January 20, 2006

Republican War on Science raises pertinent issues but ultimately loses our vote

A few weeks after Hurricane Katrina hit, I was in Washington, D.C., covering a Senate hearing on the environment. The hearing, titled “Climate Change Science and Economics,” was meant to present to the Senate energy committee information about how to curtail greenhouse gas emissions.

At the hearing, environmentalists and economists presented their differing thoughts on how an emissions market could curb pollution. In theory, the Senate committee would take these experts’ suggestions and deliberate on what legislation would best service the American public.

But that’s not exactly what happened.

Before the experts began to give their opinions, the committee chair, Pete Domenici (Republican, New Mexico), launched into a speech that undermined the theory of global warming.

“It is clear that something is happening with the earth’s climate,” Domenici said. “I am aware that many in the scientific community are warning us that something needs to be done. I am also aware that there are equally qualified members of the scientific community who do not share those views.”

Global warming hasn’t been confirmed? “Equally qualified” scientists don’t believe global warming is a fact? Why such a carefully worded introductory message from the head of the Senate committee charged with protecting America’s environment and ensuring clean, clear skies for future generations?

After Domenici finished his statement, a senator from the other end of the political spectrum—Dianne Feinstein (Democrat, California)—took the floor. Playing off Katrina’s havoc, she mentioned a freshly released Georgia Tech study suggesting a link between global warming and the increasingly violent pattern of hurricane activity.

“Nuts” and “absurd” were the kinds of words used to shout Feinstein off the floor.

That morning didn’t startle me so much because of its partisan shouting. I had been in Washington a few weeks and seen Republicans berate Democrats and vice versa. What didn’t register for me, though, was the apparent disregard for science.

Months out of my requisite University of Chicago biology class, I was finding out that the core scientific values drilled into me were being cast aside. Relying on consensus views, constant tinkering with assumptions, testing hypotheses, and allowing findings to dictate conclusions (as opposed to the opposite) were values that didn’t always seem to apply in Washington.

“Think tanks,” or privately funded research institutions, could be especially infuriating, since they pumped reports to confirm and advance their policy positions.

Attempting to explain where this phenomenon comes from and what it means is Chris Mooney’s The Republican War on Science (Perseus Books Group, 2005), which traces the history of science politicization over the past 30 years, focusing especially on the last decade.

Mooney’s long-winded response to the most basic question—why launch a war on science?—is distilled into a simple answer: Republicans were and are suavely doing it for political gain.

Lionized by the Newt Gingrich Congress, the practice of milking scientific results helps politicians score political points with local businesses or national industries. It’s a tool that the Bush administration has leaned on heavily, Mooney argues. And because of the growing schism between science and public policy decisions, it’s a trend that’s hurting America.

Mooney’s book uses hot-button issues—stem cell research, creationism, global warming—to explain how lobbyists and politicians sidestep undesirable findings. Two main methods, Mooney writes, are planting scientists with outlying views on federal panels and using scientific uncertainty to undermine well established principles. His version of truth is what the consensus believes and what’s published in critical, scholarly journals.

Mooney’s argument is, at its core, a political one, and he includes science only to the extent that it indicts Republican politicos. There are no extended anecdotes or personal histories to make the trudge through the innards of bureaucratic history a more enticing read.

But then again, Mooney’s plodding documentation of Republican half-truths is not meant to satisfy a casual reader—that is, unless you have political tastes similar to those of Howard Dean. Rather, Mooney’s work is best used as a tool for scientists, politicians, and government jesters to understand how science can be skewered.

A reading of The Republican War On Science could leave readers with the impression that Democrats don’t exist—let alone that they have ever spun science for political gain. But that’s not true. Even if Democrats aren’t aligned with industry groups to the extent Republicans are, they still play up scientific results favorable to their causes.

Teasing out Mooney’s bias pushes an interesting question about the role of journalism in promoting ideas. On one hand, Mooney’s bias undermines his authority as an impartial political reporter; it taints the book as not only a listing of Republican misdeeds but also a polemic defense of the scientific community. On the other hand, his defense of science is based on the idea that scholarship offers more policy insight than partisan bickering.

But isn’t it hypocritical for Mooney—whose whole point is that ideas are being presented unfairly to score political points—to selectively choose his evidence in identifying the Republicans’ new “war”?