The know-nothings

Pro-business Republicans and the religious right have joined in a frighteningly successful campaign to undermine the findings of science.

Topics: Stem cells, Global Warming, Evolution, Creationism, Science, Books,

The know-nothings

It took almost no time for the devastation of New Orleans, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, to become the newest beachhead in the science wars. On the evening of Sept. 1, when the waters were still rising and we had no idea how much worse things were still going to get, Brit Hume devoted an extended segment of his Fox News program to interviewing Patrick J. Michaels, an environmental scientist at the University of Virginia.

Michaels’ purpose, and Hume’s, was to rebut a widely circulated Op-Ed article by Ross Gelbspan in the Boston Globe arguing that Katrina, and a host of other natural disasters, had been caused or exacerbated by the effects of global warming. A likable, slightly acerbic fellow who refers to himself as a “weather nerd,” Michaels told the Fox audience in judicious, neutral-sounding language that there isn’t much correlation between global warming and hurricane strength — and added, almost as an afterthought, that there isn’t much we can do about global warming anyway.

I don’t know whether Chris Mooney, author of the profoundly discouraging new book “The Republican War on Science,” watched Hume’s broadcast. Probably not — Mooney grew up in New Orleans, and one imagines he had other priorities that night. But if he saw it, or heard about it later, he could only have rolled his eyes, not in surprise but in exasperation: Here we go again. In fairness, Hume told his audience that Michaels is a fellow at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. But he didn’t tell them that Michaels’ work at Cato has been extensively funded by oil and gas companies, or that he’s also affiliated with the George C. Marshall Institute, an industry-supported, right-wing think tank almost exclusively devoted to debunking global warming concerns. Nor did he mention that Michaels edits World Climate Report, a newsletter (and now a blog) primarily funded by the coal industry.

Even more to the point, Hume didn’t reveal that Gelbspan and Michaels are longtime adversaries in the so-called global warming debate; their feud goes back at least 10 years, to a Harper’s article in which Gelbspan outed Michaels as one of the energy industry’s favorite mouthpieces. There are legitimate criticisms one could raise about Gelbspan’s melodramatic Globe Op-Ed: Nobody can say, with any degree of scientific certainty, that global warming caused Katrina (or the other natural disasters he references). But in general terms, Gelbspan’s position reflects the consensus view of climate scientists all over the world that human activity is gradually raising global temperatures and that the consequences may be catastrophic. Michaels, on the other hand, is an exceedingly well-compensated scientific contrarian, a key player in one of the right wing’s biggest industries: the manufacture of doubt.

“The Republican War on Science” is nothing short of a landmark in contemporary political reporting. Mooney compiles and presents an extraordinary mountain of evidence, from several different fields, to demonstrate that the conservative wing of the Republican Party has launched an unprecedented and highly successful campaign to sow widespread confusion about the conclusions of science and its usefulness in political decision making. Using methods and strategies pioneered under the Reagan administration by the tobacco industry and anti-environmental forces, an alliance of social conservatives and corporate advocates has paralyzed or obfuscated public discussion of science on a whole range of issues. Not just climate change but also stem cell research, evolutionary biology, endangered-species protection, diet and obesity, abortion and contraception, and the effects of environmental toxins have all become arenas of systematic and deliberate bewilderment.

Mooney quotes an internal strategy document from the tobacco company Brown and Williamson, written around 1969: “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.” B&W and the other tobacco giants achieved no better than a stalemate in their long battle against government regulation, but whatever chain-smoking, skinny-tied executive wrote that memo ought to be beatified by the conservative movement. With those two sentences he became its accidental Karl Marx, launching an antiscientific counterrevolution that rages around us today.

No matter how much you think you know about Republican distortion and misuse of science, Mooney’s account will startle and perhaps terrify you. Many conservatives, he argues, have stopped regarding science as an objective search for truth (conditional as that truth necessarily is). Instead, they see it as just another realm of naked power politics or, less cynically but more ominously, as a contest between a pseudo-socialistic, tree-hugging worldview and one that is avowedly pro-Christian and pro-capitalist. Furthermore, right-wingers have mystified this conflict almost completely, cloaking it in self-defined terms of “sound science” (i.e., science that agrees with them, or reaches no conclusions at all) versus “junk science” (anything that might impinge on corporate profits or conflict with the most extreme version of Christian morality).

