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The Republican War on Science

Chris Mooney
Author
Friday, February 3, 2006 11:00 AM

Chris Mooney, author of "The Republican War on Science," was online to discuss his views on the federal government's increasing preference for ideologically driven pseudoscience over legitimate research.

On a broad array of issues - stem cell research, climate change, missile defense, abstinence education, and many others - the Bush administration's positions fly in the face of overwhelming scientific consensus. Federal science agencies, once fiercely independent under both Republican and Democratic presidents, are increasingly staffed by political appointees who know industry lobbyists and evangelical activists far better than they know the science.

Mooney writes that "the politicization of science presents a severe challenge to modern democratic governments, which depend on a creative tension between elected representatives...and unelected technocratic elites." He maintains that this trend "weakens and ultimately destroys this necessary relationship."

To that end, he continues, "the advent of the modern conservative movement, its takeover of the Republican Party, and its ultimate triumph under the administration of George W. Bush have brought us to a point where a true divorce between democratic government and technocratic expertise" is not only "conceivable [but]...actually underway."

Chris Mooney is Washington correspondent for Seed magazine. He has written for The American Prospect, Mother Jones, Wired and Slate.

A transcript follows.

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Chris Mooney: At the outset, let me just say that I'm glad to be here, and I appreciate your questions. Chance are I won't be able to answer all of them, and I hope you'll pardon that (there are a ton already rolling in!). But I'll do my best to answer quite a large number of questions, trying to cover a broad range of topics.

Also, let me provide some more info about the book for those who may not have read it yet. The official website is here:

http://www.waronscience.com/home.php

And reviews of the book (positive and negative) are compiled here:

http://www.chriscmooney.com/article_db.asp?id=323

So let's begin....

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washingtonpost.com: http://www.waronscience.com/home.php

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Denver, Colo.: Do you think it ironic that Pres. Bush is calling for more emphasis on science and math education (presumably to meet future challenges by invoking new technologies) but still thinks that the jury is out on biological evolution? (So science is a good thing if it gets us to Mars but not if it confirms facts about natural selection, etc.)

Chris Mooney: Ironic to say the least. Here's a president claiming to support science education on the one hand, but he's formally endorsed the undermining of evolution--the foundational theory of biology--on the other. Undermining evolution is not a good way to improve science education. In fact, I'd call it an assault on science education.

In the State of the Union Speech, the president also talked about competitiveness. Well, his restrictions on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research have clearly damaged competitiveness in that field. So, I have trouble taking his stances seriously on matters of science policy.

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washingtonpost.com: http://www.chriscmooney.com/article_db.asp?id=323

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Atlanta, Ga.: I would like to know how many angels can sit on the head of a moral pinhead?

Chris Mooney: Great question. Would you like a faith-based or reality-based answer?

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El Paso, Tex.: I believe that our creator created us through the biological phenomenom of evolution. I see no need to separate evolution and intellegent design because in my view they are one and the same. Do many scientists share this view? Why is it so difficult for creationists to share this view?

Chris Mooney: A lot of Americans share your belief. But I wouldn't call your position a support of "intelligent design." Intelligent design denies evolution. I think most experts on creationism would call your position "theistic evolutionism." It's one legitimate and accepted way to reconcile faith and science.

Creationists can't accept theistic evolutionism because (at least for many of them) they view evolution as incompatible with the Bible, as well as a source of moral chaos.

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Clarksville, Md.: Chris,

How would you describe the reaction of the scientific community to the Bush administration's condescension and contempt for science. Are they energized and politically organized or are they non- or apolitical and asleep at the Bunsen burner?

Chris Mooney: Scientists are pretty fired up these days, especially for such a normally staid bunch. In my travels speaking about the book, I've run into quite a number of scientists who come up to me and say, "What can I do about this problem?" Scientists are ready, I think, to mobilize to defend the knowledge they've produced and to teach the broader public about the crucial importance of science to the nation's future.

Before any of this will happen, though, scientists have got to learn a lot more about politics, and about communicating to the general public. Otherwise they are unlikely to be effective or successful in defending the integrity of scientific knowledge. I discuss some suggestions for how scientists might go about improving their political effectiveness here:

http://www.seedmagazine.com/news/2006/01/learning_to_speak_science.php

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Capitol Hill, D.C.: Chris,

To some extent, it seems the modern fundamentalist Christian movement in America is attempting to coopt the epistemology of modern science, resulting in such odd quasi-materialist theories as intelligent design. For the most part, this seems to be an outgrowth from that movements drive to religiousize (if you will) politics. Is it possible to discuss the politicization of science without discussing the rise of religion in politics as well?

