Science and a Democratic-controlled Congress

Let's hear it for the "mumbo-jumbo of peer-reviewed documents."

Published October 19, 2006 4:17PM (EDT)

Burned by 2004, I've been doing my best this time around to avoid the echo chamber of lefty blogs telling me what I want to hear about the possibility of Democrats taking control of Congress. But when the Wall Street Journal starts predicting a blowout, the siren song gets hard to resist.

This is not because I think the Democratic Party will come roaring into the new Congress with an inspiring legislative agenda. It's not even because I'm looking forward to what Democrats could do with a little old-fashioned subpoena power. It's much more simple than that. Just a little thing like who gets called as a witness for congressional hearings will make a big difference in bringing some semblance of sanity back to political discourse.

Let's look at, to take just one of an almost infinite number of possibilities, what the change in power in the House and Senate in 1994 meant for the problem of global warming. I'm going to draw heavily here on "Defeating Kyoto: The Conservative Movement's Impact on U.S. Climate Change Policy," a paper published in 2003 by Aaron McCright and Riley Dunlap. If you skip the first five or so pages of theoretical setup (I mean, is there a better way to kill off interest in a topic such as how the Republicans pooh-poohed climate change than by calling it "the social construction of non-problematicity"?) the paper offers a pretty useful look at the nuts and bolts of what a change in the "political opportunity structure" entails.

The Republican takeover of Congress was a kick in the stomach for the environmental movement: "Immediately after the 104th Congress began, the House Committee on Science played a heightened role in attacking existing environmental policies and programs while promoting anti-environmental policies. Under the leadership of a handful of powerful Republicans, the Committee on Science led an all-out assault on existing environmental regulatory research programs. For example, Rep. Tom Delay (R-Texas) and Rep. John Doolittle (R-California) each introduced bills to repeal the ongoing accelerated phaseout of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). Also, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-California) and Rep. Robert Walker (R-Pennsylvania) introduced bills that proposed sizable cuts in environmental research, particularly in climate change and energy research. The House of Representatives later passed these cuts."

The Committee on Science, and Congress as a whole, also began a war against scientists. As Rep. Doolittle proudly declared, no longer would legislators get "involved in the mumbo-jumbo of peer reviewed documents." McCright and Dunlap analyze witness lists for 37 major congressional hearings on global warming between 1990 and 1997.

  • In 1992, conventional (not including "leading skeptics") natural scientists were responsible for 47.9 percent of all testimonies. By 1997, the figure had dropped to 3.8 percent.
  • In 1993, the percentage of testimonies by "individuals with strong ties to corporate America" was 10 percent. In 1997, it was 53 percent.

Meanwhile, as the percentage of conventional natural scientists plummeted, the percentage represented by the murderers row of climate skeptics -- Sallie Baliunas, Robert Balling Jr., Richard Lindzen, Patrick Michaels and S. Fred Singer -- jumped up, reaching parity with the "conventional scientists" by the mid-'90s.

Of course, the climate skeptics no doubt consider themselves good old natural scientists. But when you trace, as McCright and Dunlap do, their intimate connections with the conservative think tanks that provided the faux intellectual cover for the Republican assault against the mainstream consensus of scientists working in climate change, their self-identification starts to look paper-thin. There's no getting around it: The 1994 Republican takeover of the House and Senate signaled the end of political influence for the clear majority of scientists whose analysis of the real world happened to contradict the corporate-ass-kissing ideology of the new party in power.

It is long past time for science to return to politics.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Environment Global Warming Globalization How The World Works Republican Party Science