge they have brought into the world.
Since the book's first publication, then, I have thought a great deal about how scientists might better defend their knowledge and their work. My ideas can be read in more detail in a column on the subject written for Seed magazine entitled "Learning to Speak Science," available online at http://www.seedmagazine.com/news/2006/01/learning_to_speak_science.php. But to summarize, I believe that in order to fight back, scientists must learn to emphasize a very different set of skills from those that they generally use in strictly scientific pursuits. Too many scientists have grown accustomed to the security of their labs and university communities, occasionally lamenting the American public's poor understanding of science but doing little in a concerted way to improve it. And small wonder: American science rewards the publication of peer-reviewed research but offers little incentive for scientists to communicate and translate what they know to the public. So scientists in the United States have little practice when it comes to crafting a message or winning a political debate.
Scientists need to become better advocates, not for a particular political party, but for the integrity of science itself. In the process, they must learn to speak to the public in a language it understands and to value individuals in their ranks who excel at communication. At the same time, they must avoid messages that backfire politically. For example, many scientists are atheists, and when they come to the defense of the teaching of evolution, they bring their godlessness along with them and attack or disparage the religious beliefs held by a large proportion of Americans. I am second to none in defense of the right to a lack of religious belief, but if science advocates are smart, they will recognize that the evolution battle is a cultural one, not a scientific one. Conservative Christians believe that the theory of evolution is destroying religious belief and leading to moral chaos. In this situation, there's nothing strategically dumber than reinforcing a damaging and divisive stereotype.
I want to stress that in advancing this argument about public communication by scientists, I am not blithely assuming that a better-informed public will magically solve all of our problems for us. It won't. Many of the distortions of science described in these pages have attained such a level of sophistication that only experts can properly set the record straight about what science actually says and what it doesn't. And no matter how well educated about science the American public becomes, we will never have an electorate consisting wholly of Ph.D.s. For a similar reason, in most cases I do not expect that many politicians will have to pay a price for their attacks on science at the ballot box. Most voters simply have too many other things on their minds—war, their pocketbooks—to get deeply involved in matters of science policy.
But that doesn't mean scientists can't make a difference. They can bring their message straight to policymakers, the people who most need reliable information. They can correct and, if necessary, embarrass journalists who fall prey to scientific-sounding distortions. Finally, at a time when the attacks on evolution or climate science take the form of strategic PR campaigns, scientists must launch counter-campaigns to blunt the impact of widespread misinformation on the media and public. Better strategic organization on the part of scientists certainly won't supplant the need for better science education and public understanding; these efforts must be complementary. But at least the battle would finally have been joined by scientists, in a concerted and politically informed way, in the arena where it truly matters: the media and public square.
If you're worried about the state of science in American today, then I have little doubt that the following pages will make you outraged and angry. But remember that that's just the first step. Restoring the integrity of science to our government and public life will depend on commitments and contributions from all who hold to the Enlightenment-inspired belief that, if we can just get the science right, we're at least somewhat more likely to get the policy right as well—that, in other words, we not only can, but must, use our knowledge to improve our future. That is my own conviction, and I'm proud to stand up and defend it, again, through the issuance of this paperback. I hope you will join me.
WHERE IT BEGINS
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. These mechanisms are more or less explicitly designed to counter human self-deception. People always think they're right, and powerful people will tend to use their authority to bolster their prestige and suppress inconvenient opposition. You try to set up the game of science so that the truth will out despite this ugly side of human nature.
IN THE SUMMER OF 2001 , long before his reelection and even before he became a "wartime president," George W. Bush found himself in a political tight spot. He responded with a morsel of scientific misinformation so stunning, so certain to be exposed by enterprising journalists (as indeed it was), that one can only wonder what Bush and his handlers were thinking, or whether they were thinking at all. The issue was embryonic stem cell research, and Bush's nationally televised claim—that "more than sixty genetically diverse" embryonic stem cell lines existed at the time of his statement—counts as one of the most flagrant purely scientific deceptions ever perpetrated by a U.S. president on an unsuspecting public.
Bush's assertion, made on August 9, 2001, came as the president sought to escape a political trap of his own making. Campaigning in 2000, Bush told the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that taxpayer money "should not underwrite research that involves the destruction of live human embryos." The statement threw a bone to Bush's pro-life followers, who view the ball of about one hundred fifty cells constituting a five-day-old embryo as deserving of the same moral and legal protections as fully developed human beings. Accordingly, these religious conservatives consider embryonic stem cell research—the study of excess embryos donated for research from in vitro fertilization clinics—ethically abhorrent.
