Saheli*: Musings and Observations
Friday, September 09, 2005
 
The Republican War on Science


On Wednesday night I had the pleasure of finally meeting Chris Mooney, science policy journalist extrordinaire and blogger of The Intersection. Mooney is on tour promoting his new book, The Republican War Against Science, and spoke to a packed house at Cody's Books. Chris is speaking at the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco today, so hopefully that will eventually be broadcast and archived on KQED.org and I can link to it. In the meantime, I highly recommend you buy the book and try to catch Chris on his tour. For now, a couple of the important points he made at Cody's.

First of all, this Republican war on science is not necessary to being a Republican. Chris went out of his way to exempt moderates like John McCain. Indeed, he recommends that if you are a Republican, you consider going out of your way to support moderate Republicans who are science-friendly. This war on science, is however, very solidly part of the overall strategy of the dominating aspect of the Republican party and the Bush administration, and Chris documents its various strategies and guises.

Secondly, Chris got into writing this book because he realized that while scientists have been loud in pointing out abuses of science, they aren't very good at elucidating the motivations for that abuse--something that a political reporter might be able to spell out a little better. The motivation lies in the Republican party's reliance on and courting of two main constituencies--the religious Right and Big Industry. Chris lays out an incredible, evidence-rich explanation of this in the book, and again, I have to insist you go check it out. He carefully documents the extent to which the scientists and science necessary to federal agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and prevention are undermined by policy-makers unable to tolerate any contrary data. So far I am most grimly tickled by the virulent reaction that a poor Pennsylvania epidemiologist garnered when she signed off on a WHO report that unshockingly recommended a low daily intake of sugar. She was very surprised to have her credibility and reputation attacked over a result that mirrored many findings in the peer-reviewed literature, but I suppose she can't have been expected to keep track of the "Ranger" status sugar magnate Pepe Fanjul earned in the 2004 Bush campaign.

Thirdly, the question was raised at Codys--what does this disrespect for science mean in general, not just for obviously science-dependant agencies like the EPA? Chris said science was his beat for this book, but others had made the case to him that the problem was symptomatic of an overall Republican hostility towards expertise. I would argue that policymakers who do not respect expertise, statistics, and empirical data are bound to create failure in any large endeavor, not just obviously technological ones.

Chris pointed out that there is no dedicated public interest research group that goes around rating politicians for the integrity of their use of science and general science-friendliness. It's certainly not a task the AAAS can take up. Now might be the time to start one. At Cody's I met a young astrophysics student who has just started the DefendScience project at DefendScience.com. Take a look.

Finally, there are example of causes "on the left" which similarly abuse science. Opponents of genetically engineered food (who have a good case when they stick to ecological diversity and economics of seed hording) often stoop to making wishy washy arguments based on weak or nonexistent evidence of the harm to humans. Animal-rights activists often make atrocious arguments--blatantly misinforming the public by touting a nonexistent ability to model complex systems (instead of testing), minimizing role that experiments on animals have in all fields of medicine, or falsely trumpetting the ability of lab-rats to survive in the wild. The difference between the Republican and Democratic party is that on the left these groups are marginalized and hardly courted by the party, while their conservative equivalents (religious fundamentalists and industrial corporations) form the solid base of the Republican party and are strongly courted by them. Reporters and debaters too often fall into the cognitive trap created by years of compare and contrast essays, giving equal time to both sides of the coin. Sometimes the coin just isn't fair, and it's a sign of intelligence to recognize that and acknowledge it.
 


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Saheli Datta started this when she was a journalism student at Columbia in New York. Now she lives in the Bay Area. *Old people call me R. New people, call me Saheli. Thanks! My homepage. Specifically, my links. Email me: Saheli [AT] Gmail [dot] Com

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