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
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
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 public."
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 government
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