The Republican War on Science

A repost from the archives.

At last I got a chance to read the last few pages of the book I’ve been pimping in the sidebar for a few months now. I’ve made some broad comments drawn from it before, but it’s nice to be able to see the full sweep of the book.

Chris Mooney’s argument in RWoS is more complex than it might seem from the title. He isn’t decrying the lack of scientific basis for policies per se, but the ways in which the Republican Party in particular misrepresents the state of science and the nature of science in order to promote certain actions or forestall other actions.

I’ll begin with one major criticism. As that last sentence indicates, this is a thesis which, however compelling, is a bit fragmentary. That is, after reading the book I have a sense of what the problem is, but it didn’t leave me with a quick, one sentence explanation of exactly what’s going on. The Republican War on Science deals in examples, and the examples are horrifying. The abuses are widespread and increasingly institutionalized. Unfortunately, Mooney doesn’t build those examples into a broader thesis about why this is happening now, and why the Republican Party should be the prime agent of the shift.


There are essentially three fronts on which the titular war is being fought. On one hand, there is manipulation and amplification of favored forms of uncertainty. As Mooney writes (quoting a report by Representative George Brown) this is an attitude that “scientific truth is more likely to be found at the fringes of science than at the center” (p. 55). A corollary to this approach is the attack on the independence of government scientific experts, whether it’s the Gingrich congress eliminating the Office of Technology Assessment or political appointees editing reports written by federal scientists.

In addition to the exploitation of the existing fringe on an issue, there is the manufacture of dissent, best exemplified by the tactics of Big Tobacco, but now widespread.

The third front, and the most insidious, is the institutionalization of absolute scientific certainty as the standard for new policy actions. This is a stealth attack on a wide range of popular laws. Rather than weaken standards for clean water or clean air, simply demand that the evidence against a pollutant be overwhelming. Demand that no contrary evidence exist. Create juries for scientific data which are drawn principally from industry, probably opponents of new regulation.

The book makes clear that debates over science are well and good. The problem is that debates over the science replace debates over the policy. As Roger Pielke, Jr. argues, science can inform policy, but scientific evidence alone cannot dictate policy. In principle, it’s not enough to show that global warming is happening and that the Arctic ice caps are probably stuck in an irreversible melting feedback. To motivate policy, you have to show that there’s a values driven basis for regulatory action and that the proposed response meets not just scientific standards (will actually have the desired effect), but the societal ? values based ? goals. Those might include cost, minimal impact on the average citizen, and effectiveness, but may also include intangible factors. Speaking of the Endangered Species Act, Mooney writes, “our political and aesthetic values play a large role, ultimately, in determining how much effort we pump into saving an endangered species, and which ones we will sacrifice the most to keep. Nevertheless, the Endangered Species Act remains a powerful piece of legislation, and however incompletely enforced, applies to all species. If political conservatives and their constituents don’t like that, they should announce their earnest intention to amend the political and moral vision embodied in the ESA. ? Those who [want to narrow the protections] have every right to push for legislation that would reverse the current requirement that government agencies take prompt action to save species. But what they shouldn’t do ? both because it is dishonest and because it corrupts a form of assessment that our society depends on ? is to try to blind us all with science” (p. 161, emphasis in the original).

Many of the contentious policy debates of the day revolve around these philosophical, moral and ethical issues. Abortion is a complex issue not because of uncertainty over fetal pain or the scientific definition of the beginning of life, but because of varying moral positions on the moral significance of an undeveloped fetus balanced against the life and well-being of the woman carrying that fetus. More science simply won’t change that argument. Similarly, stem cell research (covered in chapter 12) is controversial only because some people feel obliged to extend moral status to fertilized embryos which will never be implanted to grow beyond a few cells.

On page 198, Mooney quotes an anti-embryonic stem cell advocate who, testifying before the Senate, simultaneously held that she was testifying “not on the basis of ethics or politics or anything else,” but that she did “consider [somatic cell nuclear transfer] needless destruction of human life.” The conservative Family Research Council wrote of similar hearings “adult stem cell research is the best science and thoroughly moral at the same time.” This conflation of what is the best science and whether it is moral is unfortunate. The best science is the science that works, and only by allowing scientists to pursue possibilities can we know what the best science is. Only in a stacked hearing built on manufactured dissent can adult stem cells be presented as the “best science,” and stacked hearings are what we’ve gotten from the Republican congress.

Later in the book, a candidate for a scientific advisory panel describes the questions he was asked before being nominated for a position at the National Drug Abuse Advisory Council. In addition to questions about his voting habits, his take on drug legalization and the death penalty, he was asked “Do you support needle exchange?” He answered “Yes, there is clear evidence that it reduces the spread of infection.” The staffer with whom he was speaking replied that this was the wrong answer, “The President opposes needle exchange on moral grounds, regardless of the consequences” (p. 238). In terms of science politicization, the President’s position is fine, though counting a scientist’s support of ends-driven policy against him is not. The problem is, in a comparison between the Clinton era and Bush era responses to needle exchange programs, the Clinton administration presented the scientific consensus and left the final decision to local government, while the Bush administration opposed the programs, claiming scientific dispute over their merits. When the Washington Post called the researchers the Administration cited, the researchers fully supported the consensus. Rather than taking a moral stand (as in the private interview), they tried to justify inaction based on evidence of scientific dissent.

At the beginning, I raised some questions that weren’t answered nearly starkly enough, though Mooney offers hints. Why is it the Republicans at war, more than Democrats (though he does cite Democrats when they cross the line)? Why is this happening now?

The underlying problem, I’d argue, is that Democrats enacted a number of the programs under attack and enjoyed popular support for doing so. The new programs being blocked by trumped up dissent are also generally supported by the public, though public understanding often lags the current state of scientific knowledge. Endangered species protections are popular, so are protections for the air and water. People support embryonic stem cell research. People support environmental protects broadly. This means that one cannot argue against Kyoto by saying that we don’t care what happens as a result of global warming, nor can one simply demand a repeal of the Endangered Species Act, nor mount a frontal assault on its core principles. An outright ban on embryonic stem cell (ESC) research would be wildly unpopular.

Under this scenario, the only paths available to a Republican party that wants to promote a religious/corporate agenda contrary to the values of the public at large is to attack the details of programs or to attack the policy process.

So long as people continue to believe that global warming is subject to scientific controversy (the broad outline isn’t), or so long as people believe some avenues for ESC research remain open (the available lines border on the useless), or that endangered species are listed capriciously (they aren’t), it’s easy to achieve the effect of gutting popular existing or proposed responses to problems without actually engaging the principled issues.

I wish Mooney dug deeper into that part of the story, but perhaps we can hope for a sequel. Mooney is certainly meticulous in his research, and this study presents the problem starkly. The epilogue, which offers some solutions to the problem, feels weak and sounds doomed to fail because the reader doesn’t understand what is driving the trend, only that it exists.

My proposal is that Republicans and Democrats both should spend less time talking to the public about the practical details of how a proposal would work, and more time talking about the moral and political principles driving their plans. This will be a bigger change for Democrats, and a welcome one.