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The Republican War on Science, yet again

May 7th, 2008

Kevin Drum points to this piece by Michael Gerson, denying the existence of a Republican War on Science. As Drum points out, Gerson doesn’t even mention the major battlegrounds like global warming denialism, creationism and intelligent design, and the Gingrich-era shutdown of the Office of Technology Assessment, focusing on a much narrower set of issues including stem cell research and abortion.

Moreover far from refuting the claim of a war between Republicanism and science, Gerson spends most of the article fighting on the Republican side. Most obviously the obligatory, and in this case, lengthy discussion of eugenics, tied in Jonah Goldberg fashion to contemporary liberalism.

There’s an even more fundamental problem here. Gerson is so focused on the political/cultural/ethical war he is fighting that he doesn’t even consider the question of whether there are any scientific facts that might be relevant to the question.

In relation to stem cells, he ignores the central point made by critics of the Republican War on Science such as Chris Mooney. This was not, as Gerson supposes, that ethical opposition to stem cell research is anti-science. It was that the Bush Administration, in pushing its side of the debate, falsified the scientific evidence regarding the feasibility of stem cell research under the rather bizarre compromise policy it pursued (for more of the details, see Stem Cell Century by Russell Korobkin. This was, and remains, Standard Operating Procedure for Republicans on all topics – science is just another arena for political debate, in which reality is what you make it.

Gerson is so enmeshed in the War on Science that the idea of science as a process of inquiry by which we might make some findings, admittedly fallible and provisional, about the reality of the world in which we live, seems totally alien to him. The idea that someone might, for example, oppose embryonic stem cell research on ethical grounds but, based on the available evidence, reject the hypothesis that research adult stem cells will provide the same benefits, simply does not enter his mental frame of reference.

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  1. conrad
    May 8th, 2008 at 07:02 | #1

    There is a positive side to the idiotic attack on science that has happened in the US (and not just this example — there are probably more important factors, like allowing the decay of science in the school system). At least anecdotally, the huge gap between the US and other countries in science has been declining over the past decade or so. As a consequence, funding and spending on science (including and especially private dollars) and the movement of top scientists, is not necessarily all one way anymore. As an example, lots of the top biotech stuff is now done in Europe (just think of Dolly the sheep) and Asia. It would be good to know if there is a proper analysis of this including and to what extent policy decisions are responsible.

  2. John Mashey
    May 8th, 2008 at 11:24 | #2

    Just one caution [from an independent] to get the logic right:

    Republican does NOT always imply being anti-science, and as Chris Mooney’s book points out, p.48:

    “Today, scientists largely remember the first President Bush as a frined.”

    and as a historical note, it is ironic (and sad) to see, from 1989:

    George Bush: White House Statement on the Ministerial Conference on Atmospheric Pollution and Climate Change.

    The problem is not that *Republicans* are inherently anti-science, it’s the conservative wing of the party that’s taken over in the last few decades.

    For example, the following are Republicans, although the conservative side might disparage some of them as RINOs:

    Arnold Schwarzenegger (Gov CA)

    Olympia Snowe (Senator ME)
    Susan Collins (Senator ME)
    John Warner (Senator VA)

    In the House Vernon Ehlers (R MI) was a research physicist, a rarity!

    In any case, it is unfortunate that a crucial piece of the Republican Party got control and politicized science to such a large extent, but it does not mean that every Republican is anti-science and should be demonized as such, because many are certainly not. Feel free to demonize those whose who deserve it. :-)

    As for the climate chnage peice, if anyone hasn’t seen Naomi Oreskes’ “The American Denial of Global Warming”, it’s a fine 58-minute video, half on the history of climate science, and half on the early origins of denialism. [George C. Marshall Institute & co].

    Naomi gives another good talk on the marketing disinformation campaigns of the Western Fuels Association, but I don’t have an online URL for it.

  3. jquiggin
    May 8th, 2008 at 12:17 | #3

    Given that the US system effectively requires the Republican Party to operate, it’s obviously desirable that the takeover by the anti-science right should be reversed. But of those you mention, Snowe and Collins are the last of a doomed breed (the old Northeastern liberal Republicans) and Warner is retiring at the next election. That leaves it all up to Arnie to save the party from itself. He could do it in the movies, but maybe not in real life.

  4. NicM
    May 8th, 2008 at 15:30 | #4

    Speaking of the war on science John, check out this story at the Australian http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,23655529-11949,00.html

    Apparently this guy is funding a research partnership between the Institute of Public Affairs and the University of Queensland to, presumably, discredit AGW?

  5. turkeyfish
    May 9th, 2008 at 03:59 | #5

    Some claim that republicans are not anti-science but only conservative republicans. Well lets face it. If John McCane is unable to unequivocally stand up and say, yes I believe in evolution and yes I believe that it and NOT “intelligent design”/creationism must be taught in public school science classrooms, he might as well be a conservative anti-science republican. Of course, he will have plenty of excuses, such as escalating the wars in middle east and south Asia, but those will hardly advance the cause of science.

    His pander to this element of his party is an unequivocal signal to all that, while he may be willing to pay lip service to science in order to sound reasonable, he in fact is more than happy to jettison his “principles” on the altar of political convenience and that nothing fundamental will change with him serving out a 3rd Bush term. Futher, republicanism only assures the relative decline of science in the US. In my mind those republicans, who stand mutely and idly by, while the damage is done don’t exactly merit medals for their leadership. Rather, they deserve retirement, so that they can be replaced with voices that will stand up for science in the US. Watching Lamar Alexander defend the killing of US citizens by the US EPA by its failure to adequately regulate ozone levels, even when we know that people are dying as a direct result of such polution, just demonstrates where republican “values” have descended.

