Home > Books and culture > Draft review of Mooney

Draft review of Mooney

January 14th, 2006

I’ve done a draft review of Chris Mooney’s Republican War on Science (over the page). Comments much appreciated. I’d prefer comments on the review, and on the process by which the campaign against science identified by Mooney works. There’s plenty of room to discuss the substantive issues of ID theory, GW contrarianism and so on on other threads. That said, feel free to comment on whatever interests you.

Review of: The Republican War on Science by Chris Mooney

What do evolution, human-caused global warming and the adverse health effects of exposure to cigarette smoking have in common? All are well-established scientific facts and all have been vigorously denied by a network of thinktanks, politicians and commentators associated with the Republican Party in the United States.

Of course, disputes over environmental and health issues have been going on for many years, and evolution has always been controversial in the United States. The striking development of the last fifteen years or so is the development of a systematic approach hostile to, and subversive of, all the standard rules of scientific inquiry and treatment of evidence. This approach is referred to by Chris Mooney as The Republican War on Science.

The central rhetorical element of the War on Science is the abandonment of science, as the term in normally understood, in favour of what is called ‘sound science’, a term that first came to prominence with The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition, a body primarily funded by the Philip Morris tobacco company. Broadly speaking, ‘sound science’ is science produced at the behest of relevant industry groups, though mainstream scientific research may be included if its results are politically convenient.

Conversely, ‘junk science’ is any scientific research that produces results inconsistent with the financial and ideological interests associated with the Republican Party. Not surprisingly, research on the dangers of second-hand smoke has been a prominent target, along with climate science and other environmental research. The ‘junk science’ approach is most prominently represented at junkscience.com, a site operated by former TASSC head Steven Milloy and hosted by the Cato Institute, one of the network of industry-funded thinktanks that help to promote the attack on science.

Mooney documents the rise of the thinktank network, and the roles of commentators like Rush Limbaugh, industry-funded scientists like Willie Soon and David Legates, and politicians like James Inhofe and Tom Delay. He presents a series of case studies covering issues including global warming, stem-cell research, the preservation of endangered species and the effect of dietary sugar intake on obesity. In all these cases, factual conclusions based on extensive scientific research have been challenged, and in many cases rejected, on the basis of purely political considerations.

Even more notable is the way in which the war on science has exploited social norms of discussion to create a situation where proven falsehoods can be treated as defensible positions in public debate, then used as the basis of policy formulation. Particularly in the United States, journalists are inculcated with notions of ‘balance’ associated with the adage that ‘there are two sides to every story’. As a result, any proposition that is supported by a substantial body of opinion is automatically treated as being on a par with any other, even when there is an overwhelming body of scientific evidence on the other side.

Similarly concepts of peer review and accountability have been used to give business groups opportunities to challenge, and frequently suppress, research that produces conclusions antithetical to their interests. Fine-sounding names like the Data Quality Act are used to disguise political censorship of research.

Creationists have made particularly effective use of norms of fairness to argue that ‘Intelligent Design’ theory should be taught as an alternative to evolution. Mooney notes the ‘Wedge document’ prepared by the Discovery Institute in Seattle, which clearly sets out the way in which the nominally non-religious Intelligent Design model can be used a stalking horse for the reintroduction of Biblical creationism.

Mooney shows how the same strategies, and in many cases the same actors reappear in debates over many different issues, replacing objective scientific analysis with the kind of politicized treatment of evidence familiar from claims about weapons of mass destruction in the leadup to the Iraq war. The Marshall Institute, for example, first appears backing Star Wars, then denying the effects of CFCs on the ozone layer, and finally distorting historical climate records on climate in an effect to discredit research on global warming.

Repeated across almost every field of scientific research, the ultimate effect of the Republican strategy is to constitute a complete parallel universe. In which scientific ‘knowledge’ is derived from thinktanks and unqualified opinion writers rather than from actual scientists working on the topic in question. Rather than being confronted with actual evidence, approved views are amplified by the echo chamber of repeated mutual quotation until they appear as established facts.

A particularly striking case, discussed relatively briefly by Mooney, is that of DDT. This cheap and persistent insecticide was freely used for all sorts of purposes in the decades after World War II, but its environmental dangers were pointed out by Rachel Carson in her 1962 classic, Silent Spring. Carson’s book was met with vigorous criticism, but her main claims stood up well to official scrutiny and the US banned the use of DDT in 1972. Although some sniping continued, the case against broadscale use of DDT was almost universally accepted.

Since about 2000 however, a pro-DDT campaign has gone into overdrive with the publication of a string of newspaper opinion pieces and other articles, in publications ranging from FoxNews to the New York Times. The central tenet of these pieces is the claim that Carson’s book and the resulting US ban on DDT have led to the loss of millions of lives from malaria in developing countries.

It takes only a few minutes work with Google to determine that this story is false in almost every particular. The new stories apparently arose from debates leading up to the 2000 Johannesburg conference on persistent organochlorine pollution, during which some environmental groups advocating setting a date for a phaseout of DDT use. This proposal was ultimately withdrawn, but the debate produced some overheated pro-DDT rhetoric which was then amplified by the echo-chamber of righwing thinktanks, blogs commentators into a legend that bears almost no relationship to reality.

