Thursday, September 15, 2005

Chris Mooney: The Republican War on Science

U.S. Food Policy has been covering examples of government actions that undermine the best scientific information on diet and health, but is there a larger pattern? From weblogger Chris Mooney's new book, The Republican War on Science:

At its most basic level, the modern Right's tension with science springs from conservatism, a political philosophy that generally resists change. The dynamism of science—its constant onslaught on old orthodoxies, its rapid generation of new technological possibilities—presents an obvious challenge to more static worldviews. From Galileo to Darwin and beyond, this conflict has played out repeatedly over the course of history. Consider conservative thinker Edmund Burke's famous denunciation of the Enlightenment as an age of "sophisters, economists, and calculators" in his Reflections on the Revolution in France. Perhaps no line better captures the tension between conservatism as a political philosophy and the dynamism of scientific inquiry.

Yet conservative philosophy alone cannot explain the sweeping controversy over science that has emerged during George W. Bush's presidency. Another ingredient must go into the mix: raw politics. During its rise to political triumph and domination of the Republican Party, the modern conservative movement has relied heavily on two key constituencies with an overriding interest in the outcomes of scientific research in certain areas: industry and the religious Right. Companies subject to government regulation regularly invoke "science" to thwart federal controls and protect the bottom line. Religious conservatives, meanwhile, seek to use science to bolster their moralistic agenda. The Bush White House, in true modern conservative fashion, has bent over backward for both groups.

Other factors, too, contribute to a standoff between the conservative community and the scientific one. Modern conservatism's broad distrust of "big government" worsens the tensions with science, much of which either depends on federal funding or takes place at government agencies. Early in Bush's first term, one conservative even warned that "science moles" lurking in the federal bureaucracy might sabotage the president's agenda.

The Right's oft-expressed disdain for "liberal" higher education—epitomized by Bush strategist Karl Rove's smirking definition of a Democrat as "somebody with a doctorate"—fans the conflict as well. Today's "red state" conservatives nourish a deep suspicion of the nation's urban and coastal liberal enclaves, home to many leading universities and research centers. To counter mainstream science, economics, and political analysis coming out of these universities (as well as "liberal" think tanks such as the Brookings Institution), the Right has created its own favorable sources of expertise and analysis—think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, and many others.

Finally, conservatives' views on science have been shaped as much by their political enemies as by their friends. In particular, the environmental movement—a core Democratic constituency—draws regularly on science to demonstrate the harms of various forms of environmental degradation and to demand stronger government regulation. In political spats with environmentalists, conservatives have thus learned to attack not just policies favored by environmentalists, but also the scientific information used to support those policies—which they repeatedly denounce as "junk science." To hear the modern Right tell it, you would think that environmental science, as conducted at America's leading universities, suffers from endemic corruption on a scale reminiscent of Tammany Hall.

Given all of these tendencies, a grand clash between modern American science and modern American conservatism may well have been inevitable.

In domestic food policy, does one political party do better than the other in representing the best possible science?

In an earlier passage of the book's online excerpt, before the part that I quoted above, Mooney errs by omission in treating the stem cell debate as a purely scientific argument instead of a more complicated mix of science and ethics.

Mooney speaks in the Boston area on September 21 (Porter Square Books, Cambridge, 7:00 p.m.) and September 22 (Student Pugwash, MIT, Cambridge, 5:30 p.m.).

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