Book Review

Chris Mooney

Reviewed by Peter Hirst
The Public Eye Magazine - Spring 2006

Science is under siege. At least this is the impression left after reading journalist Chris Mooney’s first book. The Republican War on Science, published in hardback last September, takes us on a meticulously researched and eloquently narrated journey through some unsettling interactions between science and politics in contemporary America. Many readers (about half, in a politically balanced sample) may not enjoy the ride. In essence, Mooney’s case is that over the last several decades, conservative and in particular Republican activists have sought to systematically undermine and attack the integrity of science, in order to advance their own economic and social agendas and interests. Moreover, he says, they are succeeding.

Mooney traces the story’s roots back to Kennedy era “right-wing anti-intellectualism” and the 1964 Goldwater presidential candidacy, though tensions between science and conservatism are at least as old as the Enlightenment. The environmental and consumer movements were ascendant in the 1960s and 1970s, and the ensuing government regulation stirred the sleeping giant of industry into defensive action. Its money sparked an explosive growth in the lobbying business and spawned a think-tank culture which became a breeding ground for reactionary conservative ideology and policy development for decades to come. The watershed moment, according to Mooney, was the Reagan presidency that, albeit less invidious in its treatment of science than later Republican administrations, laid much of the groundwork on which subsequent attacks on science were built. Reagan exemplified the twin political ideals of religious conservatism and pro-business deregulation that were the prime motivators of the hostilities towards science and its despised supposed bedfellows, secular intellectual elitism and liberalism.

Mooney identifies an array of tools and techniques deployed to assault and undermine science, including legislation, regulation, PR and managerial practices. He shows how these weapons have been absorbed into the armory of the Republican War on Science just as the religious and pro-business deregulation movements themselves have coalesced into the GOP mainstream.

His veritable “Battle Damage Assessment” runs the gamut from minor skirmishes to pitched battles. With eerie parallels to a certain other War, the body count is high and climbing. An early—and vital—victim was Congress’ own Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), which Mooney describes rather generously as having been “dismantled” by the Gingrich-led Republican caucus. The reality was rather more brutal: the 104th Congress simply chose not to fund OTA’s work after September 30, 1995. During its 23-year history, OTA provided Congressional members and committees with objective and authoritative analyses of hundreds of complex scientific and technical issues. The demise of OTA thus dealt a double-headed blow. It deprived Congress of an important source of objective advice on science and technology policies and their implications; and it closed down a public space where policy could meet science in a transparent and accountable debate of the issues. OTA’s detractors, of course, might argue just the opposite—that OTA itself had become an instrument of left-wing anti-business and anti-military interests. Perhaps so, but the reality is that it was, to say the least, inconvenient for an office of Congress itself to be producing findings, as it occasionally did, that were inconsistent with prevailing conservative doctrines and policies, such as the 1998 OTA report that was highly skeptical about the viability of Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, popularly known as “Star Wars.” (In the interests of full disclosure: From 1995 to 1998 I served as a fellow of the UK version of OTA.)

Drawing on extensive research, Mooney documents the creeping consolidation of an anti-science nexus in the political Right. He shows how time and again the same strategies have been used: the paradoxically named Data Quality Act and the doublespeak of Sound Science; deliberately playing-up and misrepresenting the nature and extent of scientific uncertainty and debate around lightning rod issues like global warming; the coercion of scientific officials and appointees—as seen recently at NASA—and the outright distortion and rejection of their findings and advice. He explains how these have been applied in issues ranging from tobacco, fishery conservation and dietary sugar to the teaching of evolution, creationism and intelligent design; and from contraception, abortion and AIDS to stem cell research. Not all of these battles were won (or lost, depending on one’s perspective), nor were they all even decisive. Most still rumble on. The War on Science, Mooney appears to rather despondently conclude, is one War that its hawkish Republican supporters might actually be winning.

