Review: ‘The Republican War on Science’, by Chris Mooney
Basic Books 2006
16 December 2007
This book sets out to expose the abuse of natural science by the Bush administration in the US and to act as a rallying cry for those who would defend the independence and integrity of science from the attacks which have politicised it. It demonstrates pretty conclusively the shameless and cynical disregard for truth by the Republican Party which most readers of this site would not find surprising but which by the sheer number of examples is still exposed as pretty shocking.
Mooney lists a number of ways in which the Republican Party, its big business backers and its evangelical Christian support have undermined and distorted scientific endeavour. First by denying what constitutes science itself by declaring, for example that evolution is ‘just a theory, and then going on to use techniques which suppress scientific findings and reports, target particular scientists for political censure , rig the policy making process and render scientific deliberations subject to political manipulation. The latter is achieved by defending outright lies, misrepresenting scientific opinion and evidence, magnifying the uncertainty surrounding certain questions such as climate change while parading as science claims with no scientific validity whatsoever.
The book constitutes an extended report on the employment of these various methods in a variety of scientific fields. It records the history of such an approach going back to Nixon, the Presidency of Ronald Reagan and the efforts of the Newt Gingrich Congress. Mooney claims, however that the practice has reached a completely new ‘crisis’ level in the Presidency of George W Bush.
Thus the Republican Party’s leading environmental spokesman has claimed that climate change might be the ‘greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.’ They have attempted to ‘demonstrate’ this by magnifying the areas of uncertainty which remains in the science, and exists in all scientific findings no matter how robust, in order to pour doubt on any possible policy response and so delay, or at best neuter, any remedial action. In this, Mooney argues, the tactics used by big business repeats those deployed by the tobacco companies in their earlier attempts to cover up the deadly effects of smoking.
So while it is now uncontroversial among scientists that human activity is causing a significant and harmful increase in mean surface temperatures the contribution of natural variations in earth temperature is used to cast doubt on the contribution of the human created increase. It is not surprising that big business such as Exxon Mobil, the producer of much of the fossil fuels responsible for the increase in temperature, is behind many of the attempts - through the network of think tanks and publications that attempt to deny or minimise what is happening.
Some of the most successful attempts by this Republican right involves not so much frontal attacks on scientific findings, which for the majority of scientists are relatively settled, but the creation of ‘doubt’ and mechanisms for allowing such doubt to block or delay regulatory action by the government. So legislation such as the Data Quality Act invokes the idea of peer reviewed research in science to ‘peer review’ regulatory action as a way of creating ‘paralysis by analysis’, leaving big business free to pursue profit without having to worry about any possible government restriction.
By capturing the language of debate and employing terms such as ‘sound science’ and ‘junk science’ the right has used its position of power in the Bush administration to create false disputes which are then held up as reasons to defer decisive action. Scientific courts are held in which a member of the scientific consensus is put up against right wing scientists who play to the politicians sitting as jurors on the correctness of mainstream findings. Often these ‘contrarian’ scientists as Mooney calls them – in contrast to the description ‘sceptic’, which he sees as a real property of science – have very close links to big business, although often without revealing them. Their approach has been called ‘corpuscular’, directly addressing the big issue is avoided and minor omissions or weaknesses are seized upon to dismiss or obstruct the whole scientific case around a subject.
But it is not just climate change science which Bush Republicans have challenged. Supported by the food industry right wing groups have contested the contribution of the products of that industry to the alarming rise in obesity levels which are occurring, and not just in the US. Mooney reports that roughly 31 per cent of Americans were obese in 2000 compared to 14.1 per cent in 1971. Obesity increases the threat of heart disease, type 2 diabetes as well as some types of cancer. The link between this and the food industry has been confirmed by one study by the US Department of Agriculture and Harvard Medical School, which showed that nearly one third of children and adolescents ate fast food on an average day and took in 187 calories more than other children, which amounts to a weight gain of 6 pounds per year for each of them. One official recorded that some US families spend 40 per cent of their food budget on the fast variety. A particular problem is soft drinks which add calories for minimal nutritional benefit.
Yet the food companies have aped their tobacco counterparts by denying any links, launching lawsuits, using Republican allies in Congress, and blaming the rise in those overweight on lack of activity. They have attacked reports and attempting to pick holes in scientific findings to the extent that one official remarked that they would ‘question the laws of gravity.’ This offensive has often worked and Mooney records how one offensive led to the World Health Organisation (WHO) dropping a reference in its report that offended the right. This offensive also led to the Bush administration politically censoring scientists by demanding that they advocate US government policy when working on international collaborative efforts in bodies such as the WHO.
Mooney goes on to record the efforts of the right to deny that human activity has contributed to the extinction of other species and the statement of the appointed official responsible for enforcing the Endangered Species Act to this effect.
Most readers will also have some familiarity with Republican attempts to deny the reality of human origins and evolution, and the attempt to sell Intelligent Design (ID) as a ‘scientific alternative’ explanation. Mooney shows how this ID movement arose from earlier ‘creationist science’ which sometimes claims that the earth is only a few thousand years old, and seeks confirmation of geological evidence for the proverbial biblical flood. He shows how it was the complete failure of this attempt to smuggle religion in as science that led to the ID movement. This essentially says that some developments of life are so complex that they provide ‘evidence’ of being designed and that of course ‘God must have done it’, although sometimes they leave this inevitable conclusion out, the better to feign purely scientific motives. The argument however that life must have been designed is not provable and invokes a supernatural explanation which is untestable. This is supposed to substitute for the theory first elaborated by Darwin that has survived many tests and proved one of science’s most robust findings.
