Sounds Like Science, But ...
Big business interests and religious conservatism combine in the Bush administration to create an environment toxic for science. Journalist Chris Mooney explains why.

- November 10, 2005

Sound science, data quality, intelligent design: although innocuous-sounding, these phrases are weapons in a war, a war that aims to bring objective, disinterested science to heel.

Take the phrase "sound science," for example. You might think it means science conducted according to accepted principles and deriving results that stand up to review by other scientists. But in the hands of conservative strategists and industry lobbyists, it means asking for a degree of certainty that science cannot possibly deliver, in order to frustrate and derail government efforts to regulate business and protect the environment and public health. Journalist Chris Mooney, author of The Republican War on Science , calls these phrases "Orwellian."

Amassing evidence from stem cell research to environmental regulation, Mooney makes the case that science abuse in politics, while not new nor limited to the Republican Party, has reached critical mass in the administration of President George W. Bush. And he goes further, to try to stitch together the rise of the conservative movement in the United States--from Barry Goldwater to Ronald Reagan to Newt Gingrich to now--to explain how this has happened and why. It's a stinging indictment and a rallying cry to scientists to get involved and try to stem the damage that is being done.

Only six years out of Yale, Mooney has created a niche for himself reporting on the intersection of science and politics, first for The American Prospect and now for Seed Magazine . Mooney was not the first to point out the abuse of science under the Bush administration, but his book builds on the work that Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and the Union of Concerned Scientists did in detailing the shenanigans. What Mooney did was to dig into the question of why this was happening.

"I realized that I was just going to have to take a historical/political look at what could be driving this," Mooney told the Advocate . He went into the issues where political controversies over science arose and then followed the money to whose interests were at stake. "That of course points you right at industry and religious conservatives," Mooney said. "It points you in a direct line." And whose constituencies are these two groups? "They are the Republican party's constituencies today, but that's because the Republican party reflects the triumph of the conservative movement in America," Mooney said.

Mooney said that while his book has been a best seller and he hopes that it will have an impact, it has been largely ignored by the Right. "I've actually been starved for criticism," Mooney said. "There's even this event where I was speaking at the University of Minnesota, where some conservative groups made a big stink about them having me on campus, and they claimed liberal bias, and so I was really excited. I was thinking that they were going to show up at the event and either protest or ask some hard questions. But they weren't there. They just made their stink beforehand and didn't even come out."

Reading about science policy and the various maneuvers to stack committees, to rewrite regulations, and to misrepresent science to create bad policy, can be a slow slog. And Mooney in The Republican War on Science < does diligently take on a variety of case studies to lay out his story. However, he keeps it interesting by giving incisive and telling portraits of key figures.

He gives us octogenarian Russell Train, founder of the U.S. branch of the World Wildlife Federation, former head of the Environmental Protection agency, and lifelong Republican. For Mooney, Train's iconic WWF giant panda button becomes a metaphor. "Train has become a politically endangered species: a moderate, pro-environment Republican in a party run by its right wing," Mooney says.

He presents Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the Republicans' "bad cop" on climate change, who in the face of near scientific unanimity that humans are, in fact, causing global warming, suggested on the floor of the Senate that human-caused climate change may be "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people." Mooney brings us to a hearing Inhofe held in 2003, attempting to fend off a bill from senators John McCain and Joseph Lieberman to establish caps on carbon emissions. In the hearing, Inhofe pitted two contrarian scientists, Willie Soon and David Legates (Mooney details the ties that both had to conservative think tanks and ExxonMobil, along with dollar figures) against mainstream scientist Michael Mann, creating the impression that there was serious uncertainty in the scientific community about the nature and causes of global warming, when there isn't. Mooney argues that Inhofe's heavy-handed, over-the-top approach gives cover to President Bush's actions on global warming.

And perhaps the most colorful character Mooney sketches out for us is Jim J. Tozzi, head of the industry-funded Center for Regulatory Effectiveness. Tozzi, whom Mooney confesses that he once drank shots with, "loves partying with the enemy." But his career over four decades has spanned from "helping Philip Morris with strategies to block regulations on secondhand smoke" to quashing proposed regulation at the federal Office of Management and Budget to crafting the piece of legislation that Mooney calls "a science abuser's dream come true" --the Data Quality Act. The DQA gives industry the right to challenge not only regulation, but science that might lead to regulation.

Mooney said he doesn't have a lot of hope that the current impasse between science and government will be resolved under the Bush administration. "I think that science and the administration have become basically completely distrustful of one another," he said. Mooney blamed Bush, not only for "misusing science to begin with," but also "for being unwilling to admit any criticism. ... In fact, if anything, I think the administration is inclined to punish scientists who criticized Bush during the election," he said.

Although some steps could be taken to ensure the integrity of science in government, Mooney said the real resolution would come with regime change in 2008: "I do think that 2008 is going to be the time when we have to look to try to find a candidate who's going to have a better respect for the integrity of science. And that could be a Democrat or a Republican candidate, by the way. There's a lot of Republicans who are more moderate and who I don't think will bend over backwards as much for industry and religious conservatives as Bush has."

Mooney comes to Food for Thought Books in Amherst to read from his book Nov. 15 at 6 p.m. The reading is free and open to the public.