Junking Science

From Terry Schiavo to global warming, the author of 'The Republican War on Science' explains how conservatives undermine science by whipping up controversy and manipulating the media.
[This is an edited transcript of an interview with Chris Mooney from Cover to Cover, a radio show that airs on KPFA Radio in Berkeley. The full audio of the story is available here.]

Richard Wolinsky: Chris Mooney is the author of The Republican War on Science, which deals with the way Republicans, the Republican party in particular, but also individual Republicans, as well as the Republican government, have dealt with science, scientific issues, and controversies involved with science. And my take on this is that the reason it's a war on science is because these people are, they couldn't get economics as an argument, they couldn't get ideology as an argument, so they figured, why not just go after the science? Is that about it?

Chris Mooney: There is a lot of that to it. The "war on science" that I'm describing does have this opportunistic element in which you find that interest groups, whether industry or on the religious right, who want to achieve a particular political end, are using science as their means of doing so and abusing science in the process. And they're not up front, they don't say "We oppose embryonic stem cell research for moral reasons," they want to say, "No, adult cells are better, so we don't need to do embryonic stem cell research." And that's where science is abused and distorted. And I'm detecting that across a wide range of issues. And so is the scientific community.

RW: Well, the history of politicization of science goes way back. To some degree certainly we can go back to Galileo, but what we've got here over the past 20 years is something else again.

CM:That's what I would argue. I would say that to some extent every political interest politicizes science or uses science politically in the sense of selectively using information to back up your point of view. I think that with the Republican Party today, there's something very different. And the reason it's very different is because the party is committed to catering to two key constituencies, big business and the religious right, who are often coming into conflict with the mainstream scientific view on issues like evolution for the religious right or global climate change for the fossil fuel industry. So you have a systematic attempt by Republican political leaders to appease these interests on the scientific issues that matter to them. And so you get in combination a kind of perfect storm of catering to special interests on science, again and again and again, systematically, throughout the Bush government.

RW: Well, it actually started before then, and as I was reading your book, I saw that there's something called the OTA, the Office of Technology Assessment, a congressional committee, a congressional office, I'm not sure how you want to call it. The OTA came out of Congress, it's been around since when?

CM:It was founded in 1972, I believe, and it lasted until 1995, when the Gingrich Congress came in, Republicans had not controlled Congress for decades, and they pretty promptly did away with it.

RW: Ok, prior to 1972, how did Congress learn about science?

CM: Well, they would have to call hearings, and they would have to bring in experts to testify. But in the 70s, there were a growing number of scientific controversies about things like nuclear energy or the super-sonic transport, and Congress felt that they couldn't always trust the executive branch to provide them unbiased information, cause the executive branch is serving the president. So they thought that they would have their own source of information. And they founded OTA, '72, and it struggled at first, but it ultimately became a world-renowned scientific advisory body. The Europeans built their own scientific advisory bodies based on OTA.

RW: And who selected OTA, the people in it?

CM: The staff? Well, it served at the pleasure of Congress, so it actually had an executive board of six Democrats and six Republicans, but then the staff was of course scientists.

RW: One thing, before we go further, is that you make a clear point in your book that science is not a he-said she-said affair. It's something called scientific consensus. What is scientific consensus?

CM: Scientific consensus is something that's achieved when an issue or question has been studied quite extensively, and studies have been published repeatedly in scientific journals that are coming to or bolstering the same central conclusion. So, evolution happened, would be a very good one. You have mounds of evidence, and at some point the scientific community is able to say, well, we think we've got a pretty good take on this one, we think that it stood the test of time. And that doesn't mean that it will never, ever be challenged by new data, but it does mean that a lot of evidence has built up to support a particular conclusion. And when that happens, it doesn't happen all the time, but when it does it's something very powerful. Because it's the best scientific knowledge that the scientific community can give us.

RW: So the OTA basically dealt with scientific consensus?

CM: They would be asked by Congress to investigate a question. They would study it carefully based on the work that had already been done, sometimes they would do new research, and then they would pull it all together in an expert report.

RW: And over time, what happened apparently was that they came out with reports that the Republicans just didn't like.

CM: Especially on the Reagan administration's Star Wars program. That was a key politics and science fight during the Reagan years. And OTA was on the side of many, many physicists who said, not only are there many security issues with this, because we think it's going to make the Soviets ramp up their own stocks of missiles, but we don't see it as technologically feasible. We think if you do build this thing it's not going to work. Or it'll suffer a catastrophic failure the first time you try to make it work. These studies undermined the Reagan administration's position pretty seriously. So this was extremely controversial.

RW: Also the area of the environment as well, right?

CM: Yeah. I think that in retrospect though, OTA's main sin from the Republican political point of view was those Star Wars studies.

