From Scientific American : The Blog--Musings and
Thomas Jefferson would be appalled. More than two
centuries after he helped to shape a government based on the idea that reason
and technological advancement would propel the new United States into a glorious
future, the political party that now controls that government has largely turned
its back on science.
Even as the country and the planet face both
scientifically complex threats and remarkable technological opportunities, many
Republican officeholders reject the most reliable sources of information and
analysis available to guide the nation. As inconceivable as it would have been
to Jefferson--and as dismaying as it is to growing legions of today's
scientists--large swaths of the government in Washington are now in the hands of
people who don't know what science is.
More ominously, some of those in
power may grasp how research works but nonetheless are willing to subvert
science's knowledge and expert opinion for short-term political and economic
gains. That is the thesis of The Republican War on Science, by Chris Mooney, one
of the few journalists in the country who specialize in the now dangerous
intersection of science and politics. His book is a well-researched, closely
argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science
and scientists. Mooney's chronicle of what he calls "science abuse" begins in
the 1970s with Richard Nixon and picks up steam with Ronald Reagan. But both
pale in comparison to the current Bush administration, which in four years
* Rejected the scientific consensus on global warming and suppressed
an EPA report supporting that consensus.
* Stacked numerous advisory
committees with industry representatives and members of the religious Right.
* Begun deploying a missile defense system without evidence that it can
* Banned funding for embryonic stem cell research except on a
claimed 60 cell lines already in existence, most of which turned out not to
* Forced the National Cancer Institute to say that abortion may
cause breast cancer, a claim refuted by good studies.
* Ordered the
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to remove information about condom
use and efficacy from its Web site.
Mooney explores these and many other
examples, including George W. Bush's support for creationism. In almost every
instance, Republican leaders have branded the scientific mainstream as purveyors
of "junk science" and dubbed an extremist viewpoint--always at the end of the
spectrum favoring big business or the religious Right--"sound science." One of
the most insidious achievements of the Right, Mooney shows, is the Data Quality
Act of 2000--just two sentences, written by an industry lobbyist and quietly
inserted into an appropriations bill. It directs the White House's Office of
Management and Budget to ensure that all information put out by the federal
government is reliable.
The law seems sensible, except in practice. It
is used mainly by industry and right-wing think tanks to block release of
government reports unfavorable to their interests by claiming they do not
contain "sound science." For all its hostility to specific scientific findings,
the Right never says it opposes science. It understands the cachet in the word.
Perhaps Republicans sense what pollsters have known for decades--that the
American public is overwhelmingly positive about science and that there is
nothing to be gained by opposing a winner. Instead the Right exploits a
misconception about science common among nonscientists--a belief that
uncertainty in findings indicates fatally flawed research.
cutting-edge science--including most research into currently controversial
topics--is uncertain, it is dismissed as junk. This naive understanding of
science hands the Right a time-tested tactic. It does not claim that business
interests or moral values trump the scientific consensus. Rather rightists argue
that the consensus itself is flawed. Then they encourage a debate between the
consensus and the extremist naysayers, giving the two apparently equal weight.
Thus, Mooney argues, it seems reasonable to split the difference or simply to
argue that there is too much uncertainty to, say, ban a suspect chemical or fund
a controversial form of research. The Republican War on Science details
political and regulatory debates that can be arcane and complex, engrossing
reading only for dedicated policy wonks.
Thankfully, Mooney is both a
wonk and a clear writer. He covered many of the battles in real time for
publications such as the Washington Post, Washington Monthly, Mother Jones and
American Prospect. "When politicians use bad science to justify themselves
rather than good science to make up their minds," Mooney writes, "we can safely
assume that wrongheaded and even disastrous decisions lie ahead." Thomas
Jefferson would, indeed, be appalled. Writing in 1799 to a young student whom he
was mentoring, the patriot advised the man to study science and urged him to
reject the "doctrine which the present despots of the earth are inculcating,"
that there is nothing new to be learned. He concluded by saying opposition to
"freedom and science would be such a monstrous phenomenon as I cannot place
among possible things in this age and this