Mooney rightly observes that conservatives have not been the only ones to try to bend science to their own agenda. Greenpeace, to cite but one, has also been guilty of misrepresenting science in its fights against genetically modified foods and in several environmental campaigns. The alliance of the conservative religious and pro-business deregulation movements under the Republican umbrella, however, is what makes the War on Science a quintessentially Republican phenomenon.

What can be done by those dismayed by such developments? Mooney offers a few proposals in an Epilogue, which is a rather too brief call to arms, lacking somewhat the depth and rigor evident in the preceding chapters. Notwithstanding its brevity, though, he advances some key proposals. First and foremost, Mooney supports the need to revive or replace OTA’s capabilities. This really goes to the crux of the issue and will be no easy feat. Attempts to resurrect an OTA-like function through legislative amendments and appropriations over several years have consistently failed to gain traction in Congress.

Mooney also urges the scientific community to redouble its own self-defensive efforts, praising organizations such as the National Academies and the American Association for the Advancement of Science for their moves to engage with these issues. He suggests that those who would like to arrest and reverse the politicization of science should use every available legal and educational recourse in defense of its integrity. He calls on journalists to think more critically about and do a better job of explaining science to their readership, especially in the context of controversial policy issues. And he hopes that moderating influences in the GOP will gain strength and pull back from the worst excesses of recent years.

Here, some international comparisons might have been informative. At the most basic level, I am left wondering whether this is a fundamentally American problem, or whether perhaps there are parallels in other countries. The Thatcher years in the UK, maybe, or the conservative resurgence in Germany? Does America stand alone—and in increasing isolation—over these issues? And what are the consequences? Moreover, are there any approaches being tried elsewhere to protect science against politicization and enable open public discourse of difficult policy issues in science and technology that might also be effective in the United States? Several European countries, for instance, have developed their own highly respected versions of OTA in recent years - in most cases smaller and more agile entities than the US organization that inspired them, which would counter at least one of the objections to OTA as a bureaucratic behemoth.

Since this book was published, events have hardly been static. Lawsuits about the teaching of evolution and intelligent design struggle through the courts, stem cell research remains in the news, and extreme weather events fuel concerns over global warming, to name but a few examples. And despite the President speaking in his State of the Union Address on the need to invest in science and technology as the engine of US economic competitiveness—hardly the words of a science-hater—the very same speech, alas, called for legislation to “prohibit the most egregious abuses of medical research: human cloning in all its forms ....” This single sentence captured the essence of the Republican War on Science in all its gory glory - misrepresenting, oversimplifying, confusing and politicizing all at once.

In the subject targeted by Bush (stem cell research), science may not have done itself many favors lately. The escalating scandal arising from the admitted fraud by eminent (and now infamous) Korean researcher Woo Suk Hwang also implicates researchers in several US universities and even Science magazine, the flagship science journal published by the AAAS. The Right readily coopted this as evidence to impugn the integrity of science and question the scientific process itself. After all, with such internal strife in the scientific community, how can we trust its findings and recommendations?

But such thinking misses the point about the scientific process. Science has an intrinsic immune system that challenges new ideas and discoveries and rejects those that cannot stand up to objective testing and repetition. This can be a messy, organic process when viewed up close, but over the long run it has established an enormous body of knowledge on which we rely as a society for our well-being, quality of life and indeed our very survival. The question is can science’s autoimmune system withstand a retro-viral-like onslaught on the integrity of the practitioners and institutions on which its functioning critically depends? If not, the consequence could be dire.

Into this environment, Chris Mooney has contributed an insightful reckoning of a complex and important subject. If I have one reservation about this book, it is that the author's passion for the subject and sometimes palpable sense of exasperation lends a needlessly partisan quality to the text, which could cause some readers to discount his basic thesis. This would be unfortunate: readers on both sides of the aisle should take note of this book.


Dr. Peter Hirst, Ph.D, is a freelance science and technology policy analyst and strategy consultant based in Boston, MA.
©2006 Peter Hirst

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