Research and the Right

Reviewed by Keay Davidson
Sunday, September 18, 2005


By Chris Mooney

Basic. 342 pp. $24.95

The right's so-called war against science is a hot topic. Consider President Bush's interference with embryonic stem cell research, his remarks about creationism in schools and his aides' editing of scientific studies of global warming and environmental hazards. Naturally, liberals and leftists are furious about such meddling, especially those who rightly worry that global warming endangers civilization, who welcome stem cell research as the royal road to miracle cures, who fear mercury poisoning every time they bite into a tuna sandwich and who dread Jesus's imminent replacement of Darwin in biology classrooms.

Evidence abounds of the Bush administration's ham-handed approach to making science policy. The topic is thus ripe for a quasi-scholarly, quasi-journalistic study -- perhaps one akin to Daniel S. Greenberg's 1967 classic, The Politics of Pure Science , or its excellent 2001 successor, Science, Money, and Politics . Unfortunately, Chris Mooney's The Republican War on Science is not that study.

That's a shame, for he is a talented and energetic young Washington correspondent for Seed, an excellent and relatively new popular-science magazine. In writing a book about science-policy-making in America today, Mooney has bravely tackled a gigantic and complex topic. Unfortunately, the journalist in him won out over the scholar, for he ends up trying to reduce the subject's complexities to the "good guy/bad guy" categories of TV polemicists. The resulting book is ill-formulated, overwrought and surprisingly unconvincing. (Trust me: As a resident of tree-hugging, gay-marrying, marijuana-scented, Bush-bashing San Francisco, I was prepared to be convinced.) At best, the book is a handy summary of familiar stories about the Bush administration's comic-opera style of making science policy. But the stories here seem curiously disconnected; if they're covertly linked by a systematic, subterranean Republican conspiracy against science, Mooney has failed to uncover it.

Historically, debates over U.S. science policy have at least two broad features. First, there are the scientific/technical details of the debates. (How do cirrus clouds affect global warming? Are embryonic stem cells more promising, in terms of potential medical applications, than adult stem cells?) Then there are the broader, quasi-philosophical questions that loom beyond the technical details. (Is the hype over the alleged benefits of stem cell research camouflage for the long-running corporate effort to commercialize, patent and commodify the ingredients of life? Is global warming symptomatic of a deeper problem, namely the inherent dependence of consumer-capitalist societies on massive and perhaps finite sources of cheap energy?) A thoughtful book on U.S. science policy would have explored questions from the first category and, ideally, touched on questions from the second. But Mooney's book deals with neither.

And then there's that title. I know that publishers must "move" books, but The Republican War on Science -- really, now! Could Ann Coulter be any more glib? The book's theme would have been more accurately captured with The Right-Wing Evangelical Republican War on Science , but I suppose that sounded clunky. Hence the present go-for-the-jugular title, which proved unfortunate for Mooney, timing-wise: On July 29, less than two months before the book's publication, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a doctor, split with the Bush administration by supporting legislation for federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. If there really is a sustained Republican war on science, Frist's announcement suggests that some of the rebel generals are starting to wave white flags.

Judging by the book, Mooney isn't interested in scientific research per se. He says almost nothing about the technical details of debates over computer models, observational anomalies, instrumental glitches, data-collection methodologies and the like. To me, such debates are intellectually fascinating; they're a sobering reminder of how selfishly Mother Nature guards her secrets and, thus, of why we must proceed pragmatically but cautiously in basing any irrevocable societal decision on tentative scientific findings. (They're always tentative: Yesterday's paradigm is today's compost.) Even more interesting, the scientific debates dramatize how reasonable, honest people -- including scientists -- can fundamentally disagree when they're looking at exactly the same data. Among philosophers of science, a favorite analogy for this is a Gestalt diagram. To one person, the diagram looks like a duck; to someone else, it's an antelope.

By ignoring such philosophical complexities, Mooney has produced a book without much intellectual gravity. Instead, he offers a kind of conspiracy theory, which might be summarized thus: "If Republicans support a certain science policy, it's bad. If they oppose it, it's good."

In that regard, one of Mooney's covert premises (he never spells it out in much detail, but it's there) is that there are sure-fire, logical criteria for distinguishing between "good science" and "bad science." He isn't alone in believing in these unicorns, of course: So do those Republican apologists and industry flacks who for years have huffed and puffed about the junk science allegedly generated by environmentalists. Reading Mooney's account, you'd never guess that philosophers have quarreled vainly for many decades over how to draw lines of demarcation between good and bad science.

Ironically, when Mooney tries to distinguish between bad (i.e., Republican-backed) and good (anti-Republican) science, he applies these logical criteria in wildly inconsistent ways, according to whether they uphold his political prejudices. For example, early on he praises "peer review" (in which expert reviewers vet manuscripts submitted for publication) as a cornerstone of good science. Yet elsewhere, in discussing those who call for better peer review of government environmental rules, he accuses them of hampering needed regulation. On page 148, he advocates the use of scientific "modeling" as a tool for anticipating ecosystem and biodiversity changes. But on page 8, he approvingly quotes an expert who dismisses the proposed replacement of animal experiments with computer models as "science fiction." Mooney is like a judge who interprets a law one way to convict his enemies and another way to acquit his friends.

I regret writing these words because, as far as I'm concerned, Mooney's political heart is in the right place. Really, though: Can't we progressives develop a sounder basis for science policymaking than this? ยท

Keay Davidson, a science writer at the San Francisco Chronicle, is the author of "Carl Sagan: A Life."

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