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HOME > ON THE BOOKSHELF > March-April 2006 > Bookshelf Detail

BOOK REVIEW

Ideological Assaults

Daniel Kevles

The Republican War on Science. Chris Mooney. x + 342 pp. Basic Books, 2005. $24.95.

At a press conference in February 2004, representatives of the Union of Concerned Scientists declared that the administration of President George W. Bush has "disregarded" the principle that the contributions of science to public-policy decisions "should always be weighed from an objective and impartial perspective." The Union considered the disregard a sharp departure from the long-standing practice of "presidents and administrators of both parties." But in fact, since World War II, when the modern era of governmental science advising began, both presidents and Congress have latched on to technical views that suited their political purposes. Who can forget Harry Truman's decision to proceed with the hydrogen bomb against the advice of his distinguished atomic advisers? Or the enthusiasm in Congress for a nuclear-powered airplane, not to mention a national missile defense, both against sound scientific opposition?

Still, through much of the postwar period, such high-profile episodes concerned, in the main, national security and big-technology projects. The Union of Concerned Scientists has a point in that during the administration of George W. Bush the politicization of science can be found in numerous areas of public policymaking far beyond defense. Chris Mooney informatively develops that argument in The Republican War on Science. A young political journalist, he is at times snide and polemical, but he has done a lot of homework and has produced a book that is disturbing by reason of its steady, and for the most part sober, accumulation of evidence and indictment.

Mooney divides his policymaking cases into two broad categories: those in which science challenges economic interests, notably on issues such as the preservation of endangered species and the human causes of global warming; and those in which it runs athwart the tenets of the religious Right, especially in human stem-cell research, the claims of "intelligent design" and the impact of abortion on women's health. He does not say what policy involving these science-rich issues should be but only argues against distortions and misuses of science in the policymaking process. He explains that if political conservatives don't want to conserve species, they should say so rather than trying "to blind us all with science."

Mooney notes that the broadening of the politicization of science arose in tandem with the expansion that began in the 1960s of federal regulation of the environment, health and safety, all of which are areas entangled with expert knowledge. These initiatives were in part the products of technical knowledge deployed by liberal reformers. In response, conservatives took a leaf from the liberals and started organizing their own think tanks, many of them in Washington, D.C., such as the handsomely funded Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute.

Recognizing the increasing dependence of regulatory policy on technical knowledge, conservatives went on to establish various science-specific think tanks, including the Annapolis Center for Science-Based Public Policy, which is heavily funded by industry, and the George C. Marshall Institute, a "hotbed," Mooney says, "of global warming doubters and contrarians," which gets a great deal of money from ExxonMobil, among other donors. The principal institutional engine of the crusade for intelligent design is the Discovery Institute, which is based in Seattle.

"Manufacturing uncertainty" is how a tobacco company document once described that industry's use of research to contest the regulation of its product. Drawing on the think tanks, among other sources, conservatives, many of them allied with the Republican Party, have similarly employed marginal science in the interest of their causes. The theory that human activity is causing global warming is accepted by the overwhelming majority of the world's climate scientists, but conservatives combat the claim, with all its implications of the imperative need for greater restrictions on the burning of fossil fuels, by stressing the views of a tiny dissenting minority. Senator James Inhofe, a hard-core conservative Republican from Oklahoma, proclaimed in a Senate speech in 2003, "With all of the hysteria, all of the fear, all of the phony science, could it be that man-made global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people? It sure sounds like it."

Like advocates of creation science in the 1980s, the proponents of intelligent design contend that life is too highly organized to have developed by chance and that it must therefore be the work of an intelligent designer. They attach enormous scientific significance to their ideas; the creationist biochemist Michael Behe has even written that the alleged discovery of design in nature "rivals those of Newton and Einstein, Lavoisier and Schrödinger, Pasteur and Darwin." These advocates call for "teaching the controversy" between intelligent design and Darwin's theory, as though the content of intelligent design were a scientific match for Darwinism. Fortunately, in 1987 the U.S. Supreme Court struck down creation science as a stalking horse for religion and said that it was therefore inappropriate in public-school science classes. In December 2005, a court in Dover, Pennsylvania, similarly banned teaching intelligent design in such classes.

In the vein of many of the activists who reject human-caused global warming, members of the religious Right use science to cloud rather than to clarify, emphasizing claims that fall well outside mainstream science. They insist, for example, that condoms are ineffective in preventing HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases and maintain that abortion elevates the risk of breast cancer or mental illness in women. "Where religious conservatives may once have advanced their pro-life and socially traditionalist views through moral arguments, they now increasingly adopt the veneer of scientific and technical expertise," Mooney writes.

He does acknowledge, in one of a number of gestures at evenhandedness, that Democrats, not to mention many biomedical scientists, have exaggerated the imminence of the medical benefits that are supposed to come from investments in therapeutic human cloning. But he holds that liberals "are almost never as guilty as the Right." The Bush administration has certainly been heavy-handed in its policymaking regarding human stem-cell research. The administration's fealty to the religious Right has blocked it from allowing the expenditure of federal funds to create or use any embryonic stem-cell lines beyond those authorized by the president in August 2001. In 2004, the administration dismissed the biologist Elizabeth Blackburn from the President's Council on Bioethics; she was an outspoken critic of the scientific and therapeutic prospects of research on adult stem cells, which the Council supported, as distinct from research on embryonic stem cells, which the Council did not back.

Overt political interference has also appeared in the management of several agencies. For example, at the Fish and Wildlife Service, according to a survey by the Union of Concerned Scientists, almost half of respondents working on endangered species said that they had been "directed, for nonscientific reasons, to refrain from making [findings] that are protective of species." And last year, the Food and Drug Administration refused to approve a "morning after" pill despite a recommendation from its Reproductive Health Drugs Advisory Committee that had passed by a vote of 23 to 4.

Conservatives have also managed to confound regulatory initiatives through piecemeal measures such as the Data Quality Act, which came into effect in October 2002. A boon to industry, the act authorized challenges early in the regulatory process to the dissemination of technical information that is adverse to the entity being regulated. A leading member of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce reflected that "in the end, what we're going to get is far more than we could have ever gotten by having a comprehensive regulatory reform law passed." Data-quality challenges have been raised against actions proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency, among others, and now there is a drive to subject enforcement of the Endangered Species Act to a comparable demand for a higher burden of evidentiary proof than is normally possible with the imperfect data environmentalists are compelled to rely on.

At its press conference in February 2004, the Union of Concerned Scientists announced that more than 60 distinguished scientists and government officials, including 20 Nobel laureates, had signed a statement denouncing the Bush administration's misrepresentation and suppression of scientific information and tampering with the scientific advisory process. The president's science adviser, John Marburger, called the allegations "wrong and misleading." Mooney considers Marburger's rebuttals inadequate and asserts—convincingly, given the range of evidence in his book—that "we can infer that the Bush administration almost certainly had politicized science to an unprecedented degree."

 

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