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THE REPUBLICAN WAR ON SCIENCE
by Chris Mooney
Basic Books, 342 pp., $24.95


The Republican War on Science

When Richard Nixon established the Council on Environmental Quality in 1969, the idea was to provide the administration with scientific data and analyses to be used in the development of environmental policy. The intent was not, so far as anyone can tell, to enlist lobbyists to alter scientific reports to support a desired policy outcome.

The council functioned, by and large, according to its original mandate for three decades. But this past June, the New York Times reported that Phil Cooney, the head of President Bush's Council on Environmental Quality and a former oil lobbyist, had doctored reports on climate change to suggest that the scientific community was uncertain about the role we humans play in rising global temperatures. Such doubt-mongering through the editing and suppression of information is but one of many instances of the Bush administration's attempt to subvert science in the service of a political agenda.

President Bush may not be the first to abuse the scientific advisory process, but he certainly is among the most flagrant. So argues Chris Mooney, who in The Republican War on Science guides us through the most highly politicized scientific debates of the past 30 years, from stem cell research and creationism in schools to global warming and regulatory reform. In so doing, he aims to help us grasp how it is that, through the polygamous marriage of the Republican Party to religious conservatives and industry lobbyists, "our nation gave rise to a political movement whose leaders, to put it bluntly, often seem not to care what we in the 'reality-based community' know about either nature or ourselves."

The rift between the reality and ideology camps has been widening for decades, but it's fair to say that President Ronald Reagan set the ball in motion. During his first term, Reagan called evolution "only a theory," and his vice president, George H. W. Bush, convened a regulatory reform task force that laid the groundwork for some of the most disturbing abuses of science in recent history.

More than a decade later, when Representative Newt Gingrich brought his Contract With America to the halls of Congress, regulatory reform topped his to-do list, and the now-infamous phrase "sound science" entered the political debate. The phrase was coined by tobacco lobbyists who, in an attempt to indemnify themselves against lawsuits and further regulation, wanted to make it next to impossible to prove that secondhand smoke was a health hazard. "Sound science," Mooney explains, has always been used "to describe an agenda that had little to do with scientific rigor and everything to do with blocking government controls on industry by raising the burden of scientific proof required to justify action." Gingrich and other conservatives adopted the phrase to make it sound like their reforms would improve the scientific process, when in fact they were designed to paralyze federal agencies by saddling them with extra assessments and analyses.

Although his reforms didn't pass while Gingrich ruled the congressional roost, he set the stage for getting the job done piecemeal. In 2001, the Data Quality Act passed -- "a science abuser's dream come true," Mooney writes. Now, industry could challenge not only regulations but also the methodology of scientific studies that could be used to craft regulations in the future. In effect, the act lets industry into the regulatory process from the get-go, discrediting any science that threatens its bottom line and diminishing the prospects of tougher public safeguards.

It's easy to equate this debate over the politicization of science with some academic quibble about the next decimal of pi. But this is a big deal. As we stretch the boundaries of science, the information our leaders need to create effective policies becomes more specialized; the questions they must ask are more nuanced and the answers they receive more complex. Most politicians are not scientists, and so cannot be expected to apply the physics of missile defense, the biology of stem cells, or the chemistry of atmospheric greenhouse gases to real-world problems without knowledgeable analysis and guidance.

Mooney's fluid storytelling and readable prose make him particularly adept at threading together seemingly disparate events into a coherent picture of an exceedingly complex phenomenon. He understands science and how it works, as well as why it's so vulnerable to politicization below the public radar. Tampering with science threatens not only the credibility of the scientific endeavor, he asserts, but democracy as a whole. Talk about a threat to national security.
-- Laura Wright


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OnEarth. Fall 2005
Copyright 2005 by the Natural Resources Defense Council