Bush isn’t the only one who’s anti-science

The Republican War on Science is on the money about the Bush administration. But it neglects to mention the sins of Democrats and even scientists themselves.

Stuart Derbyshire

Topics Science & Tech

Chris Mooney has won widespread praise for his book The Republican War on Science, an attack on the Bush administration’s twisting of scientific evidence.

There is no question that President George W Bush has generated remarkable antipathy within American academic and scientific circles (1). He is accused of raiding the budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to fund pet homeland security projects, and interfering in NIH funding procedures to prevent research money going to approved projects on AIDS and homosexuality. His stance on stem cells is ridiculed, and his links to big coal, gas and oil are seen as a barrier to proper White House discussion of environmental issues. Bush is accused of shielding himself from scientific critique by loading advisory committees with Republican scientists, and entertaining scientific mavericks on abortion, evolution and missile defence.

There is good reason for many of these attacks, and Mooney provides considerable grist for the anti-Bush mill. He explains how Republicans have manipulated the inherent uncertainty in science to ensure that Congress rarely hears any consensus opinion that may damage a Bush policy. Using methods and strategies pioneered by the tobacco industry, Republicans put forward contrarian scientists who say what the Republicans want to hear. The body of scientific evidence can be sidestepped as hired experts scream and disagree; nothing is resolved, and policy remains unaffected by science.

This approach has been used with variable success to maintain opposition to Kyoto; to provide an apparent link between abortion and breast cancer; and to support the introduction of intelligent design to school curricula. Mooney rightly comments that this ‘flagrant twisting of research findings to humour a particular political view violates the integrity of science by treating its conclusions as mere political fodder, rather than useful information to be considered in its full context’.

What is as concerning as the contents of Mooney’s book, however, is the vast number of omissions. Republicans can certainly be criticised for their cynical approach, but Mooney fails to address past and present liberal manipulations of science. While it is true that most climate scientists believe the Earth is warming, Mooney ignores arguments over the extent and implications of any warming. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has suggested that the Earth’s temperature will rise anywhere between 0.5 and 6.5 degrees Celsius in the next 100 years, but there is little consensus on the precise figure (2). This is important, since a change of less than two degrees Celsius is likely to have negligible or even benign effects, while a change of three degrees Celsius and beyond is likely to be much more destructive (2).

An obvious reason why there is so little consensus is because modelling climate change is very difficult. Most computer climate simulations, for example, suggest a sharp warming in the low troposphere (the layer of air from just above the Earth’s surface to about eight kilometres up) but measurements of the troposphere find less warming than predicted. Such inconsistencies are not unusual and reflect the vast number of variables that can enter a model – clouds, ground temperatures, air pressures, soil moisture, ocean currents, vegetation, population changes, energy consumption, to name a few – and the high degree of uncertainty in the prediction and measurement of these factors. Consequently different models can provide for radically different predictions of future warming, with variable implications for policy (3).

In the past, scientists might have hedged their predictions and provided caveats that were reasonable if infuriating to their political sponsors. A phenomenon that Mooney does not comment on is the apparent increasing willingness of scientists to abandon uncertainty in pursuit of policy changes that they see as desirable. Promoting environmental protection is seen by many scientists as a necessity that trumps any doubts they may have about their data. Even worse, scientists may engage in alarmism to promote their own field of research – attracting funding, media attention and political influence.

While Mooney is quick to denounce the pernicious influence of the fossil fuel industry he does not consider the financial, ideological and personal interests that may promote opportunism by scientists and their activist or media supporters. There have been multiple examples of scientists and their supporters peddling outlandish theories of disease and disaster (AIDS, SARS, mad cow disease, grey goo destruction, death by sugar and fat, terrorist threats, and so on) that Mooney either ignores or mentions with approval.

Scientific opportunism was evident when Bush gave his now infamous stem-cell speech. The president argued that scientists could use the 60 stem-cell lines available as of 9 August 2001, but that federal funding would no longer be provided to develop new lines from human embryos or to conduct work on any new lines developed elsewhere. Mooney points out that this compromise left scientists with very little material for research, actually far fewer than even the 60 lines promised. But what Mooney fails to note is that several prominent scientists lined up behind Bush to congratulate him for his courage, and that major scientific bodies, including the American Society for Cell Biology and the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, issued statements of support.

Mooney is right when he says that Republicans are using science to advance moral arguments that they are otherwise failing to win. Republicans have, for example, deliberately sown doubt and confusion on the role of evolution in natural history in order to promote Biblical accounts of creation. Republicans know that direct arguments from faith are less likely to hold sway in an increasingly secular America.

Nevertheless, Mooney doesn’t acknowledge that some of Bush’s moral arguments do have purchase, or at least go largely unchallenged. When Bush talks about the moral value of an embryo, very few scientists are prepared to dismiss that view as metaphysical nonsense. Instead, scientists appeal to the great cures that will flow from stem-cell research. This is a valuable argument, but when it is the only one we have there are problems. As I have argued before, if those cures do not arrive then the basis for supporting stem-cell research crumbles (see Stop stemming the research). Mooney admits that Democrats have overplayed the medical benefits of stem-cell research in their effort to win votes and support, but he apparently fails to realise that the hype is inevitable if the moral arguments are not being tackled.

Perhaps Mooney has encountered too many fake arguments and too much manufactured controversy to recognise that there are still genuine arguments to be had. And perhaps he has developed so strong a distaste for Republican hype that he misses misrepresentation from other quarters. The Republicans have certainly been cynical and manipulative in their use of science to promote their own policy ends. While deplorable, this is hardly surprising. What is surprising is how docile, submissive and opportunist scientists have been when presenting their work and arguing for their own interests. It is to our shame that this weakness of science has allowed the Republicans to take such gratuitous advantage.

Stuart Derbyshire is senior lecturer at the University of Birmingham School of Psychology.

Buy the Republican War on Science, published by Basic Books, December 2005, from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA).

(1) See the Union of Concerned Scientists website

(2) Global warming – where’s the consensus?, John Gillott; Full of hot air, Reason, October 2005

(3) Full of hot air, Reason, October 2005

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Topics Science & Tech


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