Monday, January 29, 2007

The Republican War on Science (Chris Mooney)

I don’t generally seek out books like this—a decided lefty sitting around reading books about just how bad the Republicans and the Bush administration are seems almost unspeakably banal, like a college Republican sitting in his dorm room nodding along with Sean Hannity. And when a friend passed Chris Mooney’s The Republican War on Science to Maria for me, my first reaction was, “Oh God, this book is going to make me so mad.”

Having secured a healthy supply of blood-pressure medication and a plastic tub of Tums Ultra, though, I finally plunged in. It’s important to establish up front that this is no leftist screed or Michael Moore–esque conspiracy theory: Mooney conducted what I’d ballpark as about 200 interviews for the book’s material (listed in the back), and includes 62 pages of detailed source notes—he’s clearly done his homework, which includes interviews with (and extensive discussions of answers from) people like Bush presidential science adviser John Marburger and President’s Council on Bioethics chairman Leon Kass (who requested that some of his written statements be reproduced in full, which Mooney has obligingly done). And he acknowledges that the Left has been guilty of abusing science as well—particularly in cases of animal rights activism, hyping fears about genetically modified foods, and overplaying the potential for quick cures from technologies like stem cell research. “In fact, in politicized fights involving science, it is rare to find liberals entirely innocent of abuses,” he writes. “But they are almost never as guilty as the Right.”

Mooney organizes the book into four sections. The first provides an overview of the relationship between science and politics going back to FDR, arguing that the current climate largely originated from the alliance between business interests and religious conservatives in the 1970s and 1980s, culminating in the Gingrich Republican takeover of Congress in 1994 and, ultimately, the current administration. The second discusses areas where science has come under attack mainly because of its conflict with corporate interests, namely global warming, environmental and public health regulation, the links between fast food and obesity and between mercury poisoning and fish, and the protection of endangered species under the Nixon-era Endangered Species Act. The third outlines the impact of religious thinking on those old favorites evolution, stem cell research, and sex education and abortion. The fourth focuses specifically on the Bush administration.

The major shift that has taken place, in the current administration in particular, is the pervasive treatment of science as a politicized tool, not only by ignoring, suppressing, or sowing misinformation about broadly accepted results that conflict with their policies, but also falsely adopting the language of science to justify those policies. There was a time when politicians largely allowed scientists to do their work, and then politicians took those results into account in making policy decisions, an entirely separate process—when the politicians’ role was to debate over what to do with the accepted body of scientific knowledge, not argue over what that accepted body of scientific knowledge was. Near the end of the book Mooney discusses, as an example, the fact that despite compelling studies demonstrating that needle-exchange programs help prevent the spread of HIV and do not encourage drug use, neither the Clinton administration or the second Bush administration supported them at the federal level. But while the Clinton administration simply said that it accepted these conclusions but had decided to leave the decision up to local communities, the Bush administration justified its decision to the Washington Post (as discussed in this editorial) by directing the paper to “a number of researchers who have allegedly cast doubt on the pro-exchange consensus.” Mooney goes on, “So the Post actually called up these scientists and found that, lo and behold, they think no such thing. The Bush administration peddled other questionable evidence to the paper, too, which the Post also skewered.”

This type of false justification is both dishonest and cowardly, and illustrates one of the key tactics in the titular war, familiar to anyone who has been following debates over global warming and evolution. It goes back to a famous tobacco company memo from the late 1960s:

Doubt is our product, since it is the best means of competing with the “body of fact” that exists in the mind of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy.

This has since been dubbed “manufacturing uncertainty,” an approach that recurs throughout the book, and one that relies heavily on the misunderstanding that good science is somehow both unanimous and definite. Rather than focusing on central findings and the broad weight of evidence, opponents who find those disagreeable seize on the caveats in individual studies or reports to discredit them, and point to other studies (frequently from less credible sources with clear conflicts of interest) that take an opposing view or play up the uncertainty even more.

But science is always uncertain; it is central to the whole notion of science that all hypotheses and theories are provisional in the face of evidence, even those that are tremendously well supported. Good scientists are open to this uncertainty and accept it as a necessary element of their work, not hamstrung into inaction and an endless inability to accept basic conclusions, which is the state the Right has steadily led the government into. They hide behind loaded Orwellian terms like “sound science” and “junk science” (two terms that Mooney dissects at length for what they really mean, which has little to do with scientific merit), pretending to simply want reliable information while rejecting anything they don’t agree with as too uncertain to act on.

All of these tactics are brought to bear on, for example, global warming. In the face of an overwhelming number of studies showing that human activity is contributing significantly to global warming, the Right regularly cites scientific outliers and industry-funded research (to show there is a “controversy” in which “more research” is needed) and cherry-pick sentences from scientific reports that supposedly show uncertainty among scientists—reports that, when read in total, come down firmly on the side that human activity is contributing to global warming. They also hold what Mooney calls “science courts” in congressional hearings, which, in one example, pitted a single scientist representing the mainstream view against two “doubters” with strong ties to the petroleum industry (undisclosed at the time, of course). To anyone watching, whenever a question was asked about whether or how humans are affecting the climate, the vote came down two against and one in favor:

All the disagreement led Senator Craig Thomas, a Wyoming Republican, to throw up his hands and state, “We are expected to make some policy decisions based on what we ought to be doing with regard to these kinds of things, but yet there does not seem to be a basis for that kind of decision.”

