Science suffers in the Right's political war on reality



The Republican War on Science

By Chris Mooney. Basic Books. 328 pages.

Was it only a decade ago that scientists felt themselves under siege from the left? With literary theorists and sociologists apparently determined to undermine the cultural authority of science, counterattack was inevitable. Provocative titles such as Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science and Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science sparked the so-called "science wars," although detente quickly followed once it became clear that no one beyond the academy was paying the slightest attention.

Perhaps it was their right flank the scientists should have been watching more closely. For as Chris Mooney, a journalist who specializes in the political aspects of science, explains in The Republican War on Science, even then, Gingrich Republicans were targeting science issues that were economically threatening to one core constituency - big business, (think ozone depletion) - or morally offensive to another - the religious right (think evolution). Where postmodern critics had challenged science philosophically and could be rebuffed in print, this new political assault was something scientists had limited experience and resources to combat. What we have seen from this conflict, along with an abuse of science, and scientists, on a scale that makes the "science wars" seem mere skirmishes, is a new definition of `political' science.

Mooney's examples of "science abuse" may follow the headlines-attempts to ignore, suppress or distort scientific evidence for politically inconvenient conclusions on global warming, nutrition and obesity, endangered species and stem cell research. What appear to be scientific debates turn out, he asserts, to be entirely political ones, since aside from a few "contrarians," the scientific community has already reached a solid consensus on each.

Mooney is at his best showing why scientists, however swaggering on their own turf, so often take sucker punches in the media or in Congressional hearings. The strategies Mooney details are not new, but they have been perfected by savvy political advisers who claim the rhetorical high ground ("sound science" versus "junk science"), exploit marginal uncertainty, and induce "analysis paralysis" through seemingly endless demands for further studies, a tactic accorded legislative legitimacy by the oxy(moronic) Data Quality Act. Mooney is especially incensed by "dressing up values in scientific clothes." If the question is whether to cut emissions of greenhouse gases at the expense of jobs and profits, then confront the costs and benefits directly, he urges, instead of raising spurious objections to the scientific validity of global climate models. Defend religious conviction openly, rather than hiding behind the doctrine of intelligent design.

The Union of Concerned Scientists may attack the current administration for pointedly ignoring and selectively misrepresenting its collective wisdom. Truth is always the first casualty of war. The question is whether these cases add up to a "large-scale political strategy," as Mooney contends, or merely confirm that politicians respect votes, money and power more than scientific judgment.

Mooney can be as tedious as he is tendentious. His cliched phrases (enough "cherry-picking" gets done to fill a bushel), imputed motives, reckless style, and pointless repetition become exasperating. He comes across as self-righteous as his targets, and will probably not win many converts even from the choir. His ideas for "What We Can Do" sound surprisingly bland: restore the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, protect whistle-blowers, staff federal agencies with scientific experts, find science reporters with keener noses and stiffer spines and, bizarrely, enlist the likes of Arnold Schwarzenneger and John McCain as more moderate emissaries to their harder-line Republican colleagues. But failing all that, just tear down the house. If the Republican Right "will not come to its senses, we must cast it aside." This is not a strategy to bank on.

The conservative offensive against science does not come from "a postmodern take on science," as one of Mooney's sources suggests, but rather from a pre-modern one. The essential conflict, Mooney recognizes, is between the "reality-based community," as one Bush adviser famously dismissed it, and a "faith-based community" broadly defined to go way beyond traditional religion. Imperial regimes have always sought to construct their own realities. What makes such regimes so dangerous is not any postmodern slide toward relativism, as Mooney seems to believe, but good old-fashioned absolutism. Mooney is right to point to the crucial connection between foreign and domestic policy, including science policy. But the Republican war to worry about is in Iraq. Science is just collateral damage.

Stuart W. Leslie teaches the history of science and technology at the Johns Hopkins University. He has written most recently on the culture of Cold War science and on the history of the laboratory.

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