There has never been a global ban on DDT use as an antimalarial, and it has been in continuous use in a number of countries. The abandonment of DDT in particular countries has been mainly due to the development of resistance by mosquitoes, which has rendered infeasible the original goal of eradication.

The most important remaining use of DDT is as a spray inside houses or huts. This strategy is supported by the agencies such as WHO and USAID in some cases, but is commonly regarded as less effective than the use of insecticide-treated bednets. In middle-income and richer countries, and where resistance is a problem, insecticides other than DDT have been used.

A striking feature of the true story is that bans on the agricultural use of DDT (such as the US ban in 1972) have actually saved lives by inhibiting the development of resistance.

The same parallel universe may be observed in relation to global warming. The consensus view, that the increase in greenhouse gases arising from human activity has driven a warming trend that will accelerate in future is backed up by thousands of scientific studies, painstakingly assembled by the IPCC. Against this, Republicans and their allies solemnly quote the work of such luminaries as science fiction writer Michael Crichton and retired mining executive Steven McIntyre.

All of these innovations have been exported to Australia, though they have sometimes struggled to take root here. Astroturf organisations took off here in the 1980s and 1990s, thanks largely to the efforts of Ray Evans who established a string of them from his offices at the Western Mining Corporation. Typical examples included the HR Nicholls Society, the Bennelong Group and, most notably in the current context, the (global warming contrarian) Lavoisier Group.

As in the United States, a large group of commentators has preferred to take its scientific information from the parallel universe created by the Republican machine than from mainstream science. Miranda Devine and Michael Duffy have peddled the DDT myth. The Institute of Public Affairs has rejected mainstream science on passive smoking and promoted research commissioned by the (now-dissolved) Tobacco Institute of Australia.

The teaching of creationism is much less of a hot button issue in Australia than in Australia, partly because belief in Biblical literalism is much weaker here and partly because of public funding of religious schools, which are effectively free to treat the issue as they please. Nevertheless, it has received support in surprising quarters. Andrew Bolt, for example, has attacked critics of intelligent design, while maintaining a studied neutraltity regarding his own views on the question. And obviously lobbyists been pushing the issue to Education Minister Brendan Nelson, who raised the possibility that Intelligent Design might be taught in Australian schools.

The central issue of concern, though, has been global warming. In addition to regular visits from US contrarians, Australia has its own Lavoisier Institute (part of the WMC network). The adoption of famous names to push positions that would probably have horrified the eponymous individuals is a characteristic feature of the Astroturf system.

Despite valiant attempts, though, the war on science has been far less successful in Australia than in the US. Although the Australian government has fallen into line with the Bush Administration in opposing the Kyoto protocol, it has repeatedly reaffirmed its support for mainstream climate science.

Not surprisingly, Mooney’s book has received plenty of criticism. The first line of argument, made routinely in response to any criticism of the Bush Administration is that their opponents, and in particular Clinton’s Democratic Administration, were just as bad. Mooney is prepared for this line and sees it off in his opening pages. While noting some instances of exaggeration or misuse of scientific evidence among opponents of the Republicans, on issues such as genetically modified foods and the short-run therapeutic potential of stem cells, Mooney argues persuasively that these offences are trivial by comparison with the systematic assault on science launched by the Republicans.

One way of defending this conclusion is to compare the range and scale of these spurious claims. It’s easy enough to find scientifically dubious claims about the dangers of genetically modified foods, but even these have come mostly from radical green groups, such as Greenpeace and from individual campaigners. There are few issues on which Democrats in the US, or social democrats and liberals elsewhere have taken a position that is obviously at variance with the findings of mainstream science. By contrast, there is almost no scientific discipline, from geological analysis of the age of the earth to epidemiology to climate science that has not been subject to ideological attack from Republicans and associated interests.

Even more striking though is the institutional record. The Republicans, in Congress and in the Bush Administration, have scrapped or undermined institutions that promoted objective scientific analysis as a basis for policy formation and turned instead to procedures designed to give control to ideologues and financial interest. This process began in the Gingrich era, when the Office of Technology Assessment was scrapped, apparently because of its role in discrediting the Strategic Defensive Initiative missile-defence system, better known as ‘Star Wars’. It has been expanded greatly under Bush

A more subtle and effective criticism, put forward by Daniel Sarewitz is that, in effect, the Republicans are right. The kind of purity set forth as an ideal by Mooney, is in Sarewitz’s view unattainable. Mooney’s

polemical fervor blinds him to the political content inherent in all discourse that connects science to human affairs.

As an example, Mooney attacks Republicans for making false claims about the usefulness of adult stem cells as a substitute for embryonic stem cells in research. Sarewitz suggests that, since Germany has prohibited embryonic stem cells research, Germans must also, in Mooney’s analyis share a disdain for science with Republicans.

But Sarewitz is missing the point here. Mooney does not deny that it is open to societies to decide, on ethical grounds, to forgo the medical progress that might be achieved as a result of stem cell research. Rather, he suggests that such a decision should be made in the light of the best available evidence on costs and benefits and criticises Republicans for fabricating and distorting that evidence. In his critique, Sarewitz provides no evidence that similar distortion was practised in Germany.

