Chris Mooney

How Our Brains Perceive Race

This post first appeared at Mother Jones.

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How the Right-Wing Brain Works and What That Means for Progressives

Editor's NoteThis essay draws upon Chris Mooney’s book, The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science—and Reality, as well as his interviews with George Lakoff,Jonathan Haidt and Dan Kahan on the Point of Inquiry podcast.

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Meet the CNN Anchor Who Called Fox News "Ignorant F#&ksticks" Over Climate Change

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Scientists Discover the Fascinating Psychological Reason Why Conservatives Are…Conservative

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The "Rich Idiot" Effect: Why Rich Republicans Are More Opposed to Climate Science Than Poor Ones

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The Real Reason Many Americans Seem So Stupid (But Aren't)

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Neil deGrasse Tyson Explains How Republicans Blew It on Climate Change

If you care about the place of science in our culture, then this has to be the best news in a very long time. Last Sunday night, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey—which airs on Fox and then the next day on the National Geographic Channel—actually tied ABC's "The Bachelorette" for the top ratings among young adult viewers, the "key demographic" coveted by advertisers. And it did so by—that's right—airing an episode about the reality of climate change.

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Watch: Neil deGrasse Tyson Destroys Climate Deniers

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Conservatives Drink Bud, Liberals Drink Heineken?

It was probably inevitable, but it’s striking nonetheless. In a new study published in the journal Psychological Science, Vishal Singh of New York University’s Stern School of Business and his colleagues apply an ever-growing body of research on the psychological traits of liberals and conservatives to their consumer choices. The result? A stark left-right difference when it comes to favoring well established brands, like Coca-Cola or Tide, over the new and generic products that are trying to compete with them.

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Why Conservatives Believe in Anti-Gay Pseudo-Science

On May 8, North Carolinians will vote on a constitutional amendment that defines a marriage between a man and a woman as the “only domestic legal union” the state will recognize -- thereby barring LGBT marriage equality. The amendment would also ban civil unions, and end domestic partner benefits, like prescription drug and health care coverage, for the partners and children of public employees. At its deepest level, this issue is about fairness for everyone under the law. But less mentioned is that it is also about science, and what’s factually true.

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How the Right-Wing Brain Works and What That Means for Progressives

Editor's NoteThis essay draws upon Chris Mooney’s forthcoming book, The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science—and Reality (due out in April from Wiley), as well as his interviews with George Lakoff,Jonathan Haidt and Dan Kahan on the Point of Inquiry podcast.

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Is There a Scientific Reason Many Conservatives Hate Science?

Last week, we went through a familiar ritual: Hand-wringing and alarm over Republican politicians denying scientific reality. This time around, the main focus was Rick Santorum, the anti-evolutionist and climate change denier who is one of the worst of the worst in this area (and who promptly obliged by making a new and fresh anti-science statement).

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Will Copenhagen Lead to Radical Climate Experiments?

You won't find geoengineering on the official agenda at the climate summit in Copenhagen. But for anyone watching the trajectory of the climate change debate, the controversial notion of intentionally modifying the planet or its climate system to counteract the effects of global warming is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. Attracting almost no attention, Russia may have already conducted the first-ever geoengineering field trial. And if the climate talks at Copenhagen fail, it could give geoengineering advocates the lucky break they've been waiting for.

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Why We Need to Put Science Back in Government

Over the 71�2 years of the Bush administration, it's hard to name a major U.S. government regulatory agency that hasn't seen some type of scandal involving science. From the Environmental Protection Agency to the Bureau of Land Management to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, we've heard repeated complaints from government scientists who say their work on environmental issues has been inappropriately edited by political appointees, that they themselves have been muzzled, and that their agencies have put out rank misinformation to the public.

To get a sense of just how extensive such problems have been, consider the findings of a 2007 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, which sought to survey federally employed climate researchers across several agencies. Almost half of the 300-odd survey respondents felt pressured to eliminate words like "climate change" or "global warming" from documents or communications; a similar number perceived inappropriate changes to their work that altered its scientific meaning.

