Book Review: Scientizing politics

Book Review

Scientizing politics

The Republican War on Science by Chris Mooney. New York: Basic Books, 2005, 351 pp.

Daniel Sarewitz

The Republican War on Science offers a catalog of Republican-led confrontations with mainstream science, ranging from attacks on evolution and denial of climate change to the stacking of government advisory committees with industry scientists and the blocking of federal funds for stem cell research. As an unapologetic critic of the Bush administration, I was eager to read a penetrating political analysis of how the current regime has sought to wring partisan advantage from the complex and difficult relationship between politics and science. Alas, what I found was a tiresome polemic masquerading as a defense of scientific purity.

Author Chris Mooney asserts in the book’s earliest pages that he is out to defend science, not to advance a political agenda: “Except to take stances against inappropriate legislative interference with science and to advocate a strengthening of our government’s science policy apparatus the text takes no position on questions of pure policy [emphasis added].”

Yet Mooney betrays this claim from the book’s opening salvo, which he aims at President Bush’s decision to restrict federally funded embryonic stem cell research to existing stem cell lines. “Bush’s nationally televised claim— that [there were] ‘more than sixty genetically diverse’ embryonic stem cell-lines . . .—counts as one of the most flagrant purely scientific [emphasis added] deceptions ever perpetrated by a U.S. president on an unsuspecting public.” The actual number of available stem cell lines turned out to be considerably less, probably about 22. Consequently, opportunities for federally funded embryonic stem cell research are more limited than the president had indicated.

Mooney is claiming that the president’s sin against the commonweal lies in the exaggeration of the number of stem cell lines available for research, and has nothing to do with what those stem cell lines might represent. But why would the “unsuspecting public” care about the number of stem cell lines? Obviously, the real point of contention is the fact that the president acted to restrict a type of research that some people find desirable; the subtleties of cell line counting are secondary to this action. And one’s views on stem cell research reflect value judgments about the moral status of the embryo and the moral claim of people who might, in the future, be cured by stem cell therapy. Mooney’s insistence that he is simply protecting the purity of science thus collapses on the very first page.

Mooney tells a story of bad, duplicitous, politically motivated scientists and policymakers on the Republican side, and good, honest, disinterested scientists and policymakers on the Democratic side. He certainly offers up plenty of convincing detail on the pecuniary, ideological, and religious commitments of scientists who support the conservative agenda. Yet the commitments of those on the other side—on his side (indeed, for the most part, on my side)—are almost never discussed. For example, Mooney exposes the financial support that the hydrocarbon industry and conservative think tanks have provided for scientists who are skeptical about climate change, yet he identifies Michael Oppenheimer only as a “Princeton University climate expert” with no mention of Oppenheimer’s many years spent working for the advocacy group Environmental Defense.

And so, whereas the Republicans have their values and interests (and occasionally even some aspects of their personalities) aired, the Democrats are nothing but stick figures. But don’t we Democrats deserve to have our values and personalities explored? Shouldn’t we be proud to proclaim that we are motivated by a belief in, say, the positive and assertive role of government in protecting the environment and health, or our suspicion that corporations might put their desire for profitability above their concern for public well-being?

I guess the point is that this is a War on Science, and whereas war is prosecuted by humans (in this case, intellectually bankrupt enemies of science), science is, in Mooney’s portrayal, supposed to be an activity whose product—knowledge—is independent of the values of those who practice it. Yet Mooney never confronts the reality that scientists on his side of the fence must have values, interests, and personalities just as surely as those on the other side, whom he portrays as consistently corrupt. There can be only one of two reasons for this neglect. Either Mooney has chosen not to portray the values of scientists who line up on the Democratic side because he knows it would weaken his argument and undermine his claim that he is only defending the purity of science, or he actually believes that the scientists on his side are uninfluenced by their values and interests. The reader must therefore decide if the narrator is unreliable or just hopelessly naïve.

Mooney does not appear naïve. He takes pains to show that he understands the complexity of producing and applying scientific knowledge in politically contested arenas. For example, after several chapters devoted to Republican assaults on the science behind environmental and health regulations, Mooney offers this defense of regulatory science: “Many of the studies conducted to determine the appropriateness of government regulatory action cannot proceed under the same circumstances that govern [academic research]. Time and resource constraints—as well as the difficulties of conducting science at the edges of what’s known . . .—often mean that policy-oriented scientific research is of a different nature.” He amplifies this portrayal in a discussion of the controversy over water management in the Klamath River basin: “In the face of scientific uncertainty and insufficient evidence, the agencies exercised their professional judgment about how best to proceed to protect endangered species. …There wasn’t a lot of good evidence to go around, period, and the agencies did the best they could. They certainly didn’t abuse science in any way.” Of course not; the pure of heart love science only for itself.

Yet the very imperfections in science that Mooney must highlight to protect his notion of purity create a political hole big enough to drive a truck through, and the truck that the Republicans are driving is: the ideals of pure science! The conservative “sound science” movement demands that regulatory science satisfy all the sacrosanct canons of the scientific enterprise—peer review, reproducibility, empiricism, transparency, openness. When real-world science falls short of this ideal, as it must, the antiregulatory zealots can dismiss it as “junk science” that is not good enough to justify regulation. Mooney paints this tactic as an abuse of science, but it’s not political conservatives who made up the ideals; they took them from the mainstream scientific community, which since the time of Bacon and Descartes has used them to claim a special place in society for both scientists and the knowledge that scientists produce.

Mooney thus pushes the reader’s nose into a dilemma that annihilates the book’s fundamental premises: If science in the policy arena is not to be measured against this ideal standard, then what alternative measure shall take its place? Whether one views imperfect knowledge as a reason to avoid environmental action (the “junk science” perspective) or to embrace action (the precautionary approach), the choice reflects one’s values, with purity nowhere to be found.

Indeed, throughout the book, Mooney’s polemical fervor blinds him to the political content inherent in all discourse that connects science to human affairs. Returning to embryonic stem cell research, Mooney excoriates the opposition for claiming that “so-called adult stem cells” are a scientifically suitable substitute for those derived from embryos. “Only a political movement that truly disdained science would embrace the stunning fictions of the ‘adult’-stem-cell-only crusade.” Apparently he is unaware that Germany, acutely conscious of its post-World War II responsibility to demonstrate an unconditional respect for human rights, has prohibited the destruction of embryos for research, while allowing and encouraging research on adult stem cells. Does this mean that Germans, like Republicans, must disdain science?

Finally, just as Mooney cannot seriously discuss the ways in which Democrats might use science to advance their own values, neither can he consider the possibility that values are part of the scientific enterprise itself. When he finally turns to what ought to be his easiest target, the fight against evolution, his one-dimensional view of the world can only reveal the obvious: that intelligent design is not really science and that its purveyors seek to insert a culturally conservative religious agenda into the teaching of science. He cannot acknowledge that science brings with it a world-transforming cultural agenda of its own—embodied in the modern notion of progress—for that would reveal that belief in evolution is associated with a value system far more powerful than that of religious fundamentalism.

In the end, Mooney’s desire to distance himself from such a value system simply replays the Democratic electoral defeat of 2002. In Mooney’s world, Republicans may be ruthless ideologues, but Democrats are soulless ciphers. From this perspective, it is easy to understand why Republicans won the election: at least they actually seem to believe in something. Were Karl Rove to read this book, I suspect he would be comforted.


Daniel Sarewitz () is director of the Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes at Arizona State University.