Monday, September 25, 2006

Book Review: The Republican War On Science

The new paperback version of Chris Mooney's New York Times bestseller sat on my night stand for a while before I managed to muster enough intestinal fortitude to wade into the battle. I had seen a few high-level reviews of the book, but almost all of the people touting it belonged to what the far right would term the liberal intelligentsia, and the very title itself led me to anticipate a rather partisan view of the situation. Moreover, due to my own intermittent brushes with THE WAR through friends in academia and the news, I knew in advance that if well done, the book would just piss me off.

Sure enough, it did.

"The Republican War on Science" is an exhaustively researched and presented work of political AND scientific reporting. To Mooney's credit, while the political perspective is certainly skewed and occasionally tiresome in its repetitiveness, it becomes clear in short order that there is a reason for the obvious bias.

Starting with the anti-intellectual Goldwater campaign for President, Mooney explores, through an extensive series of personal interviews and well-documented research, the implacable advance of a distorted and flawed view of Science that has grown to permeate today's Republican platform (though the Democrats are also tainted in the process, there is really no comparison in the scope of offense). In short, Mooney's research shows that it has become common practice for politicians to co-opt whichever scientific result happens to support a favored policy, regardless of whether that scientific result happens to agree with the general consensus of the international scientific community. Political concerns have grown to eclipse the actual scientific data in terms of formulating policy. And when the march of science has diverged from the Republican positions on such critical topics as Global Warming, Stem Cell research, Evolution vs. Intelligent Design, dietary guidelines, and Sex Education, instead of using the latest science results to inform and update policies based on outdated historical hopes, the Republicans have chosen to undertake political and procedural attacks on the science and stick with a platform that is now becoming ever more analogous to pre-enlightenment philosophy which insisted that the world was flat and orbited by the sun.

Sadly, electrons, neutrons, and protons are not all that susceptible to political rhetoric. And while the political battle rages with "sound science" used as a political tool instead of as a bi-partisan source to inform and direct policy, Mother Nature marches on unattended.

Mooney highlights several of the most prominent tactics employed in THE WAR, ranging from siding with individual scientists far outside the general consensus, to purposefully highlighting and misrepresenting even minuscule uncertainties of the mainstream view, to stacking advisory committees with detractors and industrial representatives who opposed mainstream theories, all the way to exercising censorship of published results. Here's an example of some of the text concerning climate change.

"Every good scientist is a skeptic through and through," notes Harvard biological oceanographer James McCarthy, an expert on the impacts of climate change.

But not every skeptic is a Galileo.


"Consensus as strong as the one that has developed around this topic [anthropogenic global warming] is rare in Science," wrote Science executive editor-in-chief Donald Kennedy in a 2001 editorial.

As editor of one of the scientific community's flagship journals, an outlet that publishes papers on climate regularly, Kennedy ought to know. And in a 2004 interview, he told me something quite striking: Science does not exclude contrary arguments about the role of humans in causing climate change; rather, there simply isn't anything to consider publishing. "There is no example of a paper that disagreed strongly with the general consensus that has been peer reviewed and failed," Kennedy told me. "The fact is, they're just not being sent. And of course, then our opposition would say 'Well, that's because they know you'll never take them.' Well, hell, if there's been no case, how could they know that?"

The willful dismantling of the congressional Office of Technology Assessment, in particular, struck me as one of the most ill-informed and portentous decisions our country could have ever made. Mooney's research highlighted the evolution of Republican ire when the bi-partisan body's science research presentations began to diverge from the dominant party's platform. It wasn't long before that annoying voice (a political thorn really) reminding congress of nature's realities was removed from the playing field so that ill-informed policies could proceed unhindered. There is a fair amount of diatribe such as that listed in the next paragraph, but after reading the evidence laid out in such detail, even the most pedantic passages are hard to ignore.
"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 has 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."
With today's politicians exercising control over the scientific budgets and regulatory agencies, the consequences of this divergence between hope and reason are increasingly dire and long-lasting. At some point the divergence will become too large to ignore any longer, but by that time, it just might be too late for some species and land masses.

I strongly recommend this book to any voting adult. Please read it, and help change the leadership of this country to empower a more informed and forward-looking administration that can restore a proper balance and consideration of reality as we measure it. We have all derived incredible benefits from the age of reason. We need more of that, not less.


Milanasdad said...

good post and on a topic that's still not getting the attention it deserves relative to its potential for rendering catastrophic outcomes.

Phillip Alvelda said...

Given that today's average voter makes their electoral decisions based largely on sound bites, we are all now victims of spin in bite-sized nuggets.

Until we can induce people to really educate themselves around what are becoming increasingly technical issues, it is too easy to mislead the population with a couple of fictional sentences.

So unless we elect an informed and properly educated adminstration to office, we are screwing ourselves in the long run.