RW: Well, the reason I mention that is because Gingrich disbanded it in '95, which meant that there was no longer an impartial body able to advise Congress. Now we're looking at what occurred in New Orleans with the break of the levees. And I would like to know if there's a connection between the disbanding of the OTA and the destruction of the wetlands, and in particular the rebuilding of the levees, the strengthening of the levees in New Orleans.

CM: There's something of a connection there, I wouldn't want to overplay it. OTA did do studies, and actually when the New Orleans catastrophe happened I looked back in the OTA archives, and there were studies about flood plains, wetlands, hurricane protection for the Gulf Coast. OTA had looked into these issues, it had informed Congress on these issues. Congress was no longer informed after 1995. That could have made a difference. I mean, I think a lot of other things needed to happen. But clearly, one of the things that wasn't happening was Congress getting studies from OTA on this subject.

RW:Gingrich disbanded it in 1995, so for the past decade, there's been nothing done in terms of all this, because there was no official body to consult with at all.

CM: Right, and my argument is that this facilitated the political abuse of science, it made it more likely to happen, because once you get rid of your definitive expert scientific assessment body that's world renowned and respected, then members of Congress can conveniently call up lobbyists, interest groups, special interests, and they can listen to their take on the science. So you get the situation where it's my science vs. your science, Democrat science vs. Republican science, instead of a careful expert assessment that has Congress's official name on it. So things get much more politicized.

RW: At some point something comes in, called the Data Quality Act. What was the Data Quality Act?

CM: Calling it an Act is a bit of actually an over-glorification, although that's what they call it. It's two sentences slipped into an appropriations bill by a lobbyist. And they've been used, these two sentences, by the Bush administration, to pretty radically change the way that the government uses scientific information in order to protect the public health and the environment.

What the Data Quality Act sets up is a process by which special interests get to petition agencies to attack scientific information they don't like, and potentially drag that scientific information into the courtroom. The legal issues are not yet resolved over whether they can sue or not. But it allows, especially industry, which is most inclined to use the act so far, it allows industry to say, we don't like this study you're using.

Very early, before the EPA or another government agency has even tried to do anything to regulate industry, industry can attack the information, and it can bog down the regulatory process by doing so. It's another device that facilitates the political abuse of science.

RW: In addition, by slowing everything down, they may or may not be able to stop it, but they could put it off for several years.

CM: Sure. And the process of government regulation is already slow enough.

RW: So it's pretty much the idea, ok we'll send it out for study yet again, and you can put something off indefinitely.

CM: They call it paralysis by analysis.

RW: Ok, that happened when?

CM: The Data Quality Act? 2000, 2001. It was slipped through late in the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration seized upon it, and rearranged the government essentially based upon it, based upon these two sentences.

RW: You had these two separate events, one of which to stop the flow of science, the other to fight any science that slipped through, and the result in a sense has been scientific paralysis in Congress for the past five years.

CM: And on issue after issue, these sort of raging science fights, where a special interest says, "We don't like this information," and you have no definitive body to come in and be the arbiter of what's good and what's not good, so you just have my science vs. your science, and everything gets politicized, and science itself ends up being undermined through this process.

RW: I'm gonna skip ahead for a second, because I want to take this in a different direction, which is that if at that end there is no longer any kind of check going on, what about journalism? What has journalism done?

CM: This is one of the arguments that I make. I actually find a lot of fault with journalists who I think are guilty often of aiding and abetting the strategies of those who want to create phony scientific controversies for political reasons.

I think a great example is evolution, where you have an extraordinarily firmly established scientific point of view, that evolution happened, evolution by natural selection. And you have a special interest group, essentially Christian conservatives arguing they have a scientific alternative. But the claim that intelligent design is scientific is extremely dubious and not accepted by the scientific community.

However, journalists will pair the two viewpoints against one another in a he-said she-said we're clueless format, And it's giving the intelligent design people exactly what they want. Which is, they're trying to create a controversy, and the media is playing right into their strategy.

RW: Well, this of course works across the board. What it does is create legitimacy for extreme positions.

CM: Exactly. And it also creates the phony notion that there's two sides when in fact, on something like evolution there's one side, the scientific position, and then there is intelligent design and creation science, which are these quasi-scientific hybrids that religious conservatives have come up with. And then there's every creation myth that any society has come up with. And only evolution is the one that's scientifically supported and accepted by scientific consensus. So it creates this phony duality as well.

RW: That also happens in the area of global warming.

CM: Oh sure, sure. It happens in a lot of areas. And I argue that political interests are aware of how the media works, and they know that these strategies will work. And so it falls to journalists to bring themselves up to speed on how they're being used.

RW: That also brings up the name of Frank Luntz. [chuckles] Some people know who he is, some people don't. He invented the term sound science?

