In this week’s eSkeptic, we present David Brin’s review of The Republican War on Science by Chris Mooney. This review originally appeared in a September 2005 edition of the San Diego Union Book Review.
a book review by David Brin
Sixty years ago, science emerged dramatically from its ivory tower, with a flash and a bang.
Even before Hiroshima, a multitude of technical advances — from agriculture and antibiotics to radar and rocketry — fed a burgeoning movement called Modernism, which viewed change as inevitable. But the atom bomb made it official: science vastly expands the potential range of human activity, for well or ill. Mistakes could now have devastating consequences. If used wisely, a cornucopia of innovations might serve and uplift billions.
Alas, “wisdom” is seldom obvious. We rely on politics to determine policy — an improvement over the whim of kings. But politics, despite centuries of hard refinement, is still far more ego-driven art than craft. Habits of at least four thousand years seem to favor self-interest, hierarchies and dogma, instead of gathering evidence and cheerfully letting facts guide us.
What’s more, science has accumulated enemies. Some are put off by the ambitious and optimistic Modernist Agenda of perpetual human self-improvement — a program aimed at discovering and then applying the very tools of Creation, in order to make better societies, better lives, better generations. Is this ambitious goal possible, or ethical, or even sane? Aldous Huxley once spoke for all grouchy intellectuals, when he derided progress as “just another idol.” Grumbling that it will all come to no good, voices ranging from Bill Joy and Francis Fukayama to Osama and the Unabomber have shared a common underlying theme, protesting the West’s headlong plunge into territories and powers once left to God. Artists and authors, from Michael Crichton to Margaret Atwood, portray technological ambition as hubris, that age-old, prideful route to chaos or damnation.
It wasn’t always like this. Back in 1945, even as humanity was climbing out of the wreckage of its Nadir War, a sense of resilient, can-do determination seemed to overflow. In his famed report Science: The Endless Frontier, Vannevar Bush called upon the United States to transform and multiply its martial accomplishments with unprecedented peacetime zeal — using both technology and perseverance to rebuild cities, refute bigotries, revitalize education, end poverty, and provide more fulfillment for all. So stirring was this aspiration that cynics and curmudgeons could do little more than bide their time.
Nor was this a partisan matter. The aspiration proclaimed by Bush was thereupon propelled as much by Harry Truman and George Marshall as by Dwight Eisenhower, who established the office of Presidential Science Advisor and gave it real clout. John F. Kennedy is remembered as a gung-ho science booster, especially regarding outer space, but Richard Nixon embarked upon just as many ambitious, science-driven endeavors, for example vastly increasing funding for biological research and responding to clear evidence of human-generated ecological harm by creating the Environmental Protection Agency.
Have we benefited? Weather and communication satellites transformed modern life, while advances in medicine, biology and agriculture enabled far more people to survive and thrive. Acid rain and stratospheric ozone depletion were rapidly diagnosed, prompting measures that — at least — checked immediate calamity. And while there is still plenty of bad news to spur activism, anyone who grew up in Los Angeles, 40 years ago, should attest that five times as many people now live there, breathing air that’s five times better. (Or, rather, a fifth as bad.)
If the “greatest generation” deserves acclaim for defeating Hitler, let’s add more feats to their credit. Like cranking up a thousand universities, combating ancient habits of racism, liberating the ambition of girls, building interstates and internets, while turning a nation of provincially isolated tenants into globe-traveling homeowners. Moreover, many economists now credit as much as half of our economic growth since 1950 to technological innovation. According to Business Week columnist Michael Mandel: “large-scale innovations drive growth, create new jobs and industries, push up living standards for both rich and poor, and open up whole new vistas of possibilities.”
Gathered together, these and countless other accomplishments were rooted in the modernist-scientific agenda.
So why has the whole ambitious program lately come under fierce attack?
According to Chris Mooney, author of The Republican War on Science, we need look no farther than an alliance of two reactionary forces: big business and religious fundamentalism. This era’s burgeoning hostility toward rationality, skepticism, accountability and can-do ambition is little more, and no less than, a deliberate campaign against modernity on the part of “conservatism.” A matter of right versus left, Mooney explains.
