'The Republican War on Science,' by Chris Mooney

Political Science


Published: December 18, 2005

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 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 regulations.

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.