CM: I wouldn't say he invented it. He is a Republican pollster, and by all counts a good and influential one, and he taught members of the party to use the phrase "sound science" to describe their positions on the environment. And there's a famous Luntz memo telling members of the Republican party how to talk about the environment. It says, "Use the phrase sound science," and it also says on global warming, "continue to question the science." So what sound science apparently means to him is, attack the mainstream consensus position and find your own selected scientists who still disagree with it.

RW: And another word they use is "junk science."

CM: For them, that's the opposite of sound science. But I think both of these are Orwellian terms. You know, junk science often means science that industry doesn't like, and sound science often means study it over and over and over again without taking any particular action, until you have an unreasonable degree of scientific certainty.

RW: Before we go into some of the specific issues that take place in your book, I'd like to talk about two things that are a little more current, that are post-book. One is the Terry Schiavo affair. How does the Terry Schiavo affair slip into this Republican war?

CM: It fits in, interestingly, in the following way. Senator Frist made himself quite notorious by standing up on the Senate floor and questioning the medical diagnosis of Terry Schiavo that had been done by Florida doctors. And what this represented for me was yet another case in which religious conservatives and the politician who's taking their side, Senator Frist, were unwilling to argue an issue solely on moral grounds, saying "We don't believe that someone should be put to death no matter what condition they're in." But rather, they had to find a scientific argument, they had to try to argue it through science, questionable science. They had to dispute a well-founded conclusion. In this case it was a medical diagnosis. Apparently they don't feel that their moral argument is strong enough, and so they blur the issue by also trying to make a questionable scientific argument, and then science gets abused and distorted.

And we see this again and again. Again, embryonic stem cells, saying that adult stem cells are good enough, and no one researching in this field really thinks that. And there are many, many other case studies of that kind of thing happening.

RW: Well, what I find interesting is that I begin to lose sense at a certain point, of what is coming out of the Republican propaganda machine, and what articles are real. For instance, there were two articles recently about stem-cell research. One was a small article, which I'm sure they picked up on, or maybe they started, about how there are certain other cells in the body, adult body, that can be used instead of stem cells, that are better. That didn't make a splash, and then disappeared. A few days later, I saw something which said that the problem with the Bush stem cell line is that it seems to have gotten cancerous, and is completely useless. So I'm just curious, do you know about both of those stories.

CM: I know a little about what you're referring to. There's been, from the beginning of the stem cell issue rising to prominence, Christian conservatives have always sought not only to say that we think it's immoral to conduct this research because embryos are destroyed in the process, but they've also said it's medically unnecessary. And sympathetic politicians have echoed that claim, medically unnecessary. And that claim is just outlandish if you talk to anyone who's researching in the stem cell field.

You talk to these scientists, and a lot of them study both embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells. A lot of the biggest cheerleaders for embryonic work are people who've made their whole careers studying adult stem cells. They think that both are interesting scientifically, both have potential. It may be that adult stem cells are good for one thing, embryonic are good for another. Why would you shut off one avenue of research before we know? That's how scientists think about these things. And when they hear this claim that we'll just do adult stem cells, it's just, it's mind boggling to them.

But that is just a classic case study of how science is politically used in order to achieve a moral end by Christian conservatives.

RW: I look at the whole thing and I see a bigger picture. I mean, you're focused in on the war on science, but it's a war on truth, a war on honesty, it's a war on the American people in many ways, and it leads me towards trying to get some kind of broader --

CM: I think there's a bigger picture here too, I'm sorry to be so narrow. There's an analogy that I would draw between the war on science that I'm discussing and what happened with the hurricane. And I would make the analogy as follows: FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security, they flopped, they failed to react to a massive crisis quickly enough. And Americans now question, these are taxpayer-funded agencies, right? We pay for these government bodies. We now question whether our government is competent to do what we expect of it.

Well, it's not just in emergency response that we're having that reaction to our government. It's in a lot of areas where the government's supposed to be using government to protect us, where the Bush administration is actually undermining the credibility and the professionalism of the government by having the EPA or the FDA put out what's pretty clearly misinformation. A great example is the White House trying to edit the text of an EPA global warming report.

These are agencies paid for by taxpayer money, that are supposed to be staffed by experts, they're supposed to assess the science, and they're supposed to react to protect us. And there's been a widespread erosion of faith in their ability to do this. And the war on science, maybe it's a broader war on professionalism. Maybe it's a war on the federal government's ability to serve us. Maybe it's a war on public servants.

RW: Well, you know, you bring in the philosophies of Grover Norquist and you're right there.

CM: Thomas Friedman had a New York Times commentary making this very point, that the conservative movement has never liked the federal government. And I think Grover Norquist's comment was "I just want to get it down small enough so that I can strangle it in the bathtub." And that's a view that's very incompatible with responding to a disaster promptly and effectively.