In effect, here, we are back to the fact-value distinction that was at the centre of 20th century debates about positivism. In Mooney’s view, scientists do their best (or should do their best) to determine the facts that should inform public debate. It is then up to political processes to determine the course of action most consistent with the values held by the public. By contrast, Sarewitz views the two as inextricably entwined, to the point where he does not appear to be aware that such a distinction might be suggested.

In the 20th century, rejection of the fact-value distinction came mostly from the left, first from Marxists who saw all truth-claims made in a class society as being incorrigibly saturated with ideology and then from postmodernists who attacked the whole idea of an independently existing truth, which might be ascertained, or at least approached, by scientific inquiry.

One of the central conceits of postmodernism has been to pluralise abstract nouns like truth, abandoning attempts at a unified view of the world in favour of a celebration of difference. The great lesson learned by postmodern Republicans has been that, where multiple ‘truths’ contend, the ‘truth’ favoured by powerful interests is likely to prevail. Since scientific truth is refractory and not amenable to political control, its claims to special privilege must be challenged, in order that politically reliable alternatives such as ‘sound science’ can replace it.

While the adoption of postmodernist positions has mostly been done without acknowledgement (perhaps because of memories of the 1990s ‘Science Wars’ when denunciation of postmodernism was de rigeur on the right), there have been exceptions. In the recent Dover court case over the teaching of Intelligent Design, postmodernist and social constructionist academics testified on the ID side.

Mooney’s suggests a range of institutional responses to these developments most notably the revival of the Office of Technology Assessments. It is clear, however, that the crucial changes involve political debate and its reporting. In particular, it is necessary to overcome the presumption that scientific propositions should be treated as matters of political opinion,

As regards the established media, we have a long way to go. The Australian and US press give more space to ideological attacks on climate science than to the actual findings of science. For example, in the week leading up to the meeting of the Asia-Pacific Climate Pact in Sydney all of the major Australian ‘quality’ dailies published opinion pieces by contrarians attacking climate science.

The rise of the Internet has been a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it has generated an almost hermetically-sealed echo chamber, in which science warriors can circulate, adapt and modify the factoids, talking points and bogus quotations that are the stock in trade of opinion pieces like those mentioned above.

On the other hand, for anyone who is aware of the general strategy adopted by the advocates of ‘sound science’, resources like Google and Wikipedia provide immediate confirmation in particular instances. In the past, an opinion piece by say, Steven Milloy, would appear with an uninformative or misleading byline, and would be given the benefit of the doubt by most readers. Now, anyone who performs a basic check can discover, with little effort, the full history of his efforts as tobacco lobbyist and hired gun for polluting industries.

What is needed, therefore is more awareness in the general community, including those involved in making and debating public policy, of the existence of an organised campaign against science, in which the Bush Administration plays a leading role. Mooney’s book has raised this awareness substantially, and thereby made a substantial contribution to the cause of science and of evidence-based public policy.

Categories: Books and culture Tags:
  1. Sarah (sock puppet for “Pablo”)
    January 14th, 2006 at 09:08 | #1

    Cld yr pst ts t nw dfnct n-Stlnst stdnt grp t N whn y wr stll n ndrgrdt b dscssd?

  2. jquiggin
    January 14th, 2006 at 09:48 | #2

    Are you referring to the ANU Social-Democratic club here ?

    As a general response to Pablo/Sarah, I’m unimpressed by anonymous smears from trolls and sock puppets. Please identify yourself by name, and I’ll respond appropriately.

  3. Ian Gould
    January 14th, 2006 at 10:10 | #3

    John,

    I may be being even more obtuse than usual but I don’t see the review.

  4. January 14th, 2006 at 11:10 | #4

    I think the annoying voweless sock puppet must have stolen the review.

  5. January 14th, 2006 at 11:29 | #5

    Review please

  6. January 14th, 2006 at 15:23 | #6

    That should teach Pr Q to diss Republicans.

  7. gordon
    January 14th, 2006 at 16:30 | #7

    Without even reading the review, I comment that in the eyes of many right-wingers, science should be opposed because science is finished (ie complete, over, done). We have antibiotics, the nuclear bomb, a lot of computer technology, a lot of aerospace technology. Important vested interests occupy all of these niches. Any further scientific progresswould be threatening to these interests, because it could damage the value of the massive assets already invested. This is itself sufficient reason to oppose further scientific progress, but scientists are now showing an unaccusomed proclivity to arouse the masses by predictions of dire consequences arising from global warming and mass extinctions. Such behaviour is new – scientists hitherto have been incomprehensible “boffins” who consume money in silence in return for discovering investment opportunities. This new behaviour must be stopped. Therefore science should now be terminated.

  8. jquiggin
    January 14th, 2006 at 16:35 | #8

    Oops! Fixed now!

  9. Katz
    January 14th, 2006 at 17:13 | #9

    Well written JQ.

    An interesting parallel can be made with the rise of “Soviet Science” under Stalin, notably the Lysenko fiasco.

    Certainly, at present, Republican methods are more subtle than Stalin’s: encouraging the growth of 1000 schools and all that.

    And there is also the question as to who within the hydra-headed Republican apparat sincerely believes this parallel science and who promotes it for political effect without really believing it at all.