In several respects this book is a companion piece to Thomas Frank’s highly influential “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” Arguably, it answers one of Frank’s conundrums by providing the philosophical glue that sticks together the two halves of the GOP’s unlikely post-1980 coalition. Affluent big-business conservatives and pro-life “moral values” conservatives (mostly middle class or working class) may have opposing economic interests, as Frank would argue. But they share an urgent desire to undermine public confidence in science, if necessary by manufacturing illegitimate doubt or creating, as Mooney puts it, “a semblance of controversy where it doesn’t actually exist.”

As he further explains, this campaign has been buttressed by the numerous conservative think tanks created in the past 30 years, by the relentless spinning of the Sean Hannity-Rush Limbaugh wing of the media and by an increasingly powerful congressional oligarchy of pro-business, anti-science Republicans. As Mooney documents extensively, Capitol Hill’s worst offenders are probably Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, a self-anointed climate expert who has declared global warming “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people,” and Pennsylvania’s pro-creationist Sen. Rick Santorum.

Perhaps most effectively of all, the right’s war on science has exploited the mainstream media’s fetish for journalistic “balance,” regardless of its relevance to reality. Despite the overwhelming consensus of mainstream science on global warming, newspaper articles and TV reports still dutifully call upon the shrinking universe of contrarians like Michaels. (Like most climate change skeptics, Michaels has slowly retreated, along with the polar icecaps. He used to claim that global warming either wasn’t happening or wasn’t caused by human activity; now he admits to both, but argues that it can’t be stopped and that its potential effects have been exaggerated.)

Similarly, the media has passed along reports emanating from the right-wing fringe suggesting a link between abortion and breast cancer, although virtually no mainstream scientists see any evidence to support such a connection. News accounts about the herbicide atrazine, which is widely used by American corn growers and may be connected to the worldwide decline of frogs and other amphibians, have suggested that the issue is muddled and controversial. If that’s true, it’s only because the chemical industry and its supporters have made it so: Research suggesting that atrazine interferes with the endocrine systems of amphibians has been published in major peer-reviewed scientific journals, while virtually all the conflicting studies have been funded by Syngenta, the company that manufactures atrazine.

If global warming remains the pro-business conservatives’ primary front in the science wars, religious conservatives are more interested in two other issues that have received wide attention: embryonic stem cell research and the teaching of evolution. As throughout “The Republican War on Science,” Mooney’s reporting on these issues is exemplary and his writing admirably clear. But there isn’t much surprising new information here; if you’ve followed these issues, you already know that the Bush administration and its allies have managed to alienate nearly the entire scientific establishment. On one hand, there is the substance of the policies: Bush has sharply restricted federally funded stem cell research and has endorsed the teaching of the pseudo-creationist position called “intelligent design.”

Beyond that, the administration has tried to mislead the public about the nature of its decisions, pretending to embrace science while adopting extreme antiscientific positions. George W. Bush’s August 2001 announcement that he would freeze the number of stem cell lines eligible for federal research included the claim that there were more than 60 “genetically diverse” lines available. That made the decision seem scientifically palatable, but the number wasn’t real then and is less so now. (Again, this is something the mainstream media took months to figure out.) Mooney estimates that 22 stem cell lines qualify for federal funding, and of those only seven or eight may be scientifically useful. Simply put, none of the potential benefits of stem cell research — therapies for Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, transplantable tissues, cutting-edge disease research — is likely to be realized by drawing on such a small pool of genetic lines.

Bush’s recent comment that intelligent design should be taught in schools, alongside or in addition to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, came after Mooney had finished his manuscript. Again, he can’t have been surprised, since virtually the entire Christian right, a key element of Bush’s governing coalition, has lined up behind intelligent design: Donald Wildmon’s American Family Association, James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum, the Concerned Women for America and so on. For political leaders like Bush and Santorum, that hasn’t quite been enough. They have relied on the idea that genuine scientific disagreement exists over the validity of evolutionary theory, and that schools need to “teach the controversy,” as intelligent-design supporters put it.

As was recently reported in a New York Times series on the battle over evolution, intelligent design has been vigorously supported by the Discovery Institute, a formerly moderate think tank that has now become the intellectual home of antievolutionism. In 2001, Discovery took out a newspaper ad signed by roughly 70 scientists, who declared that they were “skeptical of the claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life” — in other words, they rejected Darwinism.