Thanks -- An avid reader

Chris Mooney: No, you're right, the two phenomena are intimately connected. Conservative Christians involved in politics often try to couch their faith-based positions in secular or scientific language. This often results in scientific distortion to make the faith-based position appear science-based as well. Intelligent design is just one example of this phenomenon.

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washingtonpost.com: Learning to Speak "Science

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Charlotte, N.C.: Surely the Republicans are not intentionally ignoring evidence of a "global warming" disaster. They do have scientists who support their belief that it is all much ado about nothing. The Republicans are motivated by politics but my question is what do you think motivates the scientists who are helping the "Republican War on Science"?

Chris Mooney: I imagine they're inspired by many different things. There may be real cynicism in some cases, but true belief in others.

In truth, it doesn't really matter what motivates these scientific dissenters, or "skeptics." What matters is that because the scientific consensus is now so strongly in favor of human-caused global warming, politicians have no business relying upon a few scientists who disagree with the consensus. Politicians shouldn't be picking scientific winners--they should be paying attention to accepted knowledge.

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Fort Collins, Colo.: Is there more to this 'war' than the fact that some Republican constituencies are unhappy with the scientific consensus on some subjects, e.g. religious conservatives oppose evolution and stem cell research, and some business interests oppose climate change and other environmental initiatives? Are there examples of Democrats opposing the scientific 'consensus' while Republicans are upporting it?

Chris Mooney: There are certainly misuses of science on the Democratic side. Given that politicians always want to find "science" that will back up their policy positions, it would be surprising if this *weren't* the case.

Accordingly, in the book I discuss some misuses of science by Democrats and the left: For instance, exaggerations of the immediate promise of embryonic stem cell research. My contention, though, is that the science abuse problem from the political right today is systemic, not just occasional. Because of misuses of science to appease both business interests and religious conservative, misuses and distortions of science have infested the federal government at a wide variety of agencies. And this is something we have not seen before.

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Mayfield, Ky.: What are some of the arguments the Bush administration presents in defense of its position to ignore scientific evidence? I am thinking of articles I've seen regarding Bush rejection of climate change/global warming.

Chris Mooney: Well, they just don't admit that they're ignoring scientific evidence (or misusing it). Bush science adviser John Marburger has rejected the contentions of those, like the Union of Concerned Scientists, who claim the administration systematically misuses and distorts science. I find Marburger's arguments very unpersuasive, as I argue in Chapter 14 of the book.

This is really what keeps this science politicization problem alive: The fact that the administration won't even admit the problem exists, much less apologize for it.

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Santa Barbara, Calif.: I am an academic research working on global climate change. My colleagues are, to put it midly, not big fan's of the administration, and they pretty much blame Bush and the Republicans for our inaction on global warming. But I have a somewhat different view.

While I hardly think the administration has been progressive on this issue, I think their inaction laregely reflects most Americans viewpoint on global warming. That is, global warming is not enough of a concern to prompt Americans to be willing to make serious financial and lifestyle concessions, such as accepting a large gas tax. If my instinct is right, then the Republicans are just responding to the will of the electorate. Do you agree?

Chris Mooney: I'm not sure of the polling figures, but I agree that the American public is not particularly roused about global warming. That's partly the fault of the media, which at best covers the issue episodically, and often employs phony "balance" to create the semblance of a scientific controversy that does not actually exist.

There are definitely politicians who exploit this situation in order to support political inaction (often misusing and distorting science in the process). But I don't believe that politicians should put off dealing with problems just because there's no huge politician incentive to address them.

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Astoria, N.Y.: Are you familiar with Dr David Hager, the right-wing, evangelical gynecologist from Kentucky who was appointed by president Bush to an advisory panel on the FDA? If so, I understand that, somehow, Dr. Hager was able to wield great influence over the FDA's decision to ban the morning afetr pill from over-the-counter sales. How was he able to have so much influence when he was only one of many people on an advisory panel? And is he still on that FDA committee?

Chris Mooney: I'm familiar with Dr. Hager; I discuss him in Chapter 13 of the book. I don't believe he's still on the advisory committee. It's unclear exactly how much influence he had, but it appears to have been considerable. Certainly the argument used by the FDA to block wider access to Plan B (the morning after pill)--that there wasn't enough information about how young teens would use the drug--was centrally argued by Dr. Hager.