    Finally, I wonder if Mooney discusses the effects of this parallel science on the scientific academy. My sense of it in the 1970s and 1980s was that, for example, the darwinians who dominated the major biology schools in the US serenely went on with their work while fury raged over secondary textbooks.

    Have the barbarians got any closer to the gates in the decades since?

  10. dave
    January 14th, 2006 at 17:14 | #10

    “lobbyists been” should be “lobbyists have been”.

    There’s an unintended paragraph mark there as well before “polemical”

    And “It has been expanded greatly under Bush” should probably be “This process has been expanded greatly under Bush.”

    And an actual substantive comment:

    HR Nicholls and Bennelong societies are arguably slightly different in nature to the Lavoisier Group. The last is classic astroturf-style and focused on the science and the politics. The former are primarily politics-based; “science” is a bit more tangential to their activities. Might be worth addressing this nuance?

  11. conrad
    January 14th, 2006 at 17:48 | #11

    It looks interesting, I might go and read the book. Here are some comments :

    ->I’m not sure what you want to do with the review, but its pretty long. If its for a general readership (like a newspaper), I doubt the average person would get through it. If its for a journal where they choose a “for” review and “against” review, then I think arguments in the “against” case need to be further highlighted. If its for an Australian political journal, it doesn’t really say much about why the situation is different (apart from ID).
    -> You go through 3 examples and quite a few paragraphs before getting to the “central issue of concern”, which seems a lot of space to get to the central issue.
    -> I wouldn’t use the term factual conclusions. It makes you sound like a zealot in the other direction. Why not “extremely well accepted” or something like that ?
    -> “Astroturf organizations”. Isn’t the most obvious term, and not great, particularily when complaining about other people using odd terms.

  12. brian
    January 14th, 2006 at 22:57 | #12

    From the time in the 1970′s when Nixon turned to the christian fundies in an effort to bolster his flagging support base,the Republicans have been taking ain all kinds of obscurantist loopies,from the silliest of the god-botherers,to the most frienzied of the anti-science groups,opposed to everything from vaccination , fluori dation,to IVF tecnology. This has turned the Republican Party into a right-wing funny farm. There are now some in the party who are speaking out on this matter,but it is probably too late to stop this trend. It is ,I feel all part of the “Decline and Fall” syndrome,which is part of the descent of the USA,into ignorance and decay..

  13. Lee
    January 14th, 2006 at 23:04 | #13

    I see two forces at work here. First there are the corporate vested interests – oil, tobacco, mining, etc. Then there are the religious vested interests who oppose evolutionary science and stem cell research. These two groups seem to have reached some kind of agreement in their opposition to science, though the interests of one group do not benefit the other group. Without a doubt the corporate interests are the more dangerous to society, though the religious interest groups are easier to combat.

  14. Ernestine Gross
    January 15th, 2006 at 00:47 | #14

    Hope you get your review published as widely as possible. The topic is very important.

    I was not aware of the ideological-political connection. However, for quite some time I have observed strange obfuscations or confusions of theoretical results with empirical observations in economics and finance texts and in policy papers. I won’t go into details here, given the specific focus of the threat.

  15. Iain
    January 15th, 2006 at 09:45 | #15

    Lost me with the attack on Greenpeace. Why is spraying a biocide a bad thing, but actually engineering a biocide into a plant (such as Dipel into potatos) not a bad thing? Really – where is the difference?

  16. January 15th, 2006 at 10:08 | #16

    The teaching of creationism is much less of a hot button issue in Australia than in Australia

    I think this should be America, no?

  17. Ian Gould
    January 15th, 2006 at 10:28 | #17

    John,

    I believe that the reason we are currently witnessing a “Republican War on Science” in the US is that the Republicans are currently in power there.

    The left is equally prone to ignoring or distorting scientific evidence when it fails to meet their pre-existing prejudices.

    Rather than a partisan issue I believe this reflects a broader social malaise in modern western societies.

    The majority of westerners live extremely sheltered and privileged lives compared with their own ancestors or with most people in much of the rest of the planet.

    The consequences of getting the facts wrong or having a delusional view of realtiy in the west are fair less than in the past or in devleoping countries.

    At the same time, we are bombarded with fiction in countless forms.

    I think you would agree that the case for free trade is as well proven and well-accepted amongst professional economists as any theory in a social science can be: yes, there are individual dissenters just as there are individual biologists who believe in Intelligent Design.

    But if you polled tertiary-qualfied economists you’d probably find well over 90% of them would agree with a statement along the lines: “Unilateral reduction or removal of import barriers including tariffs and quotas, accompanied by comensation for affected industries, would produce net economic benefits from most countries.”

    Another, possibly more pertinent, example: research on Embryonic Stem Cells outside the US has been much less productive than hoped. At the same time, research on alternative sources of stem cells – such as cord blood – has proceeded better than many scientists anticipated.

    Arguably, as a result, Bush’s position on ESCs has been vindicated. But the politically motivated claim that the “ban” on ESC research in the US (which doesn’t ban such research when funded by state governments or private comapnies and allows limited research with federal funds) has been solely responsible for preventing a cornucopia of new life-saving treatments.

    Regardless of Bush’s motives for the ban, the popular misrepresetnation of the resutls of that ban are just as much an abuse of science as anything the Republicans are responsible for.