This list has become Exhibit A in the argument that genuine scientific controversy exists over evolution, and to the layperson it certainly looked impressive. Bush and Santorum are not likely, however, to mention the National Center for Science Education’s hilarious response. The NCSE began gathering names of scientists who agreed that evolution was “a vital, well-supported, unifying principle of the biological sciences” — but restricted membership to those whose names were Steve, Stephanie or some other variation of Stephen. As of Monday, “Project Steve” — named in honor of the late Stephen Jay Gould — had 600 signatories.

But while scientists, political junkies and lay readers alike have been understandably mesmerized by these moral-cum-theological crusades, the corporate right has embarked on an immense stealth campaign to undermine science as a regulatory tool. The details of this clandestine effort, conducted mainly in Washington backrooms and the fine print of obscure legislation, are not sexy or glamorous, but it’s here that Mooney’s reporting reaches its most impressive heights. As he demonstrates, a little-known lobbyist named Jim J. Tozzi — a former jazz musician turned corporate hired gun — got “two sentences of legalese” stuck into a 2000 appropriations bill, and thereby handed big business one of its largest legislative victories in history.

Tozzi’s bill, known as the Data Quality Act, has done what Newt Gingrich’s 1994 “Republican Revolution” was unable to do: It has reformed the regulatory process such that big money almost always has the upper hand. As Mooney puts it, the Bush administration has interpreted the act as “an unprecedented and cumbersome process by which government agencies must field complaints over the data, studies and reports they release to the public. It is a science abuser’s dream come true.” Essentially, business interests are now empowered not merely to challenge government regulations (they could already do that) but to challenge the value of “scientific information that could potentially lead to regulation somewhere down the road.”

Any time a scientific study emerges that industry doesn’t like — on the effects of secondhand smoke, the link between atrazine and frog deaths, the near extinction of an endangered fish in a dammed river — lawyers and lobbyists can now tie the science in knots for years to come, requesting reviews and re-reviews and even challenging the findings in court. Aided by friends like Fox News online columnist Steven Milloy — who seems to view all claims of dangerous pollution or species endangerment as “junk science” — corporate advocates can effectively swamp any potential regulation in a mixture of public confusion and “paralysis by analysis.”

Mooney’s litany of conservative assaults on science goes well beyond a listing of interlinked but essentially ad hoc right-wing positions. Rather, this is a well-coordinated campaign, perhaps most noteworthy for the canny and cynical way it manipulates contemporary public doubt about the meaning and value of science. As Thomas Murray, president of the Hastings Center, a bioethics think tank, puts it, “What’s intriguing about the Bush administration, given their views on most issues, is that they have a postmodern take on science. It’s the first postmodern science administration we’ve ever known.”

While Mooney explores this question with his customary clarity and reasonableness, he doesn’t do quite as much with it as he could. Whether knowingly or not, the Bush administration and its allies have cashed in on the findings of the contemporary academic field known as science and technology studies (also as the history and/or philosophy of science). Following such philosophers as Ludwig Wittgenstein, Michel Foucault and Paul Feyerabend, this field has explored science as a cultural phenomenon, arguing (for instance) that even when scientists deal with near-certain facts, the understanding of scientific knowledge and the social uses to which it is put are always culturally specific.

It’s impossible to say how much this arcane field of inquiry has crept into the public consciousness, but let’s put it this way: Ordinary people clearly don’t trust science the way they used to. Mooney, like Frank, points to Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign, with its contempt for the “pinhead intellectuals” of the Eastern establishment, as the moment when this meme was established in right-wing ideology. At the time, moderate Republicans ridiculed this tendency, worried that it would doom their party to know-nothing irrelevance; little did they know how dominant it would become.

One could argue, however, that the real roots of science’s contemporary dilemma run much deeper. Conservative contempt for the intellectual and scientific elite is closely akin to the left-leaning, postmodernist spirit of science and technology studies; both reflect the realization that science is a human endeavor and as such prone to errors, blind spots and both ideological and economic manipulation. With Hiroshima, the Holocaust and Chernobyl in the rear-view mirror, the planet poisoned by toxic chemicals and a new frontier of cloning and genetic engineering lying just ahead, it’s reasonable to view the scientific project in toto as a morally cloudy exercise.

Furthermore, doubt is an essential element of scientific inquiry, as any honest scientist will tell you. The great strength of the scientific method lies in its production of testable and falsifiable hypotheses, but it yields absolute truth only gradually, if at all. If our certainty about such things as heliocentrism and the basic laws of earthbound physics now approaches 100 percent, it’s only because they have survived decades or centuries of ruthless inquiry and no better explanations have emerged.