RW: In your research and your book, you do single out a couple of people in Congress who are particularly odious. One of them is a guy named Tom Coburn and the other, Jim Inhofe.

CM: Actually, it turns out that they're both Senators from Oklahoma. Inhofe is the Oklahoma senator who attacks global warming, he attacks the science, repeatedly. And he actually had the temerity to suggest that global warming was a hoax. Coburn works more in the medical health arena, and he has actually led a campaign to question the effectiveness of the condom. So he's sort of backing the Christian right's abstinence-only education approach. And I think both are guilty of seriously distorting the science in the process.

It's interesting, from the state of Oklahoma you have the two different sides of what I would call the Republican war on science, that we're going to attack science to help industry, and we're going to attack science to help the Christian conservative moral agenda. And again, when your roll them into a ball, that's when you get this systematic problem that I'm talking about.

RW: What do you think the role of the right-wing think tanks is in all this?

CM: I'm glad you asked me about that. I think that one of the factors that has made the politicization of science worse is that nowadays, when a member of Congress wants to undermine the mainstream scientific position on a question like global warming, the information is there for him to take up and cite on the floor of Congress. Because nowadays, there are a wide range of political think tanks in D.C. and elsewhere whose job it is to provide contrary "expertise" and arguments that's also in contradiction to the mainstream scientific view that's coming out of university research. And I point out in the book that you can trace the trend towards the creation of these think tanks. A prominent conservative thinker named Irving Kristol actually advised industry to create sympathetic voices in the 70s.

And it's not just industry, right? It actually also happens on the Christian right. The great example there is the Seattle-based Discovery Institute has almost single-handedly led an attack on the theory of evolution that it's built up over almost 15 years. And now you actually have the evolution fight on the front page of Time Magazine. They deserve a lot of credit for that, they have been very effective. But they are a think tank, and they are making points in contradiction to evolutionary science as established at all the nation's leading universities. But the right has its own shadow scientific community now.

RW: And that means not just politicians but places like Time Magazine suddenly elevate intelligent design to a "science." When I was in college, I got a Masters in philosophy, we studied intelligent design -- it was one of the arguments for the existence of God from the Middle Ages.

CM: And then you'll know that David Hume took it apart in the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. And on an intellectual level I'm not sure it ever recovered. But it's a recycled philosophical argument that is actually from a pre-Enlightenment time. And nowadays, we don't use just philosophical arguments to prove the existence of God. We actually study, and do research, and that's what bolsters the theory of evolution. And you cannot do research to study the designer, because the designer is a supernatural force and scientists cannot design a test to determine how the designer acts.

When you're in a debate or argument with the ID proponents, you really have to say to them, ok, if you've got a scientific approach, then who's the designer, who made the designer, how did the designer do any of this, when did it happen, what chromosomes were changed in the organism to make it designed more carefully, how does the designer operate? With hands? With some sort of appendage, with a tool, is it just force from the brain, something we don't understand? And they can't answer any of these questions, and science can't answer any of these at all. They're inherently unscientific questions because they're untestable.

RW: Final question, what can we do, if anything, other than publicize it a little bit or argue about intelligent design.

CM: Well, publicizing it is important, and I encourage the scientific community to speak out. The reason I encourage them to do so, I know I would rather have them doing research, but if there is a problem, if there's a crisis, as I argue, over the political misuse or abuse of science today, the only people who can diagnose that crisis are the scientists, they're the ones who can detect the misinformation for us. They're the experts, they're the ones whose outrage really counts. That's not enough, outrage is not enough.

There are a number of other things we can do. We talked about OTA. I would argue strongly that we need to reestablish a congressional advisory body with scientific expertise to help depoliticize some of these issues. I would strengthen the scientific advisory body in the White House as well, the Office of Science and Technology Policy. There are a number of other legislative steps that we could think about, that some members of Congress on the Democrat side have thought about, steps to protect whistleblowers in government agencies who want to speak out when the science is being abused. And there's bad legislation that we need to either fight or get rid of, like the Data Quality Act, which we discussed. So these measures are helping contribute to the politicization of science.

We also talked about the media, I'm trying to make journalists more aware of how covering these things in a "debate" format he-said she-said we're clueless, actually aids and abets the strategies of the science abusers. And journalist education would help, journalist education in specifically scientific areas so that they know when these strategies are being brought to bear on them. I think that that's a start. But ultimately it may be that we need political solutions in the sense of actually voting, so it may be that we need to judge candidates based on their records on science. And that doesn't necessarily mean vote Democrat, but it may mean you vote Democrat if the Democrats have good scientific records or Republican if the Republicans have good scientific records. And very few, at this point, do. So there are some good examples on the Republican side, but unfortunately not that many.
Richard Wolinsky is the host of Cover To Cover, which airs on KPFA Pacifica Radio.
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