  18. January 15th, 2006 at 17:44 | #18

    I think you might start your review by explicitly rejecting the title of the book: ‘The Republican War on Science’? It seems to be deliberately designed to piss off Republican/ Conservative voters who will, as a result, not buy the book.

    There’s a couple of points that come to mind:

    – The left are definitely not guilt-free, either, when it comes to using bad science. People on this forum might disagree with me here, but it is impossible to say that the climate change debate is ‘over’ when we are dealing with a system as large and complex as the earth. There were a number of comments in the earlier thread relating to global warming that point out a number of reasons why this is so.
    To declare that human-influenced global warming is ‘proven’ is to change the scientific definition of ‘proof’. If, on the other hand, you were to say, Al Gore-style (A Democrat, remember?), that we have to act ‘before’ Global Warming is proven is equally foolish. That is a rhetorical tactic designed to achieve political outcomes – not scientific progress.

    - I think what people on the right-wing side of politics object to is not so much science or the scientific approach, but the opportunistic way in which pressure groups and politicians adopt science for their own ends. Everyone knows that cigarettes are bad for you; but I strongly object to the approach taken by anti-cigarette campaigners – segregating cigarette smokers from others, and essentially making cigarette smoking in most public places. It’s an attempt to make smoking illegal ‘by stealth’.
    We live in a free society: I maintain that cigarette smokers should be able to enjoy their habit freely just as I enjoy going out with friends and drinking.

    – I’ve recently been readiing some C.S. Lewis essays, and he offers some compelling arguments about why science and politicis should not mix. If you want to have a look at the opinion of an intelligent conservative writer, who makes some rather disturbing predictions about how the relationship between political figures and science might develop into a ‘technocracy’.

    Look for : ‘The Abolition of Man’, and ‘Willing Slaves of the Welfare State’. The first is a long essay published on its own, and the second may be found in ‘C.S. Lewis: Essay collection: Literature, Philosophy, and Short Stories’. , published by Harper Collins in 2000.

    The comments box for some reason is rather slow, and not keeping up with my speedy typing, which makes for some rather confusing results! So I’m going to stop now!

  19. Katz
    January 15th, 2006 at 18:11 | #19

    TimT

    1. You don’t have to be a Republican to be a conservative.

    2, You don’t have to be a conservative (or a Republican) to maintain an open mind about AGW.

    3. “I think what people on the right-wing side of politics object to is not so much science or the scientific approach, but the opportunistic way in which pressure groups and politicians adopt science for their own ends.”

    What you say here applies to a part of the Right. The exact proportion is a matter for debate. However, the use of ID for example by the Right, the Republicans, and more precisely the Bushites, suggests strongly that they have entered the debate in bad faith. They are less interested in the truth of the matter and are more interested in the political gains they can make by mobilising ignorant people who are willing to be herded into a populist campaign that is marketed to them as simply one front in the Culture Wars.

  20. January 15th, 2006 at 19:11 | #20

    You should probably put “science” rather than “scientific fact”, since you are bound to get digressions from people pointing out that evolution is a theory. Sure, I’m not quibbling that that makes it false – or if I am, only that it is a sort of meta-fact, if we confine “fact” to mean experimental observation – but you know very well that there has been a lot of arguing about words over this very point.

  21. Ian Gould
    January 15th, 2006 at 20:22 | #21

    Katz:

    1. You don’t have to be a Republican to be a conservative.

    2, You don’t have to be a conservative (or a Republican) to maintain an open mind about AGW.

    End quote

    Let’s not forget either that John McCain, Arnold Schwartenegger, Michael Bloomberg and Mario Cuomo are amongst American politicians advocating for greater action to address global warming.

    Or that the Kyoto Protocol was mostly negotiated on the American sides by the Administration George H W Bush and that its supporters included John Major and Helmut Kohl.

  22. Steve Munn
    January 15th, 2006 at 21:17 | #22

    I think your review was very thoughtful and well written PrQ. You deserve a golden elephant stamp.

    However, I would like to make one point. Green activists have successfully persuaded all state Labor governments to impose moratoriums on the release of new genetically engineered plants. Mainstream science doesn’t support the moratoriums.

  23. Helen
    January 15th, 2006 at 21:53 | #23

    - I’ve recently been readiing some C.S. Lewis essays, and he offers some compelling arguments about why science and politicis should not mix. If you want to have a look at the opinion of an intelligent conservative writer, who makes some rather disturbing predictions about how the relationship between political figures and science might develop into a ‘technocracy’.

    Unfortunately, we are at far greater risk of being governed by theocracies, if the trend in the US continues. I’d rather be governed by technocrats, if I had to choose. Not that I would support that, but the risk is rather all the other way.

  24. stoptherubbish
    January 16th, 2006 at 11:04 | #24

    TimT
    Your view that conservatives object not to science, but the way science and politics are ‘mixed’ makes me laugh. It has always been thus. Scientific theories that we now take for granted have had to contend with opposition as much from vested interests as they have had to contend with opposition based on the ‘pure’ science. An obvious example is the power that the theory of the natural intellectual inferiority of women and africans has had over many people, based on ‘science’ that had long been established as bogus, but which still in some quarters, is appealed to as a basis for those views.

