News & Politics

The Republican War on Science

A “shamelessly partisan” look at Republican attempts to smear scientists and their research.

If the title of Chris Mooney’s first book isn’t hint enough of his ideological bent, the first paragraph should clear that up nicely. The book—an account of the GOP’s attempts to smear scientists and their research—opens with President Bush’s decision to allow federal funding for stem-cell research that uses only existing cell lines. Mooney writes that “one can only wonder what Bush and his handlers were thinking, or whether they were thinking at all.”

He has a point: Bush’s claim that a wealth of genetically diverse stem cells already exists turned out to be greatly exaggerated. But from the get-go, Mooney—a Washington journalist and former editor at the American Prospect—establishes a haughty disdain for conservatives that ends up ruining what could have been a smart book.

My favorite instance of Mooney’s staking out the intellectual high ground is when he defines science as “a process—institutionalized at leading universities, research facilities, and scientific journals worldwide—for systematically pursuing knowledge about nature and, in the social sciences, ourselves.”

Leading universities? Is this to suggest that colleges outside the Princeton Review’s top 25 are unworthy of upholding the scientific process? Universities of all sizes and prestige levels—including some community colleges—shoulder the task of pushing science forward.

Mooney treats science as beyond reproach, pursued by people at brand-name universities and dragged through the mud by meddling conservatives. Sometimes this is the case, but I have to wonder whether, as Mooney seems to believe, there is really a right-wing conspiracy to ignore scientific research every time it intersects with policy-making.

Scientific research is, like all research, produced by humans who make mistakes and is always subject to reevaluation. Mooney occasionally pays lip service to this fact, but that doesn’t prevent him from treating science as scripture. Ironic, given how much he bashes evangelists.

That said, he seems to have done his homework. The chapters—covering global warming, obesity, intelligent design, and other hot topics—are peppered with references almost to the point of distraction. The story is always the same: Impeccable science meets the obfuscating forces of the political right, suffers a smear campaign, and gets labeled “junk science.”

I’m willing to believe Mooney’s central premise: that Republicans are less sympathetic to scientific arguments for increased government regulations on industry. It makes sense that a party espousing small government wouldn’t be enthusiastic about legislating regulations, even if there’s compelling research supporting them. And he makes a strong case, at times, for how dirty the GOP’s attempts to devalue the research can get when well-supported facts interfere with pet projects.

Still, the book’s title presupposes that the culprits in such cases are all Republicans, when even Mooney admits, for example, that some pro-agriculture Democrats are equally opposed to the Endangered Species Act and that many moderate Republicans, such as Senator John McCain, have defended science. Maybe Mooney will sell more copies by preaching to the choir, but he won’t win converts.

I wish he had paid more attention to producing a careful, judicious study of how science does—and often doesn’t—affect public policy. I suspect that when everything is added up, the majority of those smearing science will turn out to be Republicans, and enterprising readers will arrive at their own conclusions. But maybe I’m living in a fantasy world where people are willing to reserve judgment for 342 pages.

Shamelessly partisan books such as this will only make the left angrier at George W. Bush—which, five years into his presidency, probably isn’t possible—while confirming the center/right’s suspicion that liberals are snooty intellectuals with no regard for anyone who didn’t attend a “leading university.”

Chris Mooney

Basic Books