Reviewed 3/26/2010

The Republican War on Science, by Chris Mooney

Chris Mooney
New York: Basic Books, August 2005




ISBN-13 978-0-465-04675-1
ISBN-10 0-465-04675-4 342p. HC $24.95

John Horgan called this book "a diatribe from start to finish."1, 5 He's wrong about that. It is true that Chris Mooney is not completely non-judgemental in describing the distortions of science he reports; he's wont to call them stunning or outrageous.2 But if Mooney is not a paragon of journalistic even-handedness, that is all to the good, for such impartiality too often invests both sides of a dispute with apparently equal validity. That may have value in a criminal trial or other social conflicts. But in a scientific dispute one side must be wrong, and by the time the dispute becomes worthy of general news coverage, it is usually clear which side that is.

So it has been with the issues conservatives have chosen to battle over in what Mooney aptly calls a War on Science. And Mooney has been very diligent in his investigation of the many obstacles conservatives have thrown up in the way of scientific progress.3 He has in truth put together a remarkably thorough documentation of their purposeful distortion and suppression of science, motivated by ideological purity or business venality. Whether the topic is climate change, endangered species preservation, sex education, stem-cell research, release of toxic metals into the environment, or something else, close examination reveals Republicans as the perpetrators of the vast majority of such interference. That history goes all the way back to the Nixon administration, with its moderate Republican Russell Train, second head of the Nixon-created EPA.4, 7 Indeed, I doubt there is a more thorough account; it betters even Seth Shulman's outstanding Undermining Science.

But Horgan acknowledges that Mooney has his story basically right, and that it is an important story — and there Horgan is profoundly correct. For, amazingly, what has been forgotten by the perpetrators of these many attempts to subvert science is that the processes which govern the natural world cannot be altered by edicts, no matter who issues them. Facts, as the saying goes, are stubborn things. The great value of science is that it is built to reinforce that understanding.

"The success of science depends on an apparatus of democratic adjudication—anonymous peer reviews, open debate, the fact that a graduate student can criticize a tenured professor. These mechanisms are more or less explicitly designed to counter human self-deception. People always think they're right, and powerful people will tend to use their authority to bolster their prestige and suppress inconvenient opposition. You try to set up the game of science so that the truth will out despite this ugly side of human nature."

– Steven Pinker, quoted on Page 1

Mooney's book has two other merits that set it apart: It begins by defining the process of scientific investigation, and ends with a comprehensive analysis of what is needed to get that process back on track in the United States. [Those recommendations include restoring the OTA, which Newt Gingrich's House of Representatives abolished in 1987.] And it clearly explains why there must be a "firewall" between scientific advice and policy decisions. The late Rep. George Brown put it well in 1996:

"Science may be able to guide policymakers, but it cannot relieve policymakers of the obligation to make tough policy choices, choices that require a difficult balancing of competing interests. . . [The] demand for absolute and incontrovertible truth prior to action is a choice to ignore science rather than be counseled by it and an abdication of the responsibility to use the best knowledge available at any given time to serve the common good."

– George Brown, quoted on Page 20

Who among us does not know that a steady diet of burgers and fries and soda is not good for you? Yet even this very basic issue comes in for distortion by conservatives backed by the makers of food additives. (See sidebar.) But I do think Mooney comes down too hard on the fast food industry in Chapter 9. Carl Karcher, Ray Kroc, Dave Thomas and the rest didn't make us fat; they didn't force us to eat at their restaurants. We did this to ourselves.

Mooney also explains how a scientific consensus differs from the popular understanding of the term. (page 81)

Finally, never let it be thought that liberals (call them what you will: progressives, leftists, eco-freaks) escape the gaze of Mooney's microscope. He notes early in the book that they have sometimes been guilty of distortion.

"So give conservatives a few points, here and there, on the question of left wing science politicization. It certainly exists, and later chapters will highlight further examples on issues like mercury pollution and embryonic stem cell research (where advocates have sometimes hyped the possibility of quick cures for diseases). In fact, in politicized fights involving science, it is rare to find liberals entirely innocent of abuses. But they are almost never as guilty as the Right."

– Page 9

He notes that environmentalists have sometimes overstated their case, and later mentions the 2004 presidential campaign of John Kerry specifically for hyping the promise of stem-cell research. But the record shows that only conservatives have mounted a systematic effort of suppression and distortion. Mooney's book provides valuable documentation of that record. Of course it has all the features required of an excellent journalistic report — the endnotes and index are there. And for a book of this size and scope, there are very few errors. My recommendation: Buy it. Read it. Keep it.

The book is not just about climate science, or even predominantly about it. But given the continuing stalemate in Congress on climate policy, I think it's fitting to close this review with Mooney's words on the subject.

"From a political standpoint you can't blame the Bush administration for using Inhofe as a foil. But this clever positioning has had the ultimate effect of massively misleading Americans about the true findings of modern climate science.

"The harm of such behavior may be quite literally incalculable, and it is global in scope. We have already pumped massive amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere in an ongoing experiment with the planet's thermostat. We cannot take any of that CO2 back; we can only act to prevent the potential consequences of our actions—a rise in sea level, the extinction of species, more frequent extreme weather events, and much else—from getting any worse."

To be sure, it remains up to policymakers to decide whether the economic costs of such preventive measures outweigh the benefits, But that key question isn't even being properly debated. Instead, climate change has become an issue on which conservatives have elected to fight over science at least as much as over economics, relying on stunning distortions and a shocking disregard for both expertise and the most reputable sources of scientific assessment and analysis."

If this situation is maddening, it is also tragic. There may be no other issue today where a corruption of the necessary relationship between science and political decision-making has more potentially disastrous consequences. And together, James Inhofe and the Bush administration have made that corruption systematic and complete. Not only do they strive to prevent the public from understanding the gravity of the climate situation, but in sowing confusion and uncertainty, they help prevent us from doing anything about it. And this—this—is what the Right calls 'rational, science-based thinking and policy-making.' "

– Page 101

1 The actual quote, from an op-ed in The New York Times, is "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."
2 That is exactly what they are; and I would not have been so even-handed.
3 Although I've been reading up on the subject for years, I did not know that two lawsuits had been filed against the National Assessment, the first during Clinton's last year in office. The National Assessment was a report by the EPA on the potential effects of climate change. The Bush administration altered it to reduce its impact, and subsequently sought to disown it. One fascinating and ironic detail is that Michael McCracken sent copies of the Assessment to each of the fifty states' governors. He received one response: a form letter thanking him for the document. "I appreciate the work that went into preparing this information," the letter read. It was dated 15 December 2000, and it bore the signature of the governor of the great state of Texas — one George W. Bush. (pp. 95-100)
4 Train helped found the U.S. branch of the World Wildlife Fund in 1961. He went back to that organization after leaving government. Mooney calls him an endangered species. It seems today that such moderate, sensible Republicans are even more rare.
5 And there is a customer review from someone claiming to be a scientist and a Republican which blasts the book, saying Mooney "choses unscientic stereotyping." (sic) Hey, at least the reviewer spelled "stereotyping" correctly. But this is typical of the quality of right-wing response which I see.
6 Theory suggests that eating an extra 200 calories daily over one year will boost weight by 6 pounds. It's hard to pin down the diets that cause obesity. It's even hard to pin down what people eat. Yet study after study ties obesity to consumption of sugar, especially sugary soft drinks. (pp. 124-6)
7 It goes all the way back to FDR, in fact. Franklin Roosevelt saw the potential of science, commissioning Vannevar Bush to compile his famous 1945 report Science: The Endless Frontier.
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