    The problem as always, is when power meets opinion that might threaten the hold that power has on some aspect of ‘reality’, power will go to any lengths to discredit the opinion, whether the opinion purports to be based on science or some other claim to ‘truth’. When that happens, we meet the furious contestation between ‘science’ and ‘politics’ to which you refer. For example, do you think that conservatives were dismayed by the ‘science’ that purported to establish the inferiroity of women and africans so popular in the 19th and 20th centuries, or were they more dismayed by the resistance to that science displyed by the subjects of that particular discourse over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries?

    In truth, all groups seek support for their claims from whatever authority is going, and science is a powerful ‘authority’ in our culture. This is no less true of corporate interests, as it is of fundi greens.

    To seek to remove ‘politics’ from the cut and thrust of scientific debate, is akin to trying to remove the wetness from water.

  25. Stephen L
    January 16th, 2006 at 13:08 | #25

    Thanks for the review John. This is a topic I have a great degree of interest in. I’ve written a few articles on aspects of it, and have been planning another one.

    “The great lesson learned by postmodern Republicans has been that, where multiple ‘truths’ contend, the ‘truth’ favoured by powerful interests is likely to prevail.”

    With this sentence you have covered most of what I was going to say, so I think I’ll put the time into another issue.

    The only area I would quibble on is the inclusion of stem cells in the list. I came to the stem cell debate with a presumption that this was another case of those opposed to embryonic stem cell use distorting the evidence to make their case (rather than winning it on the entirely valid ethical grounds).

    However, so far I have to say I have not been impressed by the evidence produced by the advocates of embryonic stem cell research. They have an entirely valid point that “we never know where the next breakthrough will come from”, but I’m still waiting for evidence on claims that embryonic cells are necessarily a more promising line of research than adults. In my job I’ve interviewed some of Australia’s leading researchers in this area, and if they’ve got evidence to support their claims they were not telling me (although admitedly I’m so far out of my depth in this field I might not have understood it).

    While I’m on it, a quick response to Steve Munn: It’s certainly true that GM crops are one area where elements of the environment movement have drastically overstated their case. However, I can’t agree that “mainstream science doesn’t support the moratoriums”. Mainstream science is divided on the issue. The majority of scientists don’t support the moratoriums, but it is not a 99% thing the way it is with global warming or evolution – there are plenty of scientists in relevant areas who have no problem with GM in theory, but are disturbed at how thin the research on effects of many crops is. The recent discovery of serious health consequences from trial GM peas may well shift the balance in favour of the moratoriums.

  26. January 16th, 2006 at 15:37 | #26

    Small correction on DDT: The WHO says that bednets are preferred in areas of stable malaria transmission while IRS (indoor residual spraying) with DDT or other pesticides is better where transmission is unstable.

  27. Steve Munn
    January 16th, 2006 at 16:32 | #27

    In reply to Stephen L, the fact that the GE peas trialled by the CSIRO caused an immune response in mice is indeed troubling. As the CSIRO says on its website, this demonstrates the need for case by case assessment of GMOs before they are released. It isn’t a reason for a moratorium anymore than a defective model of car is a reason for a blanket ban on all cars.

    see http://www.csiro.au/csiro/content/standard/pssp,,.html

    I can not accept Stephen’s claim that genetic engineering faces more opposition among scientists than does the AGW hypothesis. Approximately 17,000 global warming contrarians in the American scientific community have signed the Oregon Petition for example.

    see http://www.oism.org/pproject/

  28. StephenL
    January 17th, 2006 at 09:46 | #28

    Steve Munn,

    the 17,000 contrarians were generally not scientists in fields remotely related to global warming research – most were not scientists at all, but doctors, dentists, engineers, computer programmers etc. What is more, when a random sample were contacted later many admitted they were mislead by dishonest packaging and didn’t necessarily support the petition. It’s also years out of date. (I think John has covered this in the past, but certainly plenty more background is available elsewhere).

    On GM there is a substantial minority of scientists in relevant fields who believe that current testing mechanisms are inadequate, and support moratoriums at least until the testing improves. The point is not that GM is inherently unsafe, but that most GM crops are not tested to the extent the peas were, and the failure of the peas suggests that more testing is required across the board.

  29. Hal9000
    January 17th, 2006 at 10:23 | #29

    “The Marshall Institute, for example, first appears backing Star Wars, then denying the effects of CFCs on the ozone layer, and finally distorting historical climate records on climate in an effect to discredit research on global warming. ” Should read “in an effort…”

    Perhaps also it is worthwhile making the connection between the elevation of fiction (and denial of fact) to scientific debate and the adoption of post-modernism by the mainstream right. Francis Wheen has some good points on this in his How Mumbo-jumbo Conquered the World.

    On Stephen L’s point “I’m still waiting for evidence on claims that embryonic cells are necessarily a more promising line of research than adults” that is surely not the point. There are good inductive reasons to suppose this line of research will be productive. Researchers do not need to show that one line of research is “necessarily more promising” than another line of research. Trying to produce mini-black holes in a lab is maybe not necessarily as promising a way of studying black holes in action as looking at giant ones through fancy telescopes, but this does not mean it is poor science and it may well end up yielding more significant data. It is up to those wishing to close down a line of research to demonstrate either that the line is so arid as to be unworthy of resources, or that it is completely unethical. I’m still waiting for evidence on either count.