And that's just climate scientists. Surveys of researchers at the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service -- whose work underlies implementation of the Endangered Species Act -- found similar complaints. And recently, when unionized Environmental Protection Agency scientists backed out of their cooperation agreement with the agency's political leadership, one cited reason was that lately the agency has ignored "its own Principles of Scientific Integrity whenever political direction from other federal entities or private sector interests so direct."

It will fall to the next president to repair the relationship between government-employed scientists and the nation's political leadership. And since most of the assaults on science during the Bush administration have occurred at pressure points where scientific information feeds into the regulatory process, the next administration must strive more broadly to bolster the role of science in environmental and other types of agency decision-making, so that the best available information once again drives policy.

Both major presidential candidates, Barack Obama and John McCain, appear to take this matter seriously. Obama, who has accused the Bush Administration of ignoring or distorting data to shape its decisions on science-related issues, has said his policies would be based on "evidence and facts." As for McCain, in his role as chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, he has eviscerated the Bush administration on matters of science. In one particularly sharp exchange in 2005, McCain upbraided an administration representative for failing to produce a required government report on global warming.

So assuming the next president aims not only to restore scientific integrity to the federal government, but also to restore morale and functionality at places like the Environmental Protection Agency, here's a brief overview of some of the types of changes that need to be implemented.

Let's begin where the Bush science scandals themselves did -- with scientific advisory committees to federal agencies. As early as 2002, complaints began to emerge suggesting these little known expert bodies, which have been dubbed the "Fifth Branch" of American government and which advise agencies on anything from the dangers of various environmental chemicals to the risks of particulate air pollution, were being tilted politically to favor the interests of the administration's supporters and allies. To name just one highly publicized example, in 2002 the Bush administration shook up the membership of a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention panel that advises the agency on how to protect children from lead poisoning. The administration named to the panel several scientists with industry connections, who could be expected to oppose stronger protective standards.

To address cases like this, the 1972 Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA), which governs such committees, must be revised and more strictly enforced. A 1970s "good government" statute designed to ensure openness, balance, and transparency, of late FACA has been repeatedly circumvented through the formation of committees not subject to it -- the now-infamous Bush-Cheney energy task force being a prime example. And as Rena Steinzor, a law professor at the University of Maryland and president of the Center for Progressive Regulation, notes, "The problem is not just that they put these panels together outside of FACA, outside of that statutory protection." Additional issues arise when it comes to ensuring that advisory committees formed under FACA aren't rife with conflicts of interest. The law allows the granting of "waivers" that let potentially conflicted scientists serve anyway, and this has been widely abused. "The disclosures are late, never publicized, and conflicts are waived all the time," notes Steinzor.

While the next administration cannot itself reform FACA, it can ask Congress to do so. Meanwhile, a new administration could pledge that all of its advisory committees will be formed under FACA and that any conflict-of-interest waivers will be made public (or not made at all).

To ensure the proper translation of science into environmental decision-making, the next president must reconsider the use of the Data Quality Act, a bite-sized piece of legislation slipped into a 2001 appropriations bill by Representative Jo Ann Emerson (R-MO) and which, as interpreted by the Bush administration, has grown into a handy device for misusing science to upend regulation. The act allows interested parties to file complaints whenever the government "disseminates" scientific information they find objectionable. This makes it a key tool for gumming up the regulatory works by questioning the validity of government science -- an increasingly common industry tactic employed on issues ranging from climate change to the regulation of mercury pollution.

And it's not just the Data Quality Act itself: In a legally dubious move, the administration has used the act as the foundation for an unprecedented government-wide system of peer review for information that feeds into regulatory decision-making. Peer review sounds like a good thing -- until you canvass the science world's objections to this particular form of it. In essence, the new peer review system turns out to be more about slowing down government action than ensuring scientific accuracy. And it has already impaired agency function, notes George Washington University epidemiologist David Michaels, author of the new book Doubt is Their Product: How Industry's Assault on Science Threatens Your Health (Oxford, 2008).

