The Republican War on Science

How the GOP undermines science in the name of politics

| Mon Oct. 3, 2005 12:00 AM PDT

Disdain for science and scientific expertise has been a hallmark of the Bush White House. Tampering with reports on climate change, suppressing science within the U.S. Department of Fish & Wildlife, radically misrepresenting the research potential of existing stem cell lines—these are just a few cases where the administration has distorted scientific research to appease political and business interests.

Though no previous U.S. government can match the current one for sheer brazenness, other Republican administrations have proved willing, on occasion, to subordinate science to politics. As Chris Mooney argues in his book, The Republican War on Science, disregard for scientists and the scientific method has grown and ripened with the modern conservative movement. From Barry Goldwater's anti-intellectualism, through Ronald Reagan’s sympathy for creationism and Newt Gingrich's passion for science "skeptics," on through the present day, Republicans have shown a marked preference for politically inspired fringe theories over the findings of long-established and world-renowned scientific bodies.

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In his conversation with Mother Jones, Mooney discusses the impact this approach to science has on public policy and the public good, and on the very health of American democracy.

MJ: How did we get to this point, where science is so blatantly abused for political purposes?

CM: Well, I think it’s part of the history of the modern conservative movement, and you see it coming to fruition recently with that movement's total control of the Republican Party and of the government. Here you have a movement anchored in, among other things, a distrust of big government. And of course a lot of science is funded by government, and a lot of science takes place in government agencies. This is also a movement that has plausibly been accused of having anti-intellectual tendencies, that thinks big universities and the academic elites are biased against ordinary folks.

But most importantly you have raw politics, or catering to your constituents. With the conservatives, you have industry, which is coming up against science all the time, and religious conservatives, who come out against science any time [it conflicts with] their moral view of the world.

So, you combine all of those things—not liking government, distrusting universities, catering to your base—and then you get control of the government and I think what you get is exactly what you'd predict.

MJ: How far back do you have to go to see this coming together?

CM: There are good indications that these tensions were mounting [in the 1950s] for instance, when William F. Buckley attacked Yale, or when Barry Goldwater ran for President in 1964 and was attacked by the nation's scientists for his anti-intellectual tendencies. Of course, they were fighting over different issues then, particularly arms control, but I think that the tension was clearly present.

But I think it really becomes a political phenomenon with Reagan. He was the [conservative] movement's president and so of course he did a lot of this pro-industry and pro-religious stuff. He spoke favorably of creationism as well. So I think that's when it really hit the political mainstream.

MJ: You point out that there are abuses of science on the left and right, but you seem to believe the right's abuse is more widespread and central to the Conservative movement, whereas on the left it's more of a fringe element that the Democrats actually work to distance themselves from.

CM: Well, The Republicans are compelled by their allegiances, and when they're asked about evolution, they have to kowtow to intelligent design. Now, is there anything comparable to that on the democratic side? No. Because that would mean the Democrats had some constituency that compelled them to challenge gravity, or plate-tectonics, or something like that. There's nothing that fundamental on the democratic side. The democrats don't really cater to the extreme environmental groups either.

MJ: Although the right has certainly nurtured a perception that they do.

CM: Right, but there are a range of views in the environmental community and the Democrats are probably not even as pro-environment as the more moderate environmentalists. I'm not saying that they're innocent; I'm just saying that their not as guilty. That's an important distinction. I think the charges against the Bush Administration right now are very credible. There was certainly no such rallying of the scientific community during the Clinton Administration.

MJ: How does the current Bush Administration differ from past administrations in the way it handles science?

CM: I think the problem is much more comprehensive than under any other administration. When you look at the Reagan era you clearly see some analogies: acid rain to global warming, creationism to intelligent design, and star wars to missile defense, for example. But in the Reagan Administration a lot of the vestiges of professionalism were still intact. Also, Reagan didn't control the whole Government; he had to contend with the Democrats in Congress.

And there were people in the Reagan Administration who fought back, C. Everett Koop, for example, who fought back against the Christian Conservatives even though he was one. But he was also a doctor, and he was willing to talk about condoms and AIDS and other things that didn't sit well within the White House. Koop was seen as a figure of great scientific integrity, and I don't think we have any such figures in the Bush Administration.

So, the tendencies were apparent under Reagan, but there were a lot of forces that seemed to counterbalance them, which don't seem to be present anymore. I think that's the big difference.

MJ: What are some of the most serious abuses of science that have occurred under this administration?

CM: Well, I think the most staggering example is the White House’s editing the global warming section in the Environmental Protection Agency's report on the environment. This was originally exposed by the New York Times, based on an EPA memo claiming that the White House was trying to change the report, and that its contents no longer reflected the scientific consensus on climate change. Of course, the White House forced them to take the edits. And not just that, but they edited out references to a report by the National Academy of Sciences, which Bush himself requested in 2001.

MJ: So what is the broader impact of this on public policy?

CM: Well, it's easier to get bad policy decisions because the informational basis of policy is not well established. Generally you have a decaying of the proper channels of communication between political leaders and people of expertise, which are so necessary for good policy.

We have to ask ourselves whether we can really rely on the federal government to use science to protect us anymore. When science isn't being used properly to protect us on something like global warming or other environmental risks, those are just obvious risks to the public. And we have to wonder whether the people making decisions are incompetent, or whether they are going to twist the information around, or ignore it completely. And that goes to the very core of the government's function.

MJ: And there are risks to science itself.

