By Chris Mooney
Author Chris Mooney recently appeared on Comedy Central's The Daily Show; he sat on the couch next to Jon Stewart and gave the short version of the basic premise of The Republican War on Science — essentially, that the Bush Administration has shown unprecedented scorn for any scientific finding with the potential to have a negative impact on industrial profit margins or that fails to serve the ideological aims of the Christian Right.
The audience did not appear overly shocked to hear this.
As a senior correspondent for The American Prospect and Washington correspondent for Seed, an iconoclastic magazine devoted to advances in science and the cultural changes that accompany them, Mooney has long been at the forefront of public discourse on the intersection of science and politics.
The politicization of science, which Mooney describes as "a corruption of the communications channels between credible experts and policymakers," is ugly business these days. Name-calling and philippics seem to have replaced reasoned debate. Emerging questions are no longer met with careful consideration of known facts but with partisan categorization and ad hominem assaults from the Right.
Contraception, abortion, stem-cell research, and evolution are particularly hot button items. "Junk Science," suggesting that condoms reduce the risk of unwanted pregnancy or sexually-transmitted diseases, for example, is attacked with "Sound Science" that slams down its fist and announces condoms aren't 100-percent effective (one wonders how "not 100-percent effective" is a counter-argument to reduction of STDs). Those who rail against the teaching of evolution in public schools are also examined in the book for their skill in distorting what science is and equating the word "theory" with "a haphazard guess." These are prime tactics of the War on Science: playing with definitions and creating a climate of confusion for political advantage.
The smoke-and-mirrors science strategy has long enjoyed a place in politics. Tobacco giants and corporate titans eager to boost profits by eliminating costly environmental controls made significant gains in the Reagan years by whispering words of doubt in the right ears — usually on the Right. Mooney points out: "Big Tobacco and its allies had helped popularize the term "sound science" to describe an agenda that had little to do with scientific rigor, and everything to do with blocking government controls on industry by raising the burden of scientific proof required to justify action."
The Republican War on Science does tend toward repetitiveness, unfortunately, and some of its arguments may leave those readers lacking a background in science a bit confused at times. The opening argument Mooney uses, for example, centers on a discrepancy between the number and viability of existing stem-cell lines and the number cited in official statements from the White House in justifying its actions.
He said/she said quarrels over whose number was right might seem petty, but it illustrates the main problem. The politicization of science, exacerbated by the decline of science education, leaves far too many not knowing who or what to believe.
Which is, sad to say, just the way some like it.
Abuse of science can be found on all sides of the political arena, of course, and Mooney demonstrates this as well. Left-wing pundits are often uncomfortable with scientific findings suggestive of genetic underpinnings of behavior for fear of what policies might be written. This, then, frames the problem nicely in a question: should the scientific method be employed to further our knowledge or should it be used to further our agendas?
Reviewer Jason A. Zwiker is a freelance writer in Charleston.