For more, see here: http://www.motherjones.com/news/outfront/2004/09/09_500.html

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Rockville, Md.: Is it possible to doubt the ill effects of global warming and not be a Republican? I tend to fear the next ice age more than a warmer climate.

Chris Mooney: Sure, it's possible, but not particularly advisable, no matter your political inclination. The science consensus is very strong that we should be much more worried about melting glaciers than another ice age at the present moment.

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New York, N.Y.: As the child of two phd physicists, it comes as no surprise that the GOP and scientists are feuding (though perhaps that is a reflection of my view of the GOP).

It is just inconceivable that scientists and a party whose base believes in creationism is going to get along.

What do you think will happen to the scientific edge of this country?

Chris Mooney: I agree with you. And let me add that unlike the GOP, the Democrats do not have any significant political constituency that requires them to deny something as fundamental to modern science as evolution (like plate tectonics, relativity, or the germ theory of disease).

I think it's important to remember that in this nation, we still have an incredible scientific establishment and strong government support for scientific research. That's not in immediate jeopardy. But what I'm worried about is whether the knowledge we produce will translate into solutions to the problems facing us. The gulf between between reliable scientific information and political decisionmaking is indeed very troubling.

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washingtonpost.com: Christian Science?

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Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y.: Has no one remarked on the parallel between the Bush Administration's subordination of science to ideology and that of Stalin's? I'm not suggesting that Bush is as murderous as Stalin, of course. He and Rove prefer character assassination to the real thing.

Chris Mooney: Analogies have been made with Stalin and Lysenkoism, but I generally frown on such analogies, especially if they're not stated very carefully. I don't think the problem we're seeing can really compare to the kinds of attacks on science and scientists that can take place in a totalitarian society.

In Stalin's Russia things proceeded far beyond mere state-supported denial of genetics and into the realm of human rights outrages: Scientists were imprisoned, even executed, if they didn't agree with Lysenko. However bad our current situation may be, there's no way it compares with this sort of nightmare.

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Adams Morgan Washington DC: Did you really write a lot of this book at Tryst coffee shop right in my 'hood?

Chris Mooney: Yes. Absolutely true. And right now I'm answering questions at Open City in DC.

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Long Beach, Calif.: You mention plate tectonics. How do you view the fact that this was discovered by a German amateur geologist around the turn of the last century, yet geologists could not get a job at a University up until the 1960's if they believed in continental plates that actually moved?

Chris Mooney: It's a great--canonical--example of a scientific paradigm shift. If you're suggesting that this somehow contradicts my arguments, I don't see why. The best scientific answer won out with plate tectonics, even if it took a while.

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Fort Myers, Fla.: Welcome.

In research for your book, were you able to find a single instance where a Bush appointee did NOT ensure that ideology trumped science?

If so, who? And have they survived the axe in spite of their competence?

Chris Mooney: I'm sure there are many such examples. One comes to mind from the Reagan years: Surgeon General C. Everett Koop refused to allow the science of sexual health to be politicized, and spoke out on using condoms to prevent AIDS. He refused to produce a report requested by Reagan on the health risks of abortion, believing the request was political.

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Denver, Colo.: Mr. Mooney, I have found your book a fascinating, if distressing, read. Other than supporting efforts to improve the educational improvements in science instruction, and encouraging greater efforts at informing US citizens about the basic tenets of science, how do we overcome the political marketing and PR onslaught of the Republicans, and immense spending by the religious right to denigrate science and the scientific method?

I think you've done an admirable job in the book at identifying the problem. What can I, and others ,do?

Chris Mooney: In terms of what you can do: Again, see this article (http://www.seedmagazine.com/news/2006/01/learning_to_speak_science.php). This is my attempt to begin to sketch an answer to the problem. To go further: Scientists must continue to speak out, that's for sure. We also need to support reforms that will ban political interference with science inside of government, and strengthen government science advice (i.e., restore Congressional Office of Technology Assessment).

We also need to reform the media. Get in touch with journalists and complain if you feel they're creating a false scientific controversy on an issue--like evolution or global warming--where no controversy actually exists.

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Oakland, Calif.: Has the situation in Dover, Pennsylvania been a significant setback for the Intelligent Design crowd? And why does the President think it's OK to interject his views on ID into school boards' decisions?

Chris Mooney: Without a doubt, the Dover decision is a huge setback for ID. The judge in the case, Judge Jones, exposed ID for what it really is: a religious movement, not a scientific one.

I don't know why the president thinks it's okay for him to say what he said about intelligent design. I think it's incredibly inappropriate. But I suspect that politically, he knows he has to support teaching ID alongside evolution to appease his base.