For example, Michaels cites the National Toxicology Program's "Report on Carcinogens," which is supposed to be released every two years. But the last such report -- the 11th Report on Carcinogens -- appeared in January of 2005, meaning the next edition is already more than a year late. If you examine the review process for that report, it's clear the new peer review rules are to blame.

The next administration, then, ought to re-evaluate the Data Quality Act and government-wide peer review system with the following principle in mind: When it comes to using science to support regulatory decision-making, the perfect can easily become the enemy of the good. Government agencies rarely have ideal data or studies at their disposal; much of the information they rely upon cannot, by its very nature, undergo rigorous academic peer review. But agencies can rarely wait for better information to take action -- because if they do, more people (or more endangered species) might be harmed. The Data Quality Act and peer review system push us in the direction of ever-more scrutiny of science that might be used to support government regulation, when what we actually need is the opposite: Federal agencies that are limber, less burdened, more free to act promptly in the public interest.

At the same time, the next president and his cabinet officials must strive to ensure that scientists working at these federal agencies not only get treated fairly, but can feel confident their work gets taken seriously and plays the proper role in government decision-making. This is not merely a question of propriety, but one of morale. After all, what scientist would want to work for an agency where, to use a recent example from the Fish and Wildlife Service, a political appointee named Julie MacDonald was, according to the Interior Department's inspector general, "heavily involved with editing, commenting on, and reshaping the Endangered Species Program's scientific reports from the field"?

To help prevent such abuse, the next administration should put in place a disclosure system whereby agency science is made public as soon as the scientists are finished with it -- not after the political appointees take a red pen to it. The administration should also pledge to address the many other cases we've seen in recent years in which political appointees and government scientists have clashed -- for instance, cases where scientists have been denied the ability to speak to the media, or have seen press releases about their research heavily edited, or not released at all. What our environmental regulatory system truly needs is more independence from political sectors of the executive branch, so scientists and other professionals can do their jobs without worrying about who might be offended or how their actions play politically.

When it comes to the role of science in environmental policy, then, the next administration should seek to solve the problems of the past by embracing two broad principles for the future. First, agencies must remain free to use the best science available to do their jobs promptly and effectively, rather than having to endlessly defend that science and have it repeatedly vetted. And second: Political appointees need to back off and let federal agency scientists -- and agency professionals more generally -- do their jobs with integrity and independence.

We need science in government more than ever before. Because the Bush administration represented such a big step backward in this arena, the next administration must take at least two steps forward just to catch up.

Survival Of The Flimsiest

[This article is reprinted from The American Prospect.]

There's an anti-evolutionist brushfire sweeping the United States, and at its heart lies a paradox. These days, it seems, the less the creationists say about what they actually believe, the better they're likely to fare. In an attempt to avoid triggering the First Amendment's ban on commingling church and state, the more canny of today's fundamentalists have become clever minimalists.

Rather than discussing anything immediately recognizable as the Christian God -- much less the Bible -- they invoke "science" itself to undermine one of the most robust scientific theories in history.

This science-abusing strategy has reached a pinnacle in Kansas, where the state Board of Education, dominated by anti-evolutionists, has adopted standards that call for teaching about alleged "scientific criticisms" of evolutionary theory, and that redefine the nature of science itself to potentially include non-natural explanations. Call it the Ghostbusters approach: According to Kansas, scientists are now free to go hunting for ghosts, genies, and other supernatural entities. If they happen to discover God along the way so much the better, but let no one say the board has explicitly required it.

