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Science and politics: a dangerous mix

'Twisted science' may endanger America's future, one journalist warns

By / September 27, 2005



The Republican War on Science lives up to its incendiary title. The book will undoubtedly raise hackles among conservatives and spawn sharp-tongued counterattacks. But the real test of its efficacy may be whether or not it persuades independents and moderate Republicans that without a new approach toward science America is headed for what the author calls "economic, ecological, and social calamity."

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As a good polemicist, Chris Mooney, a journalist who specializes in writing about science and politics, knows to protect his argument by first making two concessions.

First, not all Republicans have been antiscience. Teddy Roosevelt was a great early conservationist. Dwight Eisenhower was the first president to recognize that the White House needed a science adviser. Ronald Reagan's surgeon general, C. Everett Koop, weighed scientific evidence "dispassionately" on subjects like AIDS and the health effects of abortion and declared, "I am the nation's surgeon general, not the nation's chaplain."

Even the first President Bush was largely regarded by scientists as "a friend," Mr. Mooney says. And today, a few GOP mavericks like Sen. John McCain speak the truth on issues like global warming.

Secondly, Mooney wisely - albeit briefly - acknowledges that liberals have also sometimes twisted science for their own political ends. Some of the alarm over genetically modified foods has exceeded what science shows; animal rights activists have argued that animal testing isn't necessary when most scientists disagree; and some Democratic politicians have overstated the likelihood that stemcell research will produce quick cures.

But these transgressions, Mooney says, pale in comparison with the breathtaking audacity of Mr. Bush's "New Right" in its cynical manipulation of science. In a kind of Orwellian newspeak, they label conventional science as "junk science" and seek to replace it with what they call "sound science" - in other words, questionable, fringe science that conveniently props up the interests of big industry and conservative Christians.

All sides might agree that science should inform policy, not make it. Other considerations may trump it. But what irks Mooney is when, in his eyes, science is distorted to defend a policy.

In this regard, Mooney contrasts the Clinton and Bush administrations in their approaches to needle-exchange programs for drug addicts. Numerous reputable scientific studies show that needle-exchange programs reduce the transmission of AIDS without encouraging drug abuse. The Clinton administration acknowledged these findings, but simply decided to ignore them, apparently unwilling to take an unpopular political stance.

The Bush administration also opposed needle-exchange programs but "twisted the science," Mooney says, by insisting that some scientists doubted the findings. Yet when the press followed up, the scientists cited by the White House said they had no such doubts.

A key GOP tactic, Mooney says, has been "magnifying uncertainty" - finding a few dissenting voices on the scientific fringe and calling for "more research" to forestall action - a tactic the tobacco industry used for decades, he says.

Chapter by chapter, Mooney picks through the hot-button issues - global warming, creationism, intelligent design, stem cells - and finds conservatives politicizing and distorting the science involved.

He rejects the idea of even "teaching the controversy" over these issues in schools, arguing that the far right has invented the controversy itself by ginning up a kind of faux science alternative that has no solid basis. He isn't even willing to move the controversy out of science classes into social studies or current events.

Mooney does offer a brief list of solutions. Congress should revive the Office of Technology Assessment "or a close equivalent," which once offered nonpartisan scientific advice to lawmakers. The White House should restore its science adviser from his peripheral position now to the president's inner circle, where the office resided under President Kennedy. Journalists should resist slick PR campaigns and "spin" on science-related stories.

(According to Mooney, although a "powerful consensus" exists among scientists that global climate change is under way, that has not been reflected in the mainstream press, which feels compelled for reasons of "balance" to report as though the issue were still in doubt.)

"Our future relies on our intelligence ... nourishing disturbing anti-intellectual tendencies - cannot deliver us there successfully or safely," Mooney warns.

For those who have felt even vaguely disturbed by their government's attitude toward science, this book is likely to bring those concerns into sharp focus.

Gregory M. Lamb is on the Monitor staff.

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