Friday, January 18, 2008

The Republican War on Science - Chris Mooney. A Review.

I've had The Republican War on Science on my book shelf for about a year. I've been sort of put off reading because it looked a bit heavy. Not metaphorically, but rather literally. It's a big, fat hardback. Amazon market place is great because you can get American published hardbacks second hand or even new, for the same price as the paperback will cost in the UK, but months before it comes out in paperback. But it does mean I'm buying more hardbacks than ever before and somehow they take more mental effort to get stuck into, perhaps just because they take more physical effort to hold.

But Chris Mooney's book isn't heavy, it is actually perfectly readable even for some one like me whose science education did not go beyond the compulsory schooling level. He does not demand his readers know much about the subjects he deals with in advance, but he doesn't avoid actually discussing scientific issues either. Anyone who is an expert in any of the areas discussed might wish for more detail, but in many ways this is a book about the politics not about science. He outlines a few earlier dubious political uses of science in U.S. politics before the 1990s, most notably around the "Star Wars" programme of Ronald Reagan, but things really heat up with the rise of the Gingrich 'revolution' of 1994. He argues that one of the seminal acts of 'war on science' was the abolition of Congress' Office of Technology Assessments. The OTA was the in house, but independent, science research organisation for the Congress. I learned about it, and is abolition, a few years ago when I was looking at what "WMD" really means. Perhaps the best study on what threat nuclear, chemical and biological weapons really represent was done by the OTA in the early 90s. But Gingrich and crew did not like the policy implications of much of OTA's output, so killed the agency off. An odd appendix to this story that Mooney's book doesn't cover is that Gingrich himself has become one the leading Republican voices speaking out about the dangers of global climate change, and attacking the deniers in his own party. The climate change deniers do though form another central theme of the book.

Some of the obfuscation of science by the American right that Mooney outlines is impressive. Other bits are creepy. In the first category I would place legislation that was passed on "Data Quality Assurance". What could be more the scientific method than one scientist's peers assuring the quality of his or her data? But the legislation applied to federal agencies, making them reveal absolutely all data that they have based any regulation on to interested parties. Of course the idea came from business interests who could afford the expertise to critically examine and challenge all the data, and hence tie up new regulation in legal technicalities, basically limiting the power of agencies whose job it is to protect the environment or citizens' health. Clever, and not really that surprising that business interests that see their actions limited by regulation will resist that regulation.

In the creepy category I would put the "creation science" and religiously motivated questioning of many issues to do with reproductive rights and womens health. I had never heard of intelligent design maybe five years ago, but now it has arrived in the UK from the States and is popping up all over the world. Mooney's book outlines just how successful a couple of people in one think tank, the Discovery Insitute, and not a lab have been in creating a discourse that the religious right were just waiting for; managing to alter the public debate even though it has had basically no impact on science at all.

He raises interesting and fundamental questions about the role of scientists in politics, accepting that it is fundamentally undemocratic to raise them to the level of Platonic philosopher-kings: it is a bit like the military, they are the professionals, but they have to remain under civilian control. But just like a prime minister would be well advised to listen to her generals if contemplating military action, leaders should listen to the scientists, and not cherry-pick what they say. The situation in the US where scientists have been asked for their political views before being invited to join scientific committees in their area of expertise makes a mockery of seeking expert help for policy making.


Anonymous said...

Do you think that this would be readable by someone with very little knowledge of politics but a fair grounding in science?


Toby - Northern Light Blog said...

Absolutely. Do you want to borrow?