[Paleopsych] NYTBR: 'The Republican War on Science, ' by Chris Mooney
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Sun Dec 18 18:57:15 UTC 2005
'The Republican War on Science,' by Chris Mooney
[I loved Horgan's "Rational Mysticism," a book that goes into drug-induced
religious states a lot. I recommend it to many and recommend to all his
"The End of Science," which doesn't pound on that theme so much as
interviews many well-known scientists about their work. It could well be
that we are nearing wit's end with our three-pound brains. They are not
big enough to get the theoretical part of a successful string theory, or
so it seems. And what's happened that's as important in the fifty years
since the deciphering of DNA and the discovery of the Big Bang?
[The book Horgan reviews may very well be accurate. As long as the state
is big enough to do good, it can also do harm. Even still, the
depredations that corporations do amount to far less than they are taxed.
[The big scandal is not even noticed, no more than fish notice water. This
is bogus and biased *social* science, the spurious dogmas and research
that underlie the Human Betterment Industry (health-education-welfare,
which is mostly paid for by government in this country and in most. Health
is 50% paid for by the government and education 80-90%. Hard to say about
welfare, since people do provide for their own. Never seen any data on
it). The government part of the HBI has been greater than private
manufacturing for at least thirty years! And the HBI has a huge control
over the upbringing of youth. While manufacturers would like to have this
control, they don't need to, since their products are purchased
[And yet, what is actually gotten from all this spending is hard to
distinguish from zero. Economists can't find any relationship between
education spending and education, nor between health care spending and
health. And the dependency caused by welfare is so well-known that even
liberals worry about it.
[Yes, that the Republicans are catching up with the fine art of raiding
the public fisc that had been such a specialty of the Democrats, is a
major change from the previous division between the party of the taxpayers
and the party of the taxeaters. "The Republican War on Science" is on the
front page of the NYT Book Review today. I wish other issue of the Review
would feature The Democratic War on Social Science.]
THE REPUBLICAN WAR ON SCIENCE
By Chris Mooney.
342 pp. Basic Books. $24.95.
Review by JOHN HORGAN
Last spring, a magazine asked me to look into a whistleblower case
involving a United States Fish and Wildlife Service biologist named
Andy Eller. Eller, a veteran of 18 years with the service, was
fired after he publicly charged it with failing to protect the
Florida panther from voracious development. One of the first
species listed under the Endangered Species Act, the panther haunts
southwest Florida's forests, which builders are transforming into
gated golf communities. After several weeks of interviews, I wrote
an article that called the service's treatment of Eller "shameful"
- and emblematic of the Bush administration's treatment of
scientists who interfere with its probusiness agenda.
My editor complained that the piece was too "one-sided"; I needed
to show more sympathy to Eller's superiors in the Wildlife Service
and to the Bush administration. I knew what the editor meant: the
story I had written could be dismissed as just another anti-Bush
diatribe; it would be more persuasive if it appeared more balanced.
On the other hand, the reality was one-sided, to a startling
degree. An ardent conservationist, Eller had dreamed of working for
the Wildlife Service since his youth; he collected first editions
of environmental classics like Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring." The
officials who fired him based their denial that the panther is
threatened in part on data provided by a former state wildlife
scientist who had since become a consultant for developers seeking
to bulldoze panther habitat. The officials were clearly acting in
the spirit of their overseer, Secretary of the Interior Gale
Norton, a property-rights advocate who has questioned the
constitutionality of aspects of the Endangered Species Act.
This episode makes me more sympathetic than I might otherwise have
been to "The Republican War on Science" by the journalist Chris
Mooney. As the title indicates, Mooney's book is a diatribe, from
start to finish. The prose is often clunky and clichéd, and it
suffers from smug, preaching-to-the-choir self-righteousness. But
Mooney deserves a hearing in spite of these flaws, because he
addresses a vitally important topic and gets it basically right.
