The Intersection

Answering Jonathan Adler


Jonathan Adler, a specialist in environmental law at Case Western who contributes to the Volokh Conspiracy blog, has written a lengthy and thorough, if pretty critical, review of The Republican War on Science for the journal Regulation.

I am here posting a reply to Adler’s review, but first, a few comments about why I’m doing this. When the book first came, out there were so many reviews I couldn’t even begin to tackle or process them all. Meanwhile, some negative reviews were so nasty, misrepresentative, and lacking in substance that I didn’t want to dignify them with any response whatsoever. Adler’s review is none of these things, although the penultimate sentence I thought was rather unfriendly:

Mooney provides a shallow, one-sided polemic that will comfort Democratic constituencies but do little to ensure the sound use of science to inform normative policy decisions….

Okay, that’s a little mean, but I have armadillo thick skin by now–no biggie. So let’s reply to Adler…

Adler has three main points, and I’m going to tackle them in order. They are these:

First, Mooney has a penchant for characterizing some legitimate science-related policy positions with which he disagrees as “abuses” of science. Second, he exhibits a blind spot to the misuse and politicization of science by those who espouse political agendas with which he agrees. Third and most important, Mooney pays little attention to the larger institutional context that generates political pressures on science.

This will be where the chief action can be found as Adler and I fall into intellectual sparring. But before that happens, allow me respond to a few scattered issues that come up outside of this framework.

Note first of all that Adler is reviewing the paperback edition of The Republican War on Science, so he ought to give me credit for the new material that’s in there. (All page numbers below refer to the paperback.) Note also that there’s one major blanket statement in the review that doesn’t seem to be backed up at all: “[Mooney] rightly criticizes anti-abortion activists for alleging a connection between abortion and breast cancer, yet he uncritically accepts other dubious scientific claims when they support his policy preferences.” Um, I do? Which claims?

Also before getting to the three main critiques, let me reply to Adler’s attempt to undermine my discussion of the stem cell issue. I found it pretty weak, and largely based upon criticizing arguments that I wasn’t actually making. Adler writes:

For instance, Mooney claims the Bush administration’s decision to limit federal funding of stem cell research to preexisting embryonic cell lines “dramatically constricted the potential of research.”

Yeah but that’s not my central complaint. The central complaint is about the misuse of science.

Whatever the merits of the Bush administration policy, Mooney should have acknowledged that it loosened preexisting limits on stem cell research.

Well, Bush was the first president to actively fund this research–largely a matter of timing–but I’m quite sure a different president (i.e., Gore) would have done so with fewer restrictions. So I’m not sure that’s such a big achievement.

More importantly, Mooney should have acknowledged that the debate over stem-cell research is ultimately not about science at all, but about the moral status of embryos and the propriety of government-funded research that could lead to their destruction.

I do acknowledge that, all over the place, i.e., p. 2, “…religious conservatives consider embryonic stem cell research…ethically abhorrent.”

Mooney simply strains credulity when he suggests that the number of cell lines, rather than ideological opposition to the destruction of embryos, drove Bush policy….

Again, that’s not the argument. The point that I make about the number of cell lines is simply meant to show how happy Bush was to seize upon a dubious morsel of scientific information to justify a policy decision he’d obviously already made for other reasons.

…and conveniently ignores that both sides of this debate have sought to spin scientific findings to support the morality of their position.

Now this is just outright false. For examples of me pointing out how the left “left” has misused science on embryonic stem cells, see p. 196 (“the misleading impression, fostered by some research supporters…”) and p. 203 (my takedown of John Edwards for the stupid “people like Christopher Reeve will get up out of that wheelchair and walk again” line).

As I think this example shows, Adler seems to be largely missing some of my main arguments. That’s unfortunate. Anyway, let’s move on to his main points.

1. Am I Confusing Science and Policy?

Adler argues that I contradict myself by 1) claiming that I’m only going to critique abuses of science, but then 2) going on to criticize policies too. He notes in particular my remark (p. 23) that the book “takes no position on questions of pure policy.” And yet I am found criticizing the Data Quality Act, the regulatory reform agenda of the “sound science” movement, the proposed “sound science/data quality” amendments to the Endangered Species Act, and so forth. Am I just a big hypocrite?

Well, no. On p. 23, I actually say something more: “Except to take stances against inappropriate legislative interferences with science and to advocate a strengthening of our government’s science policy apparatus, the text takes no position on questions of pure policy.” Most of the examples that Adler cites fall within the rubric of the first clause of this sentence. I think the Data Quality Act, the proposed ESA reforms, and so forth, are “inappropriate legislative interferences with science,” in part because they create (or would create) an environment in which further strategic attacks on, and misuses of, science will occur and, indeed, will be facilitated. Yes, in some sense this is a “policy” stance. But you can’t claim I’m inconsistent when I’ve clearly given myself enough intellectual rope to make this point.

As for “sound science” generally, Adler claims that this position–requiring a high burden of scientific proof to be met before policy action can be taken to protect against risk–”is no less (or more) scientific than the alternative of encouraging ‘precautionary’ regulation to control hypothetical risks before they are demonstrated to be real.” Ah, but the “precautionary principle” isn’t called the “scientific precautionary principle,” is it? The “sound science” agenda is objectionable because it sells itself as scientific, when in fact it isn’t anything of the sort. Those of us who support the “precautionary principle,” as I certainly do in its more modest forms, don’t claim that’s a scientific judgment.

