Book Shelf, Book 4- The Republican War on Science

February 15, 2005



By Chris Mooney 
Basic Books, $24.95

Here's a news flash: President George Bush and some of his minions have targeted scientists who don't share their agenda. They have intimidated certain government researchers, reassigned those who cause trouble for key constituencies and discouraged an entire generation of biologists, climatologists and other professionals from ever working on the federal payroll.

If Chris Mooney had written that book, he would have produced a work of global impact. Instead, he reaches for the stars. He posits the argument that the entire Republican Party has declared war on the scientific method. It's a careful dissection of GOP policies, laden with all the right caveats. Unfortunately, it reads like a book aimed at people who already believe the Bush administration has an anti-science agenda, instead of those who need some convincing.

Mooney, a first-time author who is also Washington correspondent for Seed magazine, has assembled a wide array of documents to make his sweeping case. He shows how former House Speaker Newt Gingrich – "the science lover on the one hand, the science abuser on the other" – dismantled the Office of Technology Assessment. He documents how certain Republicans used the mantra of "sound science" to discredit studies showing that tobacco is deadly, mercury is toxic, global warming is real and obesity is a growing threat to millions across the globe.

Mooney notes that liberal activists have abused science to advance their own causes, such as animal rights and a land free of biotech crops. But those sentences amount to just a few crumpets in a 14-chapter, 342-page meal.

No doubt, there are many GOP leaders who are scientifically illiterate and make decisions on research based on orders from Karl Rove, Gary Bauer and corporate CEOs. On the other hand, there are many Republican moderates – such as Sherwood Boehlert and Arlen Specter – who are strong advocates of independent science. They are MIA in "The War." Nor are there interviews with top conservatives in the GOP, such as Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas or Rep. Richard Pombo of California. Both might have provided some important – and revealing – insights.

Bereft of any real communication with those in power, Mooney leaves us with some alarming conclusions.

"The politicization of science presents a severe challenge to modern democratic governments," he writes in his epilogue. "The advent of the modern conservative movement, its takeover of the Republican Party and its ultimate triumph under the administration of George W. Bush have brought us to a point where a true divorce between democratic government and technocratic expertise seems conceivable."

Sorry Chris, but the divorce between democracy and technocracy has been ongoing for some time. Ever since Ben Franklin flew a kite in a storm and had the means to publicize it, science has been politicized. These days, if you take a scientist out for a drink, he or she will rant and rave like a partisan hack. Although most good scientists keep an open mind about their research, their values often determine what they investigate, so long as there is money to finance it.

Here in California, a bastion of the Democratic Party, scientists were the driving force behind the state's new $3 billion embryonic stem cell institute. This agency, created by a ballot initiative, is unaccountable to the Legislature, and enjoys exemptions from state open-meeting requirements. Many academics would call this agency a victory for science and a rebuff of the Bush administration. But it is it a victory for democracy? Mooney doesn't begin to explore this question. It doesn't fit into his thesis.

I'll admit, while disappointed in this book, I am also a little jealous. Mooney has produced the "It-Book" on a subject that many of us at SEJ have incrementally reported over the years, but not pulled together in a comprehensive form. Now Mooney is being quoted and courted on a topic that undoubtedly deserves wide attention.

But that is the challenge of both journalism and science. Whoever gets there first gets to define the substance of the debate. Standing the test of time is another matter.

Stuart Leavenworth is an editorial writer and columnist for The Sacramento Bee

** From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal Winter, 2005