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Woodbridge, Va.: At various times the consensus amoung the scientific elite held that:

The earth was the center of the universe

The world was flat

Heavier than air flight was not possible

The sound barrier could not be breached etc.

In my life time scientific consensus seems to be driven more by liberal political correctness than by observation, theory development, experimentation etc. It is very telling that when Republicans cite "maverick" scientists, the counter attack is almost always that they don't represent mainstream scientific thinking rather than a discussion of what is wrong with their scientific method.

And, yes, as a cconservative , I reject intelligent design but because their methods are flawed, not because they are out of the mainstream.

Chris Mooney: I'm now going to turn to answering more critical questions--like this one.

My reply is that consensus certainly isn't always right in every instance. There's always a possibility that it may later be proven wrong. But in modern science, consensus represents the best knowledge that we have at a given time, and consensus conclusions have been continually tested and retested, and subject to considerable critical scrutiny through the scientific process. They're the best we have at a given time, and that's why they should be used to inform policy decisions.

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College Park, Md.: What do you think of Michael Crichton's "State of Fear?" As a scientist myself, I understand the dangers of accepting an argument at face value, or on a very shallow level, but Crichton's book offers a great deal of research suggesting that global warming is not as severe as we think. While I'm not sure if I agree, I find his claims difficult to ignore. What is your take on this book?

Chris Mooney: My take that if Dr. Crichton wants to challenge the strong scientific consensus on human caused global warming, he should try the route of publishing scientific papers rather than novels. As for those convinced by the book, I think they should examine what's actually going on in the scientific literature.

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Baltimore, Md.: Your answer to Charlotte, NC betrays your apparent conviction that global warming is human-caused. In my firmly skeptical view, I have trouble accepting the conclusions reached by the "doom and gloom" crowd that is so eagerly waved by the "save the earth" crowd, based strictly on the sample size and time frame. Is the scientific community truly completely behind the global warming theory, and are those that question the recommendations of, for example, the Kyoto accords considered crackpots themselves, or is it a case of the nay-sayers questioning the agendas of the "global warming" scientists themselves, and possibly with good reason? This begins to sound like a red/blue state chasm that widens further and further......

Chris Mooney: I'm not calling anyone a crackpot. I'm saying that the scientific process has firmly supported the theory of human-caused global warming. It's been supported by the National Academy of Sciences, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the American Meteorological Society, the American Geophysical Union...and on and on. That's what I mean by consensus, and we discard that at our peril, I would say.

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Alexandria, Va.: I don't know how anyone can have the nerve of accusing conservatives and Republicans of "politicizing" science when the prime example of that thing is the "global warming" scam pushed by the left-wing.

World-wide temperatures may be trending up OR down, but with no more than 100 (and probably less than 50) years of really accurate observations to go by, it is impossible for anyone to make a legitimate claim that they are going one way or the other with any confidence at all. These things happen over thousands of years, not decades.

But of course, the "cures" for global warming happen to be things the left-wing advocates anyway, so this half-baked theory is taken as holy writ when it actually ranks right up there with the belief in flying saucers and poltergeists.

You should see to your own house before you criticize how someone else keeps theirs.

Chris Mooney: Again, for those who think this, I encourage you to consult the scientific literature, or the reports of consensus bodies like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. There you will find stated a very firm conclusion that the spiking temperatures that we are seeing cannot be easily explained simply by invoking natural causes alone. Models best match observations when both natural causes and human causes (or forcings) are taken into account. In order to understand what's happening with our climate, we have to recognize the human role. It's that simple.

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Back up the Truck!: Hold on -- I'm a lifelong Republican and I reject Intelligent Design. Anyone with two brain cells to rub together would reject it.

So please don't paint us all with the same brush? By doing that, you undermine the work of moderates who are trying to change the fundamentalist control of the party.

Chris Mooney: Good for you! I wish you luck in reclaiming your party. I'm not criticizing every single, last Republican. But I think the party is currently dominated by the modern conservative movement, and systematically distorts science to appease that movement's key constituencies (industry, religious conservatives). If Republicans can fix that problem from within, I'm all for it.

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Chris Mooney: Well, I've answered about 22 questions this hour--there are nearly 100 that I haven't been able to address. I apologize for that, but I'd need a full research team to tackle everything that was thrown at me. Still, I want to thank you all for contributing. To continue the discussion, please visit my blog at http://scienceblogs.com/intersection/

Best

Chris Mooney

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