2. Am I Ignoring the Left’s Abuses?

Adler, like so many other critics, makes the “everybody does it” argument. Well, of course everybody does it to some extent. But that doesn’t mean we can’t argue that there’s something uniquely worrisome about the Bush administration and its relationship with science. There’s massive evidence of this, and more accumulates all the time. In short, is not out of mere political convenience that this science and politics issue has suddenly emerged on the radar screen at the present moment. Rather, the phenomenon is the result of voluminous complaints from government scientists, which in turn have prompted voluminous newspaper exposes, reports, and so on.

So in reply to Adler and others, I’m going to make the Jerry Maguire argument: “Show me the money.” I’ve documented systematic science problems within the Bush administration. The Union of Concerned Scientists (PDF) and others on this beat have gone still further. It is wholly inadequate to counter these extensive, well-documented, and sweeping indictments–which, let us not forget, are happening within our own taxpayer funded goverment–with a few scattered anecdotes, most of them dubious, from past Democratic administrations. And Adler doesn’t even do that in the text of the review itself. So on this point, there’s little more to say (although, if you want to read even more along these lines, check out Backseat driving’s response to Adler).

3. Am I Ignoring the Institutional Context?

Adler makes some valid points here: There are many things about the current structure of American government that create incentives to politicize and misuse science. I will even admit that government funding of research is one such incentive. I provide some of this institutional context myself over the course of the book–for example, describing how the growth of 1970s style environmental regulation spurred fights over science–though it’s not my central focus.

Adler’s real point about institutions seems to be that I don’t have enough in the way of concrete solutions (other than partisan ones) to deal with the problem that I’ve described. However, to be fair, the paperback edition of the book goes much deeper into solutions, and focuses in particular on the role that scientists need to play in fighting back against this stuff. So I have recognized this gap in the earlier edition of the book and tried to remedy it somewhat.

That said, let’s not discount partisan solutions so quickly. We just unelected a lot of conservatives, and now the House and Senate are probing the misuse of science, demanding documents from the administration, and so forth. Maybe my recommendation was a pretty sound one after all, no?

* * * * *

Anyway, I thank Adler for his serious attention to my book. It’s very gratifying not only to see the work discussed in this way, but to be still getting reviews well over a year after the book came out.

UPDATE: Adler replies briefly at National Review‘s “The Corner” and at more length at the Volokh Conspiracy.


  1. #1 James D. Miller
    February 7, 2007

    The governor of Oregon wants to fire the state’s Chief Climatologist because this climatologist is a global warming skeptic. Do you condemn this?


  2. #2 Wilfredo Ortiz
    February 7, 2007

    Hi Chris! I really enjoy this back and forth discussion on politics and policy. Great blog!

  3. #3 Benn
    February 7, 2007

    I heard Adler speak on a panel a couple of years ago. He made the argument that we didn’t need to pass the Clean Water Act which was created mostly in response to news reports of rivers catching on fire in the fifties and sixties.

    His reasoning was that, if you look back historically, you would find that fewer rivers were actually catching on fire right before the CWA was passed.

    It was a lunch panel. I finished my sandwich and walked out. That kind of nonsense doesn’t deserve an ear.

  4. #4 Daniel
    February 7, 2007

    Adler is persuasive for his point of view, on a wide variety of topics relating to environmental law. But that’s just it – his point of view, ideologically speaking, is that of the conservative economicist and lawyer, not the scientist. What follows the stricture of the law is what matters to him, not the accuracy of how facts are presented.

    Case in point: his impressions on last year’s Rapanos case in the SCOTUS.

  5. #5 Jim Norton
    February 7, 2007

    “The governor of Oregon wants to fire the state’s Chief Climatologist because this climatologist is a global warming skeptic. Do you condemn this?


    It’s the State Climatologist, and the governor wants to take the title away because the state did not give the title to him. This is not the same as firing, he would still have his job at the university. I condemn people who cannot get a simple story right.

  6. #6 Daniel
    February 7, 2007

    Err… I meant economist, not economicist. :-/

  7. #7 Daniel
    February 8, 2007

    Interestingly, on his Volokh response, Adler says:

    I think those are all fair statements. I would only add that there are parallel phenomena on the Left that have serious policy consequences, such as some strains of environmentalism.

    Yet, no one – absolutely no one – in government on the Left has ever attempted to silence the scientific community to going along with its policies. Bush has. On the larger scene for the Right, they’ve also bribed scientists to support their point of view, deliberately and explicitly laid out PR agendas to manipulate facts, and establish a system for anti-science propaganda. (as you note in the RWoS)

    Both sides exaggerate claims, or in a biased manner cite facts which support their side. But Adler’s claims that this haphazard exaggeration is equivalent to outright falsehoods is a sham. It’s not even a comparison of degree, it’s a matter of kind… a few exaggerations is nothing next to a misinformation campaign across broad disciplines.