    While republicans may be happy with thier candidates, they simply do not provide a realistic strategy for American leadership in science. Just like the republican slogan “We won’t raise your taxes (just your prices)”, their’s is ultimately a failed strategy. As we now know, deficits (of all kinds) do matter and the longer we wait to reduce them, the greater they will become.

    As for Schwartznegger stepping in to battle the ultra-right of his party, forget it. As a foreign born national, he is unable to run for the presidency. Further, given his presiding over the the largest budget deficit in California history, its unlikely that name recongition alone will provide him much of a boost. As for the others listed is another post, they are simply coasting to retirement, a cushy lobbying job, or are like McCane, to old to really have the energy to take on the fight.

    Sure you can go on believing there has been no “republican war on science” just like to you can pretend that global warming isn’t happening. However, at some point, there will be a very heavy price to be paid for waiting until its too late to solve some kinds of problems.

  6. John Mashey
    May 9th, 2008 at 05:33 | #6

    Arnie certainly can’t save the GOP from itself – he never could never have been elected through the normal processes.

    Olympia Snowe & Susan Collins:
    the NE liberal Republican species as a whole might be endangered but:

    a) Snowe was re-elected in 2006 with the largest majority of any GOP Senator.

    b) Collins is a strong favorite for re-election in 2008.

    [Of course, this may illustrate general cantankerousness of Maine: not only elects 2 females, but two RINOs to boot. The only other states with 2 female Senators are WA and CA, but they are all D.]

    I should probably also have listed:
    Arlen Specter (Sen PA), and maybe Mike Bloomberg, although the latter is hard to categorize, given his shifting labels. I talked to him a bit many years ago, thought he was very sharp, and have wished for more centrists who seem to want to get things done, rather than spending all their time in partisan politics, i.e., like Mike the (?) and Arnie the RINO [Google Schwarzenegger RINO for amusement.]

    Warner is certainly retiring.

    I guess the message didn’t get across, especially as people seem to be *gleeful* about the small numbers of liberal Republicans and happy to see them disappear. In some states, there is little chance of electing a Democrat, but sometimes liberal Republicans have a chance versus conservative ones.

    [There's an OpEd by John Toomey called "In Defense of RINO Hunting", which urges that Republicans to go all out to defeat liberal Republicans, i.e.,

    "There's no point in electing 'Republicans' who don't share the party's principles."

    If a WSJ OpEd is down on RINOs, that is reason alone to save as many as possible. :-) ]

    5: turkeyfish

    “I’m not sure if the “you” in this is addressed to me [which is fairly bizarre, if so], or is the generic “you” … so:

    a) Can you offer specifics as to why you think Snowe & Collins are “coasting to retirement”, etc?

    b) Have you carefully read Mooney’s “The Republican War on Science?”, esp. p. 269?
    ["Encouraging the electoral success of Republican moderates..."] Do you exchange email with Chris?

    c) Have you studied related work, like say, Allan Brandt’s “The Cigarette Century”, the prototypical anti-science effort? Or the Oreskes video I mentioned? Or Jeff Goodell’s “Big Coal”?

    d) Have you studied the interactions among information flows of thinktanks, blogs, and folks like James Inhofe and Marc Morano? [If you have, and you care about global warming, but haven't yet donated to Andrew Rice's Senate campaign against Inhofe, consider doing so.]

    Anyway, my bottom line is that although a lot of the war on science comes from within the Republican Party, it is strongly driven by the conservative wing of the party. Centrists are indeed endangered, and ought to be supported when possible, given the alternatives likely in some places.

  7. jquiggin
    May 9th, 2008 at 07:22 | #7

    I have to say, John, I don’t see any serious prospect of success for a policy based on supporting Republican moderates, simply because there are hardly any left. I thought of Specter as well, but he’s 78 and seriously ill. Bloomberg remains an outsider for the reasons you mention, and the same is true of Arnie.

    The problem with your analysis is that the term “conservative wing” implies that that there exists a “moderate wing” and this simply isn’t true.

    The only way to respond the Republican party as it exists is to fight as hard as possible to destroy it. Encouraging the handful of moderates like Snowe and Collins to follow the path of Jim Jeffords or, better still, cross to the Democrats, would be a start.

    Perhaps if the party were defeated thoroughly enough to be useless to big business it would be possible for outsiders like Bloomberg to take it over, get rid of the rightwing extremists who currently hold all major positions in the party and recreate something like the party of Eisenhower. But that will take a long time.

  8. John Mashey
    May 9th, 2008 at 15:43 | #8

    0) I don’t know that we’re that far apart, and especially because it’s more theoretical than not for both of us:

    1) If I were some place [not here in CA] where I thought the only electable people were Republicans [which happens], and I had a choice between a moderate and a conservative, I know which I’d support, even I preferred an (unelectable) Democrat.

    I’m not claiming I expect success, I’m simply saying to be really careful with endangered species. For instance, I think Snowe & Collins can keep getting re-elected as Republicans, and I’m not so sure what would happen if they switched.

    2) In some places (like here in CA), the Republican Party has already marginalized itself pretty badly [as you wish], and keeps doing so (despite Arnie’s warnings to it), so maybe collapse can happen faster than you think.

    3) There are actually a fair number of Republicans around Silicon Valley, but they tend to be more moderate than not.

    PG&E (big NorCal utility) CEO Peter Darbee is Republican, and he passionately campaigns for government policies to encourage efficiency and renewables. I’m sure you know of the constant wars CA fights with the current Federal Government over environment and energy issues, and support for that is fairly bipartisan. Needless to say, “big business” is not remotely monolithic – there are lots of Democratic CEOs around here, anyway. Of course, I’m under no illusion that this area is very representative…

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