Dave Bruggeman, whose blog on science policy I find generally indispensable, has an odd distaste for the idea of a Republican war on science. Most recently, this emerged in response to a review by the Department of Interior’s Inspector General into a report on the post-BPocalypse oil drilling moratorium. The original report was found to have implied inaccurately that scientists reviewing the moratorium itself, rather than that they had simply reviewed specific scientific claims in the report. The IG concluded that this was not an intentional misrepresentation, and that the inaccurate implication was a result of editing errors, not of any intentional wrongdoing.
From this story, in which the error was apparently accidental and careful reading would have avoided the incorrect implication, Bruggeman launches an assault on the notion of a partisan “war on science.” After writing that this is the same old war on science “without [Chris Mooney's] preferred Republican adjective in front of it,” Bruggeman explains:
That the misrepresentation in this case was found unintentional and by implication matters with respect to culpability at the Department. But it does not matter in terms of how science advice is perceived politically. If people are serious about mitigating politicization of science, they need to be as critical of these incidents as they might about more willful misrepresentations, regardless of party.
This strikes me as simply wrong. During the Bush years, Republicans in Congress and the administration actively suppressed key reports. They actively rewrote the conclusions of scientists, literally inverting the scientific findings for political benefit, they colluded with industry to pre-determine policy and to gin up scientific support for those pre-determined conclusions. That is not the same as an editing error which could be taken as implying that scientists reviewed a policy decision which they did not.
To say that this is proof that the war on science is bipartisan seems to miss the point. And Bruggeman seems to know that the problem is less with the actual process than with how political opponents of the moratorium will abuse this editing error:
opponents of the moratorium have taken the apparent bad action regarding science and used it to cloak their own political motives. Let me re-emphasize something that will likely get lost in all of this posturing… The Department is within its authority to make the decision it did, even if the scientific experts disagreed with it. They can simply add their own additional reasons to the report. The misrepresentation of what the scientists (or the science) said about it is a problem, even though the ability to make the policy choice made here is not.
But, of course, the IG did not find that the Department misrepresented what scientists (or the science) said. At worst, an editing error that occurred as the executive summary was reorganized for clarity could be taken as implying support by scientific peer reviewers for a policy explicitly attributed to the Secretary of Interior (and not to the report itself, which was focused on existing industry safety practices and how to reform them). And the Secretary sent written apologies to the reviewers, and telephoned them to clarify what happened and to apologize for the implication that could be drawn from the report.
Contrast this with a few recent abuses of science by Republicans. In Virginia, the state’s attorney general launched a fishing expedition, seeking all emails and documents to and from former UVa. professor Michael Mann, on the theory that those emails might contain evidence of fraud in Mann’s work on climate change. A court struck down the request, but the AG has promised to revive the effort. Meanwhile, Republicans running to chair the Energy and Commerce Committee seem to be in a race to the bottom, in which the leading candidates are trying to prove that each is more willing than the next to reject not only all proposed climate change policies (which is a political decision that they’re entitled to make), but to deny the basic science of climate change.
Now my understanding of the people who reject the notion of a “war on science” is that they think Republicans and Democrats in political office are going to take policy positions, and they will mold their presentation of the science to reflect those policy preferences. And that each will sometimes cross from a selective account of the science to outright misrepresentation of it, or to political pressure on scientists. And that that’s bad, but it’s also the inherent nature of politics. Everyone does it.
But there’s a qualitative difference between the incident described above (in which an Inspector General concluded that there was no wrongdoing, but that a report was reorganized in a way that could be misinterpreted as giving scientific support to policies not reviewed by scientists) and policy and practice in the Bush-era NASA public affairs office which, according to an Inspector General report, “managed the topic of climate change in a manner that reduced, marginalized or mischaracterized climate change science made available to the general public,” and that “a preponderance of evidence” supported claims of “political interference” with scientific reporting. There’s a qualitative difference between accidentally placing one paragraph above another (rather than the other way around), and declaring that the science of global warming is a fraud, or a hoax, or that it must be wrong because Genesis says so.
As I understand it, having spent time reading Bruggeman and Pielke and others, this is not the way science policy is supposed to work, not the accepted relationship between science and policy. As I understand those authors’ argument, science cannot dictate policy. Science can be an input into policy decisions, telling you what the state of the world is, and giving a sense of what effects are likely to follow from the policy options under consideration. And it is appropriate and perhaps necessary for scientists to express their views on what we know scientifically. Just as scientists would be operating outside their appropriate sphere in claiming that science demands some specific policy, politicians would be outside their appropriate sphere in misrepresenting science, in pressing scientists to alter or censor their scientific findings, or in simply ignoring science which contradicts their claims. There’s lots of evidence that Republicans do exactly those things, and do so more frequently and in ways that are more profound, than Democrats. That’s a war on science, and it’s partisan.
There’s a reason that those of us who think there’s a war on science like to quote Karl Rove’s line about “the reality-based community,” those who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” Rove contrasted those who think discernible reality is relevant to the solutions proposed to problems with the administration’s view: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out.”
There are many things that can be said about that line, but in this context, the most relevant point is that it is a rejection of scientific processes. It’s one thing to claim that there are inputs other than science that influence policy processes. But in absolutely rejecting the value of “judicious study of discernible reality,” I think the Republican party makes itself fair game for this sort of criticism. And I don’t see how Bruggeman’s example above actually serves as a counterexample.
[Note: I started writing this before getting distracted and simply linking snarkily to the same Bruggeman post here. Bruggeman has replied to my implicit argument, and I'll respond to that post shortly. I wanted to post this before responding, to make my argument somewhat more explicit, in case this requires any revision to his response.]