Fighting the Republican War on Science: A Question of Balance

Chris Mooney's "The Republican War on Science" showed up on my desk recently. The book traces the rise of the Republican Party's split with science, from its roots in the supersonic transport debate in the Nixon administration, to George W. Bush's assault on science today, covering science issues from Reagan's "Star Wars" initiative to "intelligent design," global warming to stem cells. From what I read Mooney seems to come across as a bit of a zealot.

By | October 17, 2005

Chris Mooney's "The Republican War on Science" showed up on my desk recently. The book traces the rise of the Republican Party's split with science, from its roots in the supersonic transport debate in the Nixon administration, to George W. Bush's assault on science today, covering science issues from Reagan's "Star Wars" initiative to "intelligent design," global warming to stem cells. From what I read Mooney seems to come across as a bit of a zealot. In the first chapter, for instance, he writes, "In fact, in politicized fights involving science, it is rare to find liberals entirely innocent of abuses. But they are almost never as guilty as the Right." Such sweeping statements diminish the power of his otherwise well-researched arguments -- the book has fully 60 pages of notes -- not to mention its ability to swing moderates to Mooney's point of view. (Mea culpa, I wasn't able to finish the book -- then again, I was already convinced, already part of the choir to which he's preaching.) Nevertheless, I think the book speaks powerfully to the fears of the American Left, and to those of the larger scientific community in general. Mooney argues that we live in a time when science is used less to inform policy, than as a political football. Reasonable, informed people can disagree over the meaning and relative importance of scientific knowledge, as well as what to do with that knowledge, he says. But the Right, he claims, has spent decades honing a machinery to invent controversy where none exists, thereby using the tenets of science to undermine it. The classic case today is intelligent design. But there are other, equally insidious examples, too. Why, for instance, has the FDA not yet approved Plan B, despite its own advisory panel?s overwhelming recommendation? For that matter, why did the Bush administration insist for so long on a link between breast cancer and abortion, and why does it continue to downplay condom effectiveness relative to abstinence in its efforts to stem the spread of AIDS? In his epilogue, Mooney outlines steps we can take to depoliticize science -- reinstatement of the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, protecting the independence of scientific advisory committees, and rolling back legislation (like the "Data Quality Act") designed to water down the ability of scientific knowledge to inform decision-making processes.

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