  30. January 18th, 2006 at 11:00 | #30

    John it’s one of the better reviews I’ve read because it cuts to the heart of the political landscape Mooney constructs. A couple of points though:

    In the recent Dover court case over the teaching of Intelligent Design, postmodernist and social constructionist academics testified on the ID side.

    ‘Postmodernist and social constructionist’? I assume you’re referring to Steve Fuller? He may be social constructivist, but he’s certainly no ‘postmodernist’. Rather, he’s the self-proclaimed progenitor of the new Enlightenment. Read his debate with Bruno Latour (easily found via Google) and you’ll find that Latour is the one refusing to simply count to two (primary and secondary qualities/nature and culture etc.). Fuller’s just a gun for hire practising what he preaches about academic autonomy, who covets his (postmodern – no less – in the form of Steve Woolgar) neighbour’s vast research funding. I suspect that $100/hr would get an expert defence of any social movement under the sun.

    As for Sarewitz, he’s not arguing that any and all explanations are equally as good as each other, or that the Republicans are right (and, implicitly, others wrong). That’s a terrible misreading of Science Studies literature, and a scurrilous political move. But whether through the kind of critical realism you seem to advocate or ‘postmodernism’ I don’t really care how both the neo-cons and methodological theism are dispensed with.

  31. jquiggin
    January 18th, 2006 at 14:26 | #31

    Thanks to all who have commented. Some responses specifically to dk.au

    “Postmodernist and social constructionist academics” For the first category, I had Dembski and Johnson rather than Fuller in mind.

    On Sarewitz the viewpoint I meant to impute to him was ” science is inherently political, and that any attempt to distinguish the two is futile”. Since the Republican approach exemplifies this viewpoint, I tried to summarise this is “the Republicans are right”, in contradistinction to the line that “politicised science is bad, but both sides are equally guilty”. I’ll try to clarify this

  32. January 19th, 2006 at 21:07 | #32

    The Republicans, in Congress and in the Bush Administration, have scrapped or undermined institutions that promoted objective scientific analysis as a basis for policy formation and turned instead to procedures designed to give control to ideologues and financial interest.

    Too true. The power, resources and fanaticism of the Bush Republican Right make it the most dangerous adversary to science on the planet. The unscientific way the Bushies approached the business of waging war and nation building is a case in point. Fortunately “Republicans who know what they are talking about” are fighting back.

    But Pr Q (and Dr Lambert) should show a little more ideological even-handedness in their denunciation of the enemies of science. It is not just the Republicans who have been waging, and losing, the war on science. Everywhere we look we see the scientific community girding its loins and causing anti-scientists to retreat. This has smacked down anti-scientific post-modernists on both Left and Right.

    On the Right, the spiritual creationists have suffered a big set back with the judicial trouncing of Intelligent Design in the US. What we might call the metereological denialists, aka Global Warming skeptics, have also more or less been cowed into silence by the overwhelming evidence for anthopogenic warming. Even the financial illusionists, who in the nineties managed to convince so many people that pixels were real wealth, are no longer indulging in stock market triumphalism.

    But the anti-scientific Left is also in big trouble. The social constructives, who have argued for the past generations that racial and sexual characteristics were “not real”, have suffered devastating set backs recently. Recent research has proved the validity of the biological conservative human bio-diversity research program.

    Scholars like Steve Pinker, Greg Cochran, Armand Le Roi, Charles Murray, Larry Summers and Bruch Lahn have thrown the anti-Darwinian Left into a turmoil of pathetic responses, ranging from lame excuses through weird intellectual contortions onto just plain stunned silence.

    As a conservative social democrat I am hugely enjoying the spectacle of anti-scientists, both Right and Left, get their come uppance.

  33. SJ
    January 19th, 2006 at 21:49 | #33

    But the anti-scientific Left is also in big trouble. The social constructives, who have argued for the past generations that racial and sexual characteristics were “not real�, have suffered devastating set backs recently. Recent research has proved the validity of the biological conservative human bio-diversity research program.

    Scholars like Steve Pinker, Greg Cochran, Armand Le Roi, Charles Murray, Larry Summers and Bruch Lahn have thrown the anti-Darwinian Left into a turmoil of pathetic responses, ranging from lame excuses through weird intellectual contortions onto just plain stunned silence.

    Shorter Jack Strocchi: Niggers are stupid, get it? Just read “The Bell Curve”. If you disagree, you’re an anti-Darwinian, non-scientific moron, just like those creationists.

  34. jquiggin
    January 19th, 2006 at 21:49 | #34

    Jack, the social constructivists have gone over to the other side, as I pointed out.

  35. James Farrell
    January 19th, 2006 at 21:51 | #35

    Jack

    I read all of the articles you linked, and sill have no idea what they are supposed to prove. In order to establish the parallel you claim to discern, you need to show one of the following: (1) that some government somewhere sometime developed harmful policies, or sold them to the public, on the basis of fraudulent or misleading scientific claims by ‘anti-Darwinians’; or (2) that a political party was able to gain a net increase in votes by endorsing ‘anti-Darwinian’ positions that just happend to strike a favourable note with the public. You have shown neither.