But some prominent Republicans, such as Utah senator Orrin Hatch, favored the research because of its scientific promise. As the issue came to a head in the summer of 2001, Bush publicly agonized over what to do. Finally, he opted for a supposed compromise: he would allow federal funding, but only for research on preexisting cell lines. That way—at least arguably—the government would not be complicit in the destruction of any more embryos, and Bush would have kept his campaign promise.
From August 9, 2001, forward, Bush declared, the federal government would fund research on embryonic stem cell lines only "where the life and death decision has already been made." For this rather arbitrary decision to sound plausible, though, Bush needed to turn scientists loose on a largishsounding number of lines—something on the order of, say, sixty. Having such an impressive figure to cite "made this decision possible," a senior administration official told Time shortly after Bush's speech.
Scientists, though, expressed instant skepticism. The count didn't come from the published and peer-reviewed literature; instead, it arose from a global telephone survey conducted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). It gradually became clear that the NIH figure referred to stem cell derivations: every known case in which scientists had removed the inner cell mass of an early embryo, or blastocyst, before the Bush deadline. But while derivations represent attempts to produce a cell line, these attempts do not always succeed; lines must reliably grow and divide in the laboratory so that scientists can study them and ship them to colleagues. In an interview, Stanford professor emeritus of medicine and Nobel laureate Paul Berg vividly explained the problem with many of the Bush cell "lines": "At some point, somebody took a blastocyst from an IVF clinic and cracked it open and poured everything into a vial and stuck it into a liquid nitrogen tank. In which case, we don't know if it's a line. And most of them died, and that's why there are so few now."
The Bush White House either didn't know or didn't care about the distinction between derivations and lines. Lacking a permanent science adviser at the time—and not bothering to consult with acting science adviser Rosina Bierbaum, a Clinton administration holdover—Bush went on national television and announced to Americans, roughly a third of whom had tuned in to his August 9 speech, a policy based on science fiction. As of this writing, more than four years later, only twenty-two available lines qualify for federal funding, and scientists consider many of those almost useless.
You might call it a textbook example of how bad scientific information leads, inexorably, to bad policy.
Bush's approach to the issue of embryonic stem cell research—his very first political test—showed a deep disregard for the role of scientific information in political decision-making. Rather than seriously analyzing the number of stem cell lines in existence and assessing their viability for research, the White House cherry-picked a questionable number to justify a desired result. It used science as window dressing, as public relations. That is sadly typical of how our current president, and the political movement of which he serves as figurehead, approach scientific information generally.
Rallied by the Union of Concerned Scientists, a liberal-leaning group based in Massachusetts, many of the nation's leading scientists, and by no means only liberals, have sweepingly denounced the Bush administration's misuses of science. Beyond the issue of embryonic stem cell research, they have accused the administration of skewing science on global warming, mercury pollution, condom effectiveness, the alleged health risks of abortion, and much else. These charges, many of them substantiated in this book, have received considerable attention. But the broader story behind them has not. Few have recognized the deep connection between the Bush administration's treatment of science on issues like embryonic stem cell research on the one hand, and recent American political history on the other.
Unlike his father, George W. Bush is no Republican moderate. Rather, he owes his allegiance to the modern American conservative movement, which over the past fifty years has gone from the political fringe to a position of dominion over the Republican Party, not to mention the entire U.S. government. In the process, the modern Right has adopted a style of politics that puts its adherents in increasingly stark conflict with both scientific information and dispassionate, expert analysis in general. Small wonder, then, that Bush's presidency has been characterized by unprecedented distortions of scientific information.
To be clear, this is no indictment of every member of the Republican Party. Moderate Republicans like Senator John McCain have often fought back against conservative distortions of science, particularly on the issue of global warming, and it was a Republican president, Dwight Eisenhower, who first installed a scientific advisory apparatus in the White House. Alas, today moderate Republicans simply aren't running the show.
At its most basic level, the modern Right's tension with science springs from conservatism, a political philosophy that places a strong value upon preserving traditional social structures and institiutions.
- On Sale
- Mar 16, 2007
- Page Count
- 376 pages
- Basic Books