How surprising. In fact, the treatment of two sides of a debate as equal in merit even when one has tremendous support behind it and the other is a fringe position at best is a major problem not only with the Right, but also in the broader coverage of science in the media. Mooney cites two studies that dramatically illustrate the discrepancy: one by science historian Naomi Oreskes published in Science in 2004, which determined that of a sample of 928 scientific papers published between 1993 and 2003 with the keywords “global climate change,” not one disagreed with the mainstream consensus that humans are causing global warming; and one by scholars Maxwell T. Boykoff and Jules M. Boykoff published in the journal Global Environmental Change (not freely available online, but discussed by the authors here) that found that of articles on global warming in the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and Los Angeles Times from 1988 to 2002, 53 percent gave “roughly equal attention” to both this mainstream view and the outlier view that it is solely a natural phenomenon. This was perhaps credible early on—the 1990 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report was far from settled on the subject—but simply isn’t any more. The years since then have only confirmed and added to the evidence, and subsequent IPCC reports have reflected that. As the executive editor-in-chief of Science wrote in a 2001 editorial, “Consensus as strong as the one that has developed around this topic is rare in science.” You’d never know it from the way it’s often discussed by the media (who often just report that one side says X, while those who disagree say Y) or the Right (who don’t want to do anything about it, on grounds completely unrelated to science).

It’s also important to keep in mind that strong scientific consensus is not a cavalier thing—it’s not a fad, or groupthink. The doubters like to cast themselves as independent-minded skeptics refusing to conform, but as a Harvard biological oceanographer tells Mooney, “Every good scientist is a skeptic through and through.” And when the first studies came out, scientists were appropriately skeptical—they thought, along with most everyone, that the climate was reasonably stable, and human activity small in comparison. What convinced them was evidence, and evidence heaped upon evidence, and study after study over the course of decades. To dismiss that in favor of a few doubters is both perverse and incredibly irresponsible.

———

The key problem is that the Right no longer treats science as a source of information to help them create the best policies—instead, they’ve already decided what the best policies are, and science that might obstruct those policies must be wrong. The studies are treated as political attacks, not evidence-based results. Mooney discusses this at length throughout the book, but two examples particularly struck me. The first example came during a 2004 congressional hearing regarding the shutoff of irrigation water designed to safeguard endangered fish species, involving Rep. John Doolittle, a conservative California Republican:

First, he tried doggedly to get NAS [National Academy of Sciences] panel chair William Lewis to answer a policy question: Should the 2001 water shutoff have occurred? Lewis repeatedly (and properly) declined to answer the question, noting that the NAS committee had restricted itself to assessing the scientific basis for the water cutoff decision. Doolittle seemed incapable of grasping the distinction.

The second comes when discussing David Reardon, a prominent (albeit questionably credentialed) pro-lifer who has published extensively on alleged negative physical or psychological consequences of abortion despite comprehensive studies demonstrating that no such link exists:

In fact, Reardon appears to believe, for religious reasons, that abortion must cause harm. In a 2002 essay in the conservative journal Ethics & Medicine, Reardon defended what he called the “neglected rhetorical strategy” of opposing abortion on the grounds that it hurts women, instead of simply because it is morally wrong. He also noted that “because abortion is evil, we can expect, and can even know, that it will harm those who participate in it. Nothing good comes from evil.”

I suspect that one reason the Right is so convinced that scientists who disagree with them are biased or fraudulent or incompetent is that they themselves are so inclined to manipulate the evidence to favor their beliefs, rather than the other way around: to put it in stark terms, it’s as hard for an honest person to assume other people lying as for a liar to assume other people are being honest.

The weakest (and perhaps most dispiriting) part of the book is the epilogue, entitled “What We Can Do”—which, it turns out, for ordinary citizens doesn’t amount to much more than “For God’s sake, stop electing these people,” coupled with a plea for journalists to learn something when they write about scientific topics so they can appropriately convey consensus instead of simply seeking a he said/she said type of “balance.” The chapter reflects, in a way, the helplessness of both scientists and the exiled Left over the last six years, because the fate of science in politics is ultimately up to the politicians, many of whom have recently proven themselves either unfathomably cynical or else so misinformed and incurious that they seem incapable of either understanding science or putting it to good use. The emblem of this era has been the now-notorious 2004 statement of a “senior adviser” to the president in a New York Times article by Ron Suskind:

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”

This was about foreign policy, of course, but given the types of abuses documented by Mooney, it’s just as apt for describing the Right’s approach to science. I’ve touched on some of the subjects Mooney explores much more fully in the book, and would certainly encourage anyone to read it, regardless of political affiliation, who wants a thorough untangling of how science has been misused in recent years. The danger of continuing down this path is very real. Because the problem with reality is that it tends to stick around whether you believe in it or not—and unfortunately, if our leaders keep ignoring it, everyone pays in the end.

1 comment:

Murphy said...

Way to go Jim. Nice thorough, clear review. You are right. Things are what they are no matter what the spin.