There are competitive risks in the sense that, for example, using questionable science to support restrictions on embryonic stem cell research can help contribute to a situation where other countries gain knowledge and business at the expense of the United States. And then there's science education, where undermining the teaching the theory of evolution clearly has massive ramifications for scientific literacy.

MJ: What needs to be done to restore public faith in science?

CM: Well, I think that the public still has high regard for science, so I don't think all is lost by any means. The fact that many of these people need to cloak what they are doing in scientific language indicates that there's still this perception that you need to have science on your side. That's a good thing.

There is a danger though, that the public may come to think of this as just Democrat science and Republican science and that it's all just opinion anyway. There's a risk of losing respect for professional analysis. And that could be very damaging and take us to a place of outright relativism.

MJ: Another dimension to this is corporate funding of scientific research. It's been shown repeatedly that corporate-funded science has a strong tendency to support the positions of those funding the research rather than reach objective conclusions. What do you think about that?

CM: Scientists need money and right now the two biggest sources are the government and industry. There's nothing inherently wrong with industry funding research; frankly, a lot of it is very good. For technological advancement in industry you've got to be innovating in science.

But the problem is that industry often calls on its scientists not because the company is trying to innovate or create some new technology but rather to fight charges that they've polluted or created a public health hazard or something like that. [In those cases] a lot of concern should be raised about objectivity and the connection between funding and science.

MJ: What can be done to mitigate that problem?

CM: Better disclosure of funding would be a good start. But when the problem is as extensive as it is in a lot of cases today, you have to wonder if disclosure is enough or whether there is just too much of a relationship between self-interested parties and research.

MJ: Can you give an example?

CM: The tobacco industry probably holds the most marks of distinction in terms of abusing science to support its own research. Global warming has played out similarly, although it's a little different in that it's done more through think tanks that are often funded by industry. I wrote about this in Mother Jones, of course.

MJ: Yeah, Exxon, for example, is basically funding confusion.

CM: Right. Tobacco did this too, and really the strategy was the same. It's called manufacturing doubt, or manufacturing uncertainty.

MJ: Let's move on to religious groups, and the battle between science and religion.

CM: Well, the religious right is very powerful, and they certainly are in conflict with science in a lot of areas. But I think it's wrong to talk about a battle between science and religion. It's not productive; we want science and religion on the same side.

MJ: That's a lofty goal.

CM: It is in this country. But other countries have managed to pull it off. Quite a lot of people are able to reconcile them. I don’t want a battle between science and religion. I don't think it's good for either one of them.

MJ: What ground has the religious right staked out here?

CM: They have several key areas that really get them fired up. They're either raising health risks about abortion to scare people away, or they're trying to advance their views on sexual behavior or their positions on sex education or stem cell research among other topics by claiming that science is on their side.

And then there's evolution, which is fundamental to their whole view of society. Many of them seem to think that modern science, and certainly modern evolutionary science, causes atheism, causes immorality, so they really oppose it. And they have their alternative there; it used to be creation science, and now it's Intelligent Design.

MJ: And the religious right deploys think tanks just as corporate interests do, right?

CM: Oh, sure. The Discovery Institute is a pretty good example. In many cases, it's the same think tanks and advocacy groups that are doing the corporate stuff. The Heritage Foundation does a lot [on] abstinence, and many of their policy people have contrarian takes on global warming as well.

MJ: Why are these think tanks taken seriously?

CM: Because it's quite easy to sow confusion. And, in many of these cases, sowing confusion is all you have to do in order to win. That's especially easy to do in non-scientific venues.

MJ: It sounds like you're talking about the media. Does the press bear some of the blame here?

CM: I believe so, yes.

MJ: Because they tend to give equal coverage to contrasting views?

CM: Sure. There's nothing inherently wrong with giving equal time to contrasting views, but I think there are certain cases in which that kind of norm can be abused. The most clear-cut cases are evolution and global warming, where the press plays the same "he said, she said, we're clueless," game. That just plays into the strategy of the science abusers.

MJ: What would you change to improve science reporting?

CM: I'm in favor of more specialized training for journalists. I think that journalism schools should have courses about understanding science, understanding statistics. But you know, it’s the culture of journalism—its editorial practices and its norms of behavior—that creates this tendency towards false objectivity.

MJ: Where can the public go to get an accessible yet accurate boil-down of science as it impacts policy?

CM: The National Academies of Science is good, and some of the scientific societies, like the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Meteorological Society, the American Geophysical Union, for climate at least. They do science, but usually draft position statements as well. I would trust them.

We've lost the Office of Technology and Assessment which was a really good, reliable source that made its information publicly accessible. But the Gingrich Republicans got rid of that.

MJ: What about media sources?

CM: The New York Times reporters are really good at this. Science and Nature are also really good.

MJ: What can Democrats and more moderate Republicans do to combat this?

CM: They can expose the abuses, they can generate outrage, and they can maybe pick one or two issues where this really resonates with the public like stem cells or global warming. And they can make those issues symbolic of the whole problem.

MJ: What hope do you have that the public will start demanding that politicians and leaders take a more reality-based approach?

CM: To get the public on board with this issue, there will have to be some real consequences. I think that the consequences are going to come from the government being incompetent in a crisis. Katrina wasn't just about science, it was about community response, but something like that really wakes people up and forces them to wonder why the government isn't working properly. Eventually, you have to start looking at how the government is doing its science, and handling expertise.

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