One of the big problems with talking about what Chris Mooney has called The Republican War on Science is that, on the Republican side, the case against science is rarely laid out explicitly. On a whole range of issues (evolution, passive smoking, climate change, the breast-cancer abortion link, CFCs and the ozone layer and so on) Republicans attack scientists, reject the conclusions of mainstream science and promote political talking points over peer-reviewed research. But they rarely present a coherent critique that would explain why, on so many different issues, they feel its appropriate to rely on their own politically-based judgements and reject those of mainstream science. And of course many of them are unwilling to admit that they are at war with science, preferring to set up their own alternative set of scientific institutions and experts, journals and so on.
So it’s good to see a clear statement of the Republican critique of science from John Tierney in this NY Times blog piece promoting global warming “skepticism”. The core quote is
climate is so complicated, and cuts across so many scientific disciplines, that itâ€™s impossible to know which discrepancies or which variables are really important.
Considering how many false alarms have been raised previously by scientists (the â€œpopulation crisis,â€? the â€œenergy crisis,â€? the â€œcancer epidemicâ€? from synthetic chemicals), I wouldnâ€™t be surprised if the predictions of global warming turn out to be wrong or greatly exaggerated. Scientists are prone to herd thinking â€” informational cascadesâ€“ and this danger is particularly acute when they have to rely on so many people outside their field to assess a topic as large as climate change.
Both this quote and the rest of Tierney’s article are notable for the way in which he treats science as inseparable from politics, and makes no distinction between scientific research and the kind of newspaper polemic he produces. Like most Republicans, Tierney takes a triumphalist view of the experience of the last thirty years or so, as showing that he and other Republicans have been proved right, and their opponents, including scientists, have been proved wrong. Hence, he argues, he is entitled to prefer his own political judgements to the judgements (inevitably equally political) of scientists.
Of course, there’s nothing new about the general viewpoint, that science is just another type of ideological system. It was until recently, widely held on the left. But it’s now far more common among Republicans, where it is now the dominant fiewpoint. Some of its surviving leftwing adherents, such as Steve Fuller, have taken the logical step and joined the Republicans, notably in the Dover case on the teaching of Intelligent Design.
I’ll point out some of the more obvious problems with Tierney’s analysis. Of the three issues he mentions, only one (the “cancer epidemic”) involves a debate in which scientific issues were central. And most proponents of a “cancer epidemic” are non-scientists who see themselves in much the same light as the global warming skeptics Tierney is promoting. The most prominent single advocate of the “cancer epidemic” story is Samuel Epstein, who describes himself as the leading critic of the “cancer establishment” consisting of the American Cancer Society, National Cancer Institute and mainstream scientific journals such as Science (also a favorite target of GW conspiracy theorists).
It’s clear that the notion of a “cancer epidemic” has never been supported by mainstream science. But, if you accept Tierney’s politicised view of science, it makes sense to lump ACS and NCI together with critics like Epstein. The scientific evidence produced by the cancer establishment has supported lots of restrictions on smoking, air pollution, the use of synthetic chemicals and so on, all of which are opposed by Republicans. In political terms, the more extreme position represented by Epstein helps the establishment defend themselves against rightwing critics.
Also noteworthy is the idea that when faced with a complex problem, the best thing to do is to fall back on your own prejudices, rather than, say, attempt a comprehensive investigation of all aspects of the problem.
Apart from Tierney, about the most comprehensive exposition of the Republican critique of science is Tom Bethell’s Politically Incorrect Guide to Science, part of the Regnery series of the same name. Here’s a summary of his position, arguing that scientists operating through journals like Science manufacture spurious problems to get research funding and that scientific research is fatally flawed because of its commitment to materialism.
Bethell has impeccable qualifications as a leading Republican commentator on science (gigs at the Hoover Institute and American Spectator, ) But I think some Republicans find he is a bit too thorough in his rejection of science, going beyond the standard topics (evolution, global warming, stem cell research) to reject relativity and embrace AIDS reappraisal.
The problem here is that Republicans are torn between a war on science and a war over science. What they would like is a scientific process that produced all the technological goodies of which they are enamoured, but could be constrained to the reliable message discipline expected of all parts of the Republican machine. Some of the time this leads them to engage in debate over particular scientific issues with a rather cargo-cultish attempt to mimic the trappings of scientific methods. At other times, they attack science more directly. But Bethell’s overt rejection of science, and embrace of obviously cranky ideas, gives the game away a bit too much.