Mooney charges George Bush and other conservative Republicans with
"science abuse," which he defines as "any attempt to
inappropriately undermine, alter or otherwise interfere with the
scientific process, or scientific conclusions, for political or
ideological reasons." Science abuse is not an exclusively
right-wing sin, Mooney acknowledges. He condemns Greenpeace for
exaggerating the risks of genetically modified "Frankenfoods,"
animal-rights groups for dismissing the medical benefits of
research on animals and John Kerry for overstating the potential of
stem cells during his presidential run.
In "politicized fights involving science, it is rare to find
liberals entirely innocent of abuses," Mooney asserts. "But they
are almost never as guilty as the Right." By "the Right," Mooney
means the powerful alliance of conservative Christians - who seek
to influence policies on abortion, stem cells, sexual conduct and
the teaching of evolution - and advocates of free enterprise who
attempt to minimize regulations that cut into corporate profits.
The champion of both groups - and the chief villain of Mooney's
book - is President Bush, whom Mooney accuses of having
"politicized science to an unprecedented degree."
Some might quibble with "unprecedented." When I starting covering
science in the early 1980's, Ronald Reagan was pushing for a
space-based defense against nuclear missiles, called Star Wars,
that a chorus of scientists dismissed as technically unfeasible.
Reagan stalled on acknowledging the dangers of acid rain and the
buildup of ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons in the atmosphere.
Warming the hearts of his religious fans, Reagan voiced doubts
about the theory of evolution, and he urged C. Everett Koop, the
surgeon general, to investigate whether abortion harms women
physically and emotionally. (Koop, though an ardent opponent of
abortion, refused.) Mooney notes this history but argues that the
current administration has imposed its will on scientific debates
in a more systematic fashion, and he cites a slew of cases -
including the Florida panther affair - to back up his claim.
One simple strategy involves filling federal positions on the basis
of ideology rather than genuine expertise. Last year, the White
House expelled the eminent cell biologist Elizabeth Blackburn, a
proponent of embryonic stem-cell research, from the President's
Council on Bioethics and installed a political scientist who had
once declared, "Every embryo for research is someone's blood
relative." And in 2002 the administration appointed the Kentucky
gynecologist and obstetrician W. David Hager to the Reproductive
Health Drugs Advisory Committee of the Food and Drug
Administration. Hager has advocated treating premenstrual syndrome
with Bible readings and has denounced the birth control pill.
In addition to these widely reported incidents, Mooney divulges
others of which I was unaware. In 2003 the World Health
Organization and Food and Agricultural Organization
(W.H.O./F.A.O.), citing concerns about rising levels of
obesity-related disease, released a report that recommended limits
on the intake of fat and sugar. The recommendations reflected the
consensus of an international coalition of experts. The Sugar
Association, the Grocery Manufacturers of America and other food
industry groups attacked the recommendations.
William R. Steiger, an official in the Department of Health and
Human Services, then wrote to W.H.O.'s director general to complain
about the dietary report. Echoing the criticism of the industry
groups, Steiger questioned the W.H.O. report's linkage of obesity
and other disorders to foods containing high levels of sugar and
fat, and he suggested that the report should have placed more
emphasis on "personal responsibility." Steiger later informed the
W.H.O. that henceforth only scientists approved by his office would
be allowed to serve on the organization's committees.
In similar fashion, the Bush administration has sought to control
the debate over climate change, biodiversity, contraception, drug
abuse, air and water pollution, missile defense and other issues
that bear on the welfare of humans and the rest of nature. What
galls Mooney most is that administration officials and other
conservative Republicans claim that they are guided by reason and
respect for "sound science," whereas their opponents are ideologues
peddling "junk science."
In the most original section of his book, Mooney credits "Big
Tobacco" with inventing and refining this Orwellian tactic. After
the surgeon general's office released its landmark 1964 report
linking smoking to cancer and other diseases, the tobacco industry
sought to discredit the report with its own experts and studies.