This is a huge departure from the way the evolution debate played out at the time of the famous 1925 Scopes Trial, when Tennessee had banned the teaching of evolution outright, and William Jennings Bryan famously declared the incompatibility of evolution and the Bible. The U.S. has fostered a strong anti-evolutionist movement for nearly a century, but our homegrown creationists have changed greatly over time -- in response not so much to scientific developments as to legal ones. In creationism's evolution, the greatest selection pressure has always come from the U.S. Supreme Court.

The first landmark decision came in 1968, when the Supreme Court declared that states could no longer ban the teaching of evolution. Creationists promptly changed strategies and cooked up something they called "creation science": In essence, a scientific veneer for the book of Genesis. The earth, they claimed, was just a few thousand years old, and there had been a catastrophic flood -- but these discoveries were labeled "scientific" rather than religious in nature. Moreover, according to creationists, their "science" should be taught alongside evolution and given equal time, in the interest of fairness.

But in 1987, the Supreme Court unmasked "creation science" for the thinly-veiled religious apologetic that it was, and declared its teaching unconstitutional in public schools, a violation of the separation of church and state. Anti-evolutionists promptly evolved again, further refining their strategic attempt to pose as scientists. Now, they would promote something called "intelligent design" (ID). Gone was any mention of a young Earth or Flood -- the most direct parallels to the Genesis account. Instead, ID advanced a vague philosophical argument: Biological complexity requires a designer for its existence, and could not have resulted from a mindless and directionless process such as evolution.

Once again, today's creationists claim ID is science. But as with "creation science" in the 1980s, we're now witnessing the unmasking of ID.

The designer is obviously God, the scientific bona fides of ID are scarce to nonexistent, and its proponents can't seem to check their religion at the door when it counts. When the Dover, Pennsylvania school board introduced ID into its biology curriculum, statements about religion abounded; they're now Exhibit A in a just concluded First Amendment lawsuit over the board's actions.

The court hasn't yet ruled, but in the meantime, Dover's anti-evolutionist school board members have been swept out of office -- a development that led Pat Robertson to assert that Dover has abandoned God and shouldn't expect His protection. So much for disguising ID as science.

Evolution's defenders are increasingly confident that Dover could mark the beginning of the end for ID as a creationist strategy. But if so, Kansas suggests what's likely to come next. Anti-evolutionists will once again evolve and will minimize what they're advocating even further. Thus in Kansas the attack on evolution is purely negative and definitional, but there is no explicit requirement to teach what everyone knows to be the desired alternative -- some form of creationism.

The stripped-down Kansas approach still has its vulnerabilities; the Board of Education's negative attacks on evolution have a clear creationist lineage. But if this tactic also fails, we can only expect creationists to pare down their message still further. Eventually, perhaps, they will come up with something that does indeed withstand legal scrutiny. But it will be a shallow victory indeed, for over the long course of our national battle over Darwin, creationists have become the anti-evolutionary equivalent of Kafka's hunger artist: They have so shrunken the substance of their positive position that it has all but disappeared.

Did Bush Really Warm to Climate Change?

Following the G8 summit last week in Gleneagles, Scotland, some have tried to spin a clear failure on the issue of climate change into a partial triumph because President George W. Bush was at least forced to acknowledge that the phenomenon is actually happening.

The sad truth, unfortunately, is that not even this slim level of optimism is justified. Bush has already acknowledged as much about global warming in the past as he did at the G8 -- but such admissions have hardly moved him any closer to endorsing the kind of mandatory steps to curb greenhouse gas emissions that have been embraced by other nations. In fact, at this point, there's little reason to expect such action on global warming before 2008, when a new president is elected in the United States.

If you don't believe me, just take a look at the 32-page "Gleneagles Communiqué," then compare it to Bush's major policy address on global warming: a Rose Garden speech from June 11, 2001. In many ways, the two documents turn out to be mirror images of one another, suggesting that Bush has barely moved an inch over the course of his presidency. For instance, the Gleneagles Communiqué says the following about the science of climate at its very opening:

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