    It may or may not be true that Ashkenazy Jews are bred clever. I’m not qualified to weigh the evidence. But however fascinating the topic might be, it has no implications for social policy. Regarding test 2, it’s not inconceivable that a candidate, say, for the seat of Lakemba will some day seek to ingratiate himself with voters there by denouncing the Ashkenazy thesis, and that he’ll marshall some leftwing anti-Darwinian pseudo science (if such a thing exists) to that end. But it hasn’t happened yet and, if it did, it would scarcely be in the same league as the Republicans’ embrace of creationism, as far as public miseducation goes.

  36. jquiggin
    January 19th, 2006 at 22:05 | #36

    It’s worth observing that one of the first triumphs of IQ testing was the demonstration that Jewish and Italian immigrants to the US were intellectually subnormal and needed to be kept out. See here for example.

    And while the contributions Jack mentions vary in value and relevance to his claim, Charles Murray, who’s most relevant, has written nothing but garbage. The Bell Curve is both worthless and intellectually dishonest, most obviously in its treatment of the Flynn effect, which undermines the entire edifice, and which is dismissed in a flurry of handwaving.

  37. January 19th, 2006 at 23:12 | #37

    jquiggin Says: January 19th, 2006 at 9:49 pm

    Jack, the social constructivists have gone over to the other side, as I pointed out.

    That is not nearly the whole story. There is bi-partisan nonsense spouted on science on both sides of the ideological divide. The epistemological constructivists now encompasses the idiot-Left and ultra-Right.

    There is no doubt that the Republicans have taken to aping the epistemology of their enemies. Steve Sailer, a conservative and credible science journalist, laments the Bush administration’s distance from the “reality-based community”:

    The Foucault-ification of Republican ideologues continues apace. In French postmodern thought, there’s no such thing as “truth,â€? just power. …

    the official science advisor for the last three years has been John H. Marburger III, a Democrat. Since Bush is the most postmodern President ever, in that he doesn’t believe in truth, just political will, you can see from the science advisor’s party registration the high priority Bush places on the job.

    It’s time to pull yourselves out of your deconstructionist death spiral.

    This is most blatantly obvious in the ideological rejection of Darwinian evolution by “spiritualists” and “socialists”. Right wing spiritual creationists oppose the Darwinian explanation of the evolutionary origin of organic life (“warm little pond”). Left wing social constructivist oppose the Darwinian explanation of the evolutionary diversity of human nature (“favoured races”).

    But Pr Q is correct to say that the Republicans pose the greater danger to intellectual culture. The Right constructivists are in the ascendancy, mostly because they breed faster and are better organised for political activism.
    The Left constructivists are in decline because of the failure of their cultural policies and the rapid advance of socio-biological science. Much of their world view was just a moral vanity pose. Most of them, in the post-Sokal hoax period, sense that the game is up.

  38. January 19th, 2006 at 23:24 | #38

    James Farrell Says: January 19th, 2006 at 9:51 pm

    In order to establish the parallel you claim to discern, you need to show one of the following: (1) that some government somewhere sometime developed harmful policies, or sold them to the public, on the basis of fraudulent or misleading scientific claims by ‘anti-Darwinians’; or (2) that a political party was able to gain a net increase in votes by endorsing ‘anti-Darwinian’ positions that just happend to strike a favourable note with the public. You have shown neither.

    Social constructivism – the rejection of underlying rigidity and diversity in the various norms for human nature – was the underlying epistemology behind Leftist totalitarianism in the 20th Century: Bolshevism (“new Soviet man”) and Lysenkoism. Ditto Maoism and “Great Leap Forward”.

    It is also the underlying philosophy behind much of the cultural liberationist agitation that have marked the cultural politics of Western socieities in the late 20th C: affirmative action, guest workers, indigenous seperatism, womynism et al.

    That multitude of political sins that were committed in the strong version of its name more than satisfy James Farrell’s stipulations. The intellectual sins of social constructivism are by now pretty obvious and I, for once, do not intend to dust off its decaying carcass and haul it out for another beating.

  39. James Farrell
    January 20th, 2006 at 00:23 | #39

    That last sentence is cause for celebration, Jack. Now how about – for once – supplying an example of a government policy – immigration, education, welfare, take your pick, – that could be improved by taking some recent genetic discoveries on board. (I’m ruling out health. If Pacific Islanders have a high genetic predispotion to diabetes, I don’t mind targeting them for testing or dietary advice.)

    The New Soviet Man stuff is a classic Strocchi red herring. Does anyone imagine that those programs would have been good for mankind had only it been the case that (a) human nature was malleable as claimed, or (b) innate racial and gender differences did not exist?

  40. January 20th, 2006 at 07:55 | #40

    John,
    I just saw this, I just want to say, thank you for your interest in, and for your serious engagement with, my book.
    cm

  41. Stephen L
    January 21st, 2006 at 11:49 | #41

    “Left wing social constructivist oppose the Darwinian explanation of the evolutionary diversity of human nature (â€?favoured racesâ€?).”

    I’m not sure if I’ve understood you Jack, but if I have, you’re saying either that Stephen J Gould was anti-Darwinian, or that the powerful new evidence since his death has made his position obsolete.

    I’m not sure which position would be harder to sustain.

Comments are closed.