On February 18, 2004, the conservative war on science, which had been gathering momentum for decades, finally jolted the media and American public to attention. All it took was a little star power… Over sixty leading scientists and former government officials, among them twenty Nobel laureates, had signed a statement denouncing the administration of George W. Bush for misrepresenting and suppressing scientific information and tampering with the process by which scientific advice makes its way to government officials. Examples included distorting the science of climate change, quashing government scientific reports, and stacking scientific advisory panels. “Other administrations, have, on occasion, engaged in such practices, but not so systematically nor on so wide a front,” the statement read.
Mooney presents a long list of cases to support his indictment, portraying a methodical campaign to politicize, ignore, twist, or undermine science. His list of topic areas will sound familiar: the effects of smoking and of air pollution, the feasibility and benefits of energy savings through increased fuel efficiency standards, global warming and stem cell research, educational standards and the Drug War, all the way to a campaign aimed at teaching “alternatives to evolution” in the classroom. Some of these matters are still under some legitimate dispute among reputable scientists, implying that we need more research, pursued promptly and professionally. Others have coalesced around deep and profound expert consensus, with clear majorities of qualified experts recommending urgent action.
Mooney shows there are countless tricks, some old and others innovative, that special interests can use when scientific consensus becomes politically inconvenient. One has been to banish science from centers of power. For example, the GOP-led Congress dismantled its own, nonpartisan advisory tool — the Office of Technology Assessment — because its counsel kept conflicting with ideological views. Another is for political aides to edit the reports of scientific panels, so that final versions offer conclusions quite different than panel members intended. Threats to job security can squelch whistleblowers. Another method, used more frequently of late, has been to pack advisory groups with “experts” who were selected on a basis of ideology, or industry affiliation, or promises to reach a predetermined outcome.
Mooney disapproves the mass media’s obsession with gladiatorial opposition when covering contentious issues like Creationism and global climate change. Countless news stories seek entertaining “balance” by portraying both sides as evenly matched, equally vehement. This appeals to viewers’ sense of fair play, sometimes even cheering underdogs vs. snooty, scientific authority figures. But such “balance” can also empower fringe groups to stay in the fray forever, magnifying uncertainty indefinitely, preventing any conclusion from being reached.
Unlike past dogmas, science claims not to fear uncertainty. Young scientists are taught to nurse some residual doubt toward even the strongest theory. (And yes, even a widely held “consensus” can sometimes be wrong. Graduate students look for rare “faulty paradigms” which, if toppled, can make a reputation.) This healthy skepticism accompanies — but does not generally undermine — the collaborative process of building ever-better and increasingly valid models of the world, models that have risen, like our cities, after centuries of steady improvement. Opponents of science try to turn this strength into a weakness by exaggerating doubts, portraying all theories as equal, or even calling “scientific consensus” a meaningless phrase. (A related irony: politicians who claim “mandates” after slim electoral wins, then dismiss far greater majorities of expert opinion as “uncertain.”)
For those who view this kind of behavior as uniquely a sickness of the right, Mooney’s book will offer powerful support. Evidence overwhelmingly points to orchestrated manipulation of both science and public opinion by groups ranging from the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute all the way to elements now running both Congress and the Executive Branch.
And yet, is this issue really as one-sided and simple as liberal partisans contend?
Not if you listen to a steady stream of punditry pouring from the other side, proclaiming that liberals are the ones betraying both science and modernity. Some of the very same arch-conservative think tanks that Mooney decries have issued their own accusations, for example, the Marshall Institute’s Politicizing Science: The Alchemy of Policymaking and the Cato Institute’s Silencing Science. While much is specious in these reports, they are occasionally on-target. Take for example the ill-considered leftwing concordance to rigidly oppose to nuclear power, a faulty liberal reflex that ignores real potential to reduce carbon emissions and help bridge the next few decades while we develop sustainable technologies.
Stepping back, we see a common theme. “My side favors truth while your side is warped by dogma.”
If I must choose sides, I’ll pick Mooney, because the perfidies that he describes are accelerating. For example, it is unambiguous that the GOP Congress cut funding for the National Science Foundation and NOAA even while calling for “more research” on global climate change. Nothing could be more bald-faced. In any event, rightwing abuses are inherently more dangerous, because that side currently holds sway in countless boardrooms and every branch of government.
