Chris Mooney is trying to kill me.
It’s true. He sent me this book, The Republican War on Science(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll) (now available in a new paperback edition!), that he knew would send my blood pressure skyrocketing, give me apoplexy, and cause me to stroke out and die, gasping, clawing in futile spasms at the floor. Fortunately, I’ve been inoculating myself for the past few years by reading his weblog (now also in a new edition!), so I managed to survive, although there were a few chest-clutching moments and one or two life-flashing-past-my-eyes experiences, which will be handy if I ever write a memoir.
If you enjoy the thrill of flirting with danger, there is a website promoting the book, and you can also read a substantial excerpt to get a taste. Or just take the plunge and buy it when it becomes available in September—trust me, it’s good, and it probably won’t be quite as traumatic to most people as it is to me. It’s always disturbing to see the president, the house, the senate, and the entire danged Republican party targeting one’s own occupation for destruction.
And that’s really what the book documents: a pattern (and so far, a frighteningly successful pattern) of corrupting the science establishment in America by the Republican party. This is not to say that the Democrats are entirely innocent (NCCAM comes to mind), or that individual Republicans cannot be conscientiously pro-science, but the convergence of the conservative/religious social interests and the well-monied Big Business interests that has driven Republican electoral success is also a perfect formula for driving attacks on the integrity of science and science policy.
Good science needs to be independent of and unfiltered by desired outcomes; it aims to describe the world as it is, not how we wish it would be. This often conflicts with short term economic interests, who want that drug they’ve spent a billion dollars developing to be effective and who want that rare species living on their proposed factory site to be gone and who want those lawsuits charging them with unsafe practices or marketing dangerous products to go away. Much of Mooney’s book describes how business gets its way. They found “think-tanks” that flood a topic with pseudo-science, confusing the issues. They dump money on hired gun lobbyists and our representatives, cleverly gutting the legislation that would allow us to act on scientific recommendations. They work to discredit principled scientists who oppose them.
Religious conservatives have a dogmatic vision of how the world must be, a vision based on ‘revealed knowledge’ and antique sources that often contradicts empirically determined reality and reason in the grossest way. It’s not at all surprising that they directly attack science; what’s truly weird, though, is how often they also don the trappings of science, attempting to assume the mantle of scientific authority, in confused efforts to “prove” religious beliefs. That’s a pernicious strategy that is also undermining science; when creatures like George Gilder or Bruce Chapman declare their version of creationism a science, they are poisoning minds with false ideas of how science actually works.
Mooney does a phenomenal job of documenting the sins of the corporate opportunists, the incompetent hacks, and the sanctimonious culture warriors who are perpetrating this assault on science. He also explains what it is costing us: the sacrifice of international competitiveness, the blown opportunities to invest in the future, the squandering of our resources and the wasteful poisoning of our environment. This is stuff we need to act on now, if it is not already too late.
I have to give away the ending of the book. Forgive me, but really, this is the kind of book where the journey is the reward anyway, and long before it gets there you know how it is going to wind up. Mooney concludes with suggestions about what we need to do—encourage the non-nutball wing of the Republican party, shore up legislation to create safeguards for objective science advising, and get scientists out in the streets with local activism for science (we really suck at that, I know). He also forcefully damns the far Right extremists who dominate the Republican party.
In this context, and considering its track record, we have no choice but to politically oppose the antiscience right wing of the Republican Party. This does not necessarily entail an outright partisan agenda. Encouraging the electoral success of Republican moderates with good credentials on science [oh, rara avis!—pzm] could potentially have just as constructive an effect as backing Democrats.
But if we care about science and believe that it should play a crucial role in decisions about our future, we must steadfastly oppose further political gains by the modern Right. This political movement has patently demonstrated that it will not defend the integrity of science in any case in which science runs afoul of its core political constituencies. In so doing, it has ceded any right to govern a technologically advanced and sophisticated nation. Our future relies on our intelligence, but today’s Right—failing to grasp this fact in virtually every political situation in which it really matters, and nourishing disturbing anti-intellectual tendencies—cannot deliver us there successfully or safely. If it will not come to its senses, we must cast it aside.
I think there is still a reservoir of respect for science in the US, and we need to capitalize on it before it is corrupted further. Republicans belong to the anti-science party; Inhofe and Coburn and Frist and yes, George W. Bush have made ignorance the party line. It’s long past due that we call them on it. And of course, we also have to police the Democratic Party, and make sure they don’t also slide into this garbage in their rush to emulate the Republicans.