"Doubt is our product," declared a 1969 Brown & Williamson memo
spelling out the strategy, "since it is the best means of competing
with the 'body of fact' that exists in the mind of the general
After the E.P.A. released a report on the dangers of secondhand
smoke in 1992, the Tobacco Institute berated the agency for
preferring "political correctness over sound science." Within a
year Philip Morris helped to create a group called The Advancement
of Sound Science Coalition (Tassc), which challenged the risks not
only of secondhand smoke but also of pesticides, dioxin and other
industrial chemicals. (The executive director of Tassc in the late
1990's was Steven Milloy, who now "debunks" global warming and
other environmental threats in the Foxnews.com column "Junk
Science.") Newt Gingrich and other Republicans soon started
invoking "sound science" and "junk science" while criticizing
A veteran tobacco lobbyist also played a role in the Data Quality
Act, which Mooney calls "a science abuser's dream come true." Jim
Tozzi, who served in the Office of Management and Budget before
becoming a consultant for Philip Morris and other companies, helped
draft the legislation and slip it into a massive appropriations
bill signed into law in 2000, late in the Clinton administration.
The act, which raises the standard for scientific evidence
justifying federal regulations, is designed to induce what one
critic calls "paralysis by analysis." While the law does not
exclusively serve business interests (for example, Andy Eller
successfully used it to challenge the Fish and Wildlife Service's
policies on panther habitat), they have been its main
beneficiaries. Already it has been employed by loggers, herbicide
makers, manufacturers of asbestos brakes and other companies to
challenge unwelcome regulations.
Mooney, who grew up in New Orleans, seems particularly incensed
when he addresses the issue of global warming. He notes that Bush
officials have repeatedly ignored or altered reports by the
National Academy of Sciences, the E.P.A. and other groups tying
global warming to fossil fuel emissions. Mooney devotes nearly a
whole chapter to denouncing Senator Daniel Inhofe of Oklahoma, a
Republican and chairman of the Committee on Environment and Public
Works, who once said human-induced global warming might be "the
greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people."
Republicans' "refusal to consider mainstream scientific opinion
fuels an atmosphere of policy gridlock that could cost our children
dearly," declares Mooney, who finished his book before Hurricane
Katrina. I can only imagine how he feels now. Mooney implicates the
news media in this crisis. Too often, he says, reporters covering
scientific debates give fringe views equal weight in a misguided
attempt to achieve "balance."
To back up this claim, Mooney cites a study of coverage of global
warming in four major newspapers, including this one, from 1988 to
2002. The study concluded that more than 50 percent of the stories
gave "roughly equal attention" to both sides of the debate, even
though by 1995 most climatologists accepted human-induced global
warming as highly probable. Mooney notes that one prominent doubter
and sometime Bush administration adviser on climate change, the
M.I.T. meteorologist Richard Lindzen, is a smoker who has also
questioned the evidence linking smoking and lung cancer.
Mooney's critique has understandably annoyed some of his
colleagues. In a review in The Washington Post, the journalist Keay
Davidson faults Mooney for not acknowledging how hard it can be to
distinguish good science from bad. Philosophers call this the
"demarcation problem." Demarcation can indeed be difficult,
especially if all the scientists involved are trying in good faith
to get at the truth, and Mooney does occasionally imply that
demarcation consists simply of checking scientists' party
affiliations. But in many of the cases that he examines,
demarcation is easy, because one side has an a priori commitment to
something other than the truth - God or money, to put it bluntly.
Conservative complaints about federally financed "junk science" may
ultimately prove self-fulfilling. Government scientists - and those
who receive federal funds - may toe the party line to avoid being
punished like the whistleblower Andy Eller (who was rehired last
June after he sued for wrongful termination). Increasingly,
competent scientists will avoid public service, degrading the
quality of advice to policy makers and the public still further.
Together, these trends threaten "not just our public health and the
environment," Mooney warns, "but the very integrity of American
democracy, which relies heavily on scientific and technical
expertise to function." If this assessment sounds one-sided, so is
the reality that it describes.
John Horgan is director of the Center for Science Writings at the
Stevens Institute of Technology. His latest book is "Rational
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