Yet, the very title of this book — The Republican War on Science — ensures that it won’t be helpful. Providing ammo for one side, it will be contemptuously ignored by the other, while just a few — those still with open minds — may crack the covers with sincere interest in learning something new. This is ironic, in light of some wise words about the scientific process that Mooney quotes from cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker:
The success of science depends on an apparatus of democratic adjudication — anonymous peer review, open debate, the fact that a graduate student can criticize a tenured professor. These mechanisms are more or less explicitly designed to counter human self-deception. People always think they’re right, and powerful people will tend to use their authority to bolster their prestige and suppress inconvenient opposition. You try to set up the game of science so that the truth will out despite this ugly side of human nature.
Mooney claims a desire to be fair, so there are a few pages describing left-wing anti-scientific duplicities. He mentions the blanket and quasi-hysterical opposition by Greenpeace and other groups toward all genetic engineering of food plants, a sweeping paranoia that ignores every subtlety. (Some kinds of genetic engineering are intrinsically no more threatening than old-fashioned agricultural selection.) Going back much farther, he tells how the left was once a chief locus of anti-science political extremism, during the monstrous, Stalin-era Lysenkoism.
Alas, as you might expect from Mooney’s chosen title, this page or two of “balance” gives way to the tedious habit of all sides in the Culture War — squeezing complex issues along a cramped left-right political axis, inherited from the French Revolution, which a dismal and demeaning metaphor that nobody can define. Regrettable is Mooney’s oversimplification that “big business” has lined up against science. Not all capitalists or conservatives resist the notion of fine-tuning market forces to match our evolving understanding of the world. Moreover, it was Republican President George Herbert Walker Bush who said in 1990: “Science relies on freedom of inquiry, and government relies on the impartial perspective of science for guidance.” (Of similar mind is Russell Train, an administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under Republican Presidents Nixon and Ford, who wrote: “How radically we have moved away from regulation based on professional analysis of scientific data … to regulation controlled by the White House and driven by political considerations.”)
The “war on science” is better defined along a completely different axis. Future vs. past. On one side are traits that dominated nearly all other cultures and eras: nostalgia, faith in dogmatic incantations, and a reactionary fear of change. On the other side are qualities compatible only with a scientific age: pragmatism, confidence, and eagerness to confront change. Plus, perhaps, a deeper assumption: that any Creator (if one exists) will approve of children who study and use His tools.
Reactionaries of “right” and “left” differ in some ways. As Mooney correctly points out, conservative antimodernists aim their wrath at can-know scientists. In contrast, lefty postmodernists despise can-do engineers.
One side tries to ignore or distract us from terrible predicaments, while the other refuses to allow any big, ambitious endeavors to aggressively solve our greatest challenges.
Both wings despise the plan of Vannevar Bush that worked so well — a commitment to experiment, question, invent, invest, compete, negotiate, revise, and devote whatever resources it may take to try new things, solve problems, overcome inevitable errors, improve ourselves and keep making a better world.
The evident tragedy is that a modernist majority still believes in all these things. But pragmatic liberals and progressive conservatives face a starkly artificial choice between extreme left and extreme right mirror-dogmas that share the same reactionary agenda — to spread fear of tomorrow. (Sharing a characteristic retro-nostalgia, one group yearns for feudalism while the other romanticizes ancient tribes.)
Will people someday learn to refuse both sets of dyspeptic incantations? That is the common nightmare of all anti-future dogmatists. And it is the hope of modern civilization.
Do pick up The Republican War on Science, if only because these are crimes being committed against us all, right now, by ideologues with real political power and fierce determination to impose their dogmatic will. In contrast, antimodernists of the left are (for now) impotent even to control the Democratic Party. Mooney’s crisis is far more urgent.
Still, books like this one ultimately dwell upon the myopic — on today’s battles — instead of drawing our eyes to the horizon. Who would have imagined that the 21st Century would be a time of pulling inward, focusing on dogmas and petty limitations, when we have already accomplished so much?
And when the future is as filled with possibility as it ever was.