Republican War on Science Redux

At long last my copy of the new paperback edition of The Republican War on Science by Chris Mooney has arrived.
The book is excellent, and always was. Had Mooney not written this detailed history and analysis of the ways that the Republican Party and its main constituencies have attacked the practice of science, someone less skilled might have had to attempt the task. Mooney has succeeded in making the idea of a war on science (or on expertise) a common phrase in political discussions, a rare feat.

I reviewed the earlier edition when it came out, and I'll put my updated review below the fold.

The new edition brings not just more precise language ("politicization of science" was a much-used but ambiguous phrase in the first edition, now replaced with more precise terms), but addenda to each chapter describing new events since the publication of the first edition, as well as an admirable new introduction.

It's a testament to the urgency of the problem he highlights that the updates he wrote are already outdated. The update on stem cells speculates about whether Senate Majority Leader Frist would allow a vote on a stem cell bill. He did, and many Republicans broke ranks and voted for it, after which the President issued his first veto ever to strike it down. The chapter on creationism doesn't mention that creationists have once again lost the Kansas Board of Education, though it does cover the Dover result. The chapter on sex education is intentionally oblique about the status of the HPV vaccine, I expect the vaccine got FDA approval after the update was written. And the same update was clearly written before Plan B was given over-the-counter status, though only for women over 18 (a limit with no medical justification).

The update describing Plan B's journey does have a perfect microcosm of what the book documents, and the problem that that must be addressed going forward. Describing the games the FDA played to keep Plan B from getting over-the-counter approval, Mooney writes:

A 2005 Government Accountability Office report on the Plan B case, which exposed either (depending on how used to this stuff you are by now) alarming malfeasance or just more typical Bush administration misdeeds with respect to science.

That the Republicans have waged a war on science is clear. Mooney documents that with care and with skill. But even moreso, the quote demonstrates how they are winning that war. That alarming malfeasance could be typical is not just an indictment of the Republicans who waged the war, it's an indictment of scientists who didn't raise even more of a fuss when these things happened (though fusses were raised) and of voters who have put the abusers back in power.

Mooney adds some important suggestions that substantially address my biggest problem with the hardcover, one that other reviewers also raised. The first edition lead us up to the edge, convinced anyone remotely interested in the diverse subjects he explores that these are not unconnected anecdotes, but part of a persistent thread. But then his suggestions of what to do didn't seem nearly enough. We wanted to know what we could do, and finally, in the introduction to the paperback, he answers.

"Allies and defenders of science," he explains "cannot simply stand on the sidelines. They must speak out and defend the knowledge they have brought into the world." He refers to some scientifically studied communications strategies that he wrote about in January, and encourages scientists to "emphasize a very different set of skills from those they generally use in strictly scientific pursuits."

Scientists do indeed need to be better advocates for the integrity of science itself, and must learn to speak to the public in ways that are understandable. It's a challenge, and one that I would extend not just to scientists, but to the vast swaths of concerned and scientifically literate people. Just because you don't have some extra letters next to your name doesn't mean you can't talk to your friends about evolution, stem cells, or sex ed.

Groups like Kansas Citizens for Science tend to go into a forced dormancy between the concerted attacks by anti-science forces. But those lulls are exactly the time to be organizing and promoting. That's when you lay a groundwork for the next battle, and when you can have a less heated conversation of the sort Mooney describes in his article on "Learning to Speak Science":

Lakoff agrees that scientists did a poor job dealing with the Kansas Board of Education. What they should have done instead, he suggests, was to launch a comprehensive national campaign to explain evolution to the public, emphasizing how “converging evidence” from a wide range of areas—the fossil record, radioisotope dating, genetics, and many other disciplines—all independently confirm and strengthen the evolutionary account. In short, the scientific community should be promoting a positive message that teaches the public why evolution is such a powerful scientific theory, and about how scientists weigh evidence.

I wished that KCFS could have organized a major speaking tour to bring scientists to Dodge City, Garden City, Hays, Salina, and the dozens of little towns where these battles have to be fought. And rather than doing it while the fight was underway, it would have been great to do it beforehand, winning the fight before it even started. KCFS has members with the PR skills and organizing skills to do that. But KCFS operates on a shoestring, and donations diminish even more when there's no ongoing controversy. They can't build an ongoing campaign on a boom-or-bust budget. Just donating to groups like KCFS or the other _________ Citizens for Science groups in many states would be a great help.

But don't stop there. Scientists aren't great at communicating (at least not all are), and many are really quite poor at organizing things. But you or your friends and colleagues are good at those things. You know how to get a hall and how to fill it with people who want to talk with a renowned scientist. You know the local papers and the local political players, and you can help a disorganized, somewhat tongue-tied scientist lead a discussion with citizens and with leaders of the community.

You can do this. You're concerned about these abuses, you want policy to be grounded in the best available knowledge or you wouldn't bother reading this far into a review about this book. So get out there and help change things. Democrats need to do this to win on vital issues, and Republicans need to do this if they want to take back their party.

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