‘Teach the controversy’ has now become the right wing cry as if there is any serious scientific rivalry between evolution and ID. Having created a non-controversy the Christian fundamentalists want to smuggle in their religious dogmas by calling for teaching their nonsense as if it had some rival claim to scientific truth. ID however is just creationism relabelled. It has also been seen so by the judicial arm of the US State in these terms and the right’s claims that creationism should be in the science curriculum rejected as unconstitutional.
The final important example of ‘Bush science’ is the controversy over stem cell research. Mooney is good at explaining simply the benefits of stem cell research and how this is not confined to developing potential transplant treatments. These benefits include not only the growth of human tissue for transplant but also the better testing of drugs on human tissue, the facility to better investigate the development of disease and the investigation of genetic differences in how humans respond to disease and treatment.
The Bush administration however has been unremittingly hostile to such research and misrepresented the restrictions it has applied on it. It has claimed validation for its views with new developments in the growth of adult stem cells, but Mooney is careful not to reject the use of such cells for scientific research and the development of medical treatments, and it is too soon to say whether all the benefits of stem cells are achievable with the new advance in the manipulation of adult cells. The opposition to stem cell research has no scientific content but is once again a religious position, investing the foetus with qualities that rely solely on a particular religious belief.
It is no surprise that the religious fundamentalists that are such an important part of the Republican Party have also affected other aspects of policy dealing with sexual behaviour. The administration has censored information demonstrating that safe-sex education works while total abstinence programmes don’t, and that education about condoms does not in itself increase sexual activity in the young, contrary to right wing claims. Prominent Republicans have claimed that condoms do not help prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, a truly irresponsible position. Likewise the Bush administration has opposed federal funding for needle exchange programmes to reduce the risk of cross infection among drug users, openly stating their opposition regardless of the scientific justification for such a policy. Mooney however points out that the Clinton administration didn’t support these programmes with federal funding either.
The arrogant attitude of the Bush Republicans is clearly expressed in the now widely reported comment from a senior Presidential advisor - ‘that’s not the way the world really works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.’ Mooney recognises that this remark was in reference to the US State’s foreign policy but he sees it as just as accurate a description of its approach to science. Unfortunately he is unwilling or unable to carry forward this insight to develop a broader or deeper analysis of what lies behind the Bush Republicans’ approach to government. But this is by no means the only weakness in the book.
After such a damning indictment of the administration’s approach his short epilogue on ‘what we can do’ is very lame. He proposes reviving the Office of Technology Assessment which gave independent scientific advice to Congress; upgrading the status of the scientific advisor to the President; safeguarding the integrity of scientific advisory committees and repealing the Data Quality Act which has been intended to hamstring science based government regulation.
Mooney wants better media reporting and notes that even the US ‘prestigious’ press has produced ‘balanced’ reporting of scientific disputes which have distorted the real underlying scientific issues. Such spurious balance’ has no corollary in the world of science’ he claims. It is, for example, a serious distortion of reality to give equal coverage or treat with equal respect the views of ID and of evolutionary theory. One is simply wrong. Mooney wants an end to such an approach and also calls for more use of the courts to defend the integrity of science
It is here that the careful reader will scratch their head. Mooney has already made clear that big industry is, and has already demonstrated; that it is in the best position to use the courts to snarl up scientific regulation or create false scientific controversy, because it has the deepest pockets. The US press is simply a particular arm of big business. Why should it be expected to behave radically differently from the oil or food industries who also want to protect themselves from unwelcome government regulation? Why should we hope reliance on the Democratic Party or even ‘moderate’ Republicans will save the integrity of science from big business manipulation and distortion? The Democratic Party is just another big business party. Look at the vast sums collected by the party’s potential nominations for the next Presidential election.
Mooney’s book is well researched, or rather researched in a very good journalistic fashion, but it is essentially a very long magazine article. It is most interesting when actually dealing with the scientific issues themselves but this is not the purpose of the book, which is to chronicle Republican distortion. Once this is done a number of times the impact wanes and with such a lame epilogue the overall impact of the book is somewhat disappointing.
Mooney does make some acute observations, noting that ignorance and pseudoscience leads to a decline in critical thinking, and the inability to foster critical thinking allows lies and distortions of reality to flourish by checking democratic debate. He also notes on a number of occasions that science and scientific truth is not a question of democracy. Scientific truth cannot be determined by a vote anymore more than scientific reality can be created by the power of the US State. Unfortunately Mooney has little or nothing to say about the social construction of science, nor is he able to go into any depth on the results of promotion of such ignorance among sections of the wider US population.
A poll in 2001 found that 48 per cent of Americans identified themselves as creationists with only 28 per cent considering themselves evolutionists, with the remainder undecided. Such scientific backwardness must have significant implications for social backwardness and fertile ground for political reaction. But believing a party of big business is somehow the answer might seem to be just more evidence of just such an effect. The rise of capitalism may have been accompanied by the rise of scientific thought and the former expanded upon the advances of the latter but the mutual dependence is assumed without the least evidence of reflection.
Of course unwillingness to enter into a deeper examination of the social construction or role of science in society does not mean that Mooney has no views on the matter. It is just that they are made in passing and are informed by assumptions that reflect the wider elitist culture that ultimately has allowed such widespread distortion of scientific thought to have such an effect across US society. Thus Mooney thinks science is all about experts and peer reviewed journals. One might have thought that it has been precisely the weakness of such a social construction of science that has allowed the current reactionary assault on its most basic truths to have gained such an impetus and such power. The story of how this has happened and what an alternative socialist science policy might be has still to be written.