Mooney is especially sensible in discussing the questions that arise here. It is legitimate and even necessary for scientists to challenge the consensus views held by their colleagues. Searching for flaws in widely accepted theories and flying in the face of contemporary wisdom are crucial elements in scientific progress. The germ theory of disease and the idea of continental drift (known today as plate tectonics) were viewed as looney-tunes notions when first proposed; now they are understood as among the very greatest scientific discoveries. We can’t know right now which current scientific belief will look stupid in the 22nd century, but we can be pretty sure something will.

So isn’t it legitimate for Michaels and the other global warming skeptics to poke holes in the dominant scientific paradigm? Of course it is. Fewer and fewer scientists believe they’re right, which doesn’t say much for their probability of success — but Michaels has his own interpretation of the existing data and there’s no reason to doubt his intellectual honesty. What isn’t legitimate is for politicians like Inhofe to stage pseudo-scientific show trials, pitting one lonely contrarian against the overwhelming weight of scientific opinion, and then use the scintilla of doubt thereby created as a reason to do nothing about global warming.

In the words of Rep. George Brown, a California Democrat who has been a leading science watchdog on Capitol Hill, congressional Republicans with little or no scientific background seem to have convinced themselves that “scientific truth is more likely to be found at the fringes of science than at the center.” This is an ideological or perhaps a theological view, but if science is to have any validity in the formation of public policy, then political leaders must understand and respect the scientific consensus.

As historian of science Naomi Oreskes tells Mooney, “Scientific knowledge is the intellectual and social consensus of affiliated experts based on the weight of available empirical evidence, and evaluated according to accepted methodologies.” As noted above, scientists have the freedom and indeed the responsibility to challenge that consensus; with rare exceptions, politicians and the rest of us lack the vocabulary or authority to do so. (Inhofe’s self-administered curriculum in climate science appears to have comprised only authors he already knew he agreed with.)

That’s not the same thing as saying that politicians are bound to make their decisions according to scientific consensus, another point that Mooney makes clear. All we can require from political leaders is honesty. If President Bush had simply said he believed stem cell research was immoral, or Inhofe had said that the economic costs of responding to global warming were too high, those would be legitimate pillars on which to stand. (And others of course would be free to disagree.) In fact, as Mooney notes, the Clinton administration admitted that epidemiological research suggested that needle exchange programs would slow the spread of HIV, but rejected them anyway.

But while science may in some ways have fallen into disrepute, we still live in a scientific and technological age. Conservatives and liberals fly on the same aircraft and rely on the same medical advances to save the lives of their loved ones. So the right has found it necessary to cloak its decisions in ever murkier versions of science, where a more honest conservative ideology might frame them as moral or economic imperatives.

As Mooney puts it, the Bush-era right has pushed the politicization of science to the point of crisis, and not just political crisis. It’s really more like an epistemological crisis; consider the legendary anecdote from Ron Suskind’s October 2004 New York Times Magazine article, in which an unnamed administration official referred mockingly to “the reality-based community.” Suskind writes: “I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.’”

Mooney offers an epilogue in which he suggests that a political alliance of Democrats, independents and moderate Republicans horrified by their own party’s “systematic willingness to misrepresent or even concoct its own ‘science’” can reverse the current trend. But within his pages you won’t find much reason for optimism. By turning science into an endlessly fudgeable tool of politics, and rejecting any notion of scientific consensus in favor of a landscape where all science is either liberal (“junk”) or conservative (“sound”), the American right has fulfilled the darkest prognoses of postmodern philosophy. In this view, science is indeed just an artifact of culture; it has no more objectivity than astrology or dowsing or medieval Catholic theology.

From the point of view of intellectual history, this is a fascinating turn of events. Unhappily, it also has practical consequences. Harvard physicist Lewis Branscomb has written that science as an element of democratic governance, formerly “a strong source of unity in the electorate,” has been fatally eroded. “Policymaking by ideology requires that reality be set aside,” he goes on; “it can be maintained only by moving towards ever more authoritarian forms of government.”

More concretely, and far more eerily, Mooney writes in his introduction that the Bush administration’s refusal to consider mainstream scientific opinion on global warming “could cost our children dearly.” He continues: “That includes children not just in low-lying New Orleans, where I myself grew up, but in low-lying Bangladesh and other nations across the globe.” One imagines that the awful irony of this sentence pains Mooney more every day: At least Bangladeshi children have a government that still belongs to the reality-based community.

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