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Trofim Lysenko, a Russian pseudo-scientist, rose through the ranks of the Communist Party, wielding considerable influence from the 1930s through the 1960s. The study of genetics, which he described as “bourgeois” science, particularly inflamed him, and at his urging the Stalinist regime executed many geneticists and sentenced others to hard labor in the gulags. Meanwhile, party-controlled newspapers celebrated Lysenko’s various useless scientific ideas as they berated academic scientists who urged the careful experimentation and observation required for true science. The end result was that Lysenkoism caused major long-term harm to Soviet biological sciences, and the term continues to refer to beliefs that are contradicted by empirical evidence but are advanced for ideological reasons.
Now, 146 years after Darwin published On the Origin of Species and 80 years after the Scopes trial allowed the teaching of natural selection in the classroom, there is a whiff of Lysenkoism in the air here in America.
Chris Mooney’s powerful and readable new book, The Republican War on Science, opens with a reference to Lysenko as it reminds us of the tremendous costs of turning science into a political football.
Though this phenomenon is not exclusive to the Bush administration, never before in this country have we seen conservatives so abusing science – turning it into a tool to promote particular moral agendas and policy goals.
Mooney documents conservative attempts to discredit science by promoting “intelligent design” and removing evolution from the classroom, obfuscating the negative impacts of tobacco and global warming and promoting the specious ABC (abortion-breast cancer) link as just several of many attempts to play to two of their core audiences: the religious right and corporations.
Campus Progress sat down with Chris Mooney to talk about scientific lies, the decline of innovation, and the strange bedfellows found in religion and industry.
At the start of the book you talk about one of President Bush’s more egregious scientific lies – when he claimed on national television that more than 60 embryonic stem cell lines already existed. As ridiculous as this was, ultimately, it’s tough to get Americans involved in or caring about the details of the stem cell issue or other scientific issues. How do you engage people?
That is part of why I describe the war on science as veiled, because the government regulatory process is very intricate, so people don’t know a lot about it, and scientific debate is very complex, so that also can obscure what’s going on and make it hard for the public to access the problems. I try to get past that by making the argument that we’re facing a full-fledged crisis over the role of scientific information and public policy decision-making – and that crisis affects everybody because it affects public health, it affects the environment and it affects the way we treat knowledge itself in American society. It’s also bad for America’s competitiveness. I’d even argue it’s bad for the Republican Party. They are going to have to kick their destructive addiction to distorting and abusing science if they want to govern in the 21st century.
Already the U.S. has been falling behind in certain types of innovation. What impact will it have in terms of America’s status as an innovator and a leader? How are other nations responding to the Republican war on science?
There’s a lot of factors that go into our economic competitiveness and this is only one of them. But I think countries like South Korea enjoy the fact that they’re now leading the world in stem cell research rather than us. That’s one field where other nations have leapt into the void that we have left. This is going to be the century of dramatic advances in biology and biotechnology and we are undermining the central theories of biological understanding with misinformation. I can’t quantify that but I have no doubt it will hurt our competitiveness.
In the book, you outline several tactics that conservatives use to beat back scientific fact. One is basically presenting as scientific fact things that are really just ideas, theories, and theological speculation. What is the most egregious example of this?
Intelligent Design is a sort of fundamental assault on the nature of scientific inquiry itself. Intelligent Design isn’t a scientific explanation; it doesn’t have any explanatory power. We can’t tell how the alleged “designer” achieved any of these wonderful feats Intelligent Design is supposed to achieve and we can’t even investigate it because the designer is acting through supernatural means. So it’s essentially a philosophical idea that’s being dressed up as science and that undermines the very nature of science.
Though your book is titled The Republican War on Science , you make the distinction between the treatment of science by moderates and by right-wingers.
I’m not trying to toss out red meat to the blue state region. In my mind, I’m simply describing a phenomenon. I’m not slamming all Republicans. I think if you read the book you’ll find I’m criticizing the political right – I’m criticizing the fact that the political right dominates the Republican Party. But I also say that Republican moderates like John McCain or Sherwood Boehlert, who chairs the House Science Committee, often don’t have the same science-abusing tendencies. I even add that supporting moderate Republicans in elections could be a constructive way of dealing with the crisis of science politicization that I’m describing. But I think the title’s justified, because at least right now and certainly when I wrote the book, Republican moderates are not running the show politically.
The Bush administration hasn’t been the first time for these affronts to scientific inquiry, but it certainly seems the fastest and worst in recent years. Could you talk about the history of the war on science and how it seems to have sped up so quickly recently?
I try to provide a thorough historical and political explanation in the book. But the argument runs that there were the modern conservatives bursting onto the scene in the late ‘50s, and William F. Buckley and The National Review, and the Goldwater campaign in ‘64. This sort of consolidates Republican power and becomes a real full-fledged movement that is actually able to become mainstream.
It pulled together constituencies, and two of the key constituencies were the religious conservatives and business. And those two interest groups really want quite different things in a lot of cases, but both have this in common, which is the things they want often stray into scientific areas. The religious conservatives want to challenge evolution, and regulated industry wants to challenge scientific research suggesting the dangers of global warming. What happens is the Republican Party and the Bush administration humor these constituencies – politicians do it, political appointees do it – they listen to what essentially amounts to scientific lobbying. That doesn’t mean no one else hasn’t politicized science, it just means today’s Republican Party is essentially the perfect storm. And part of that is also because there’s no check on what the administration’s doing because the Republicans also control Congress.
Also, one supporting factor is that the right has invested in think tanks, which have essentially created their own internal source of expertise, which included scientific expertise. Politicians generally can’t put aside the mainstream of research and science unless they have someone putting out jargon they can use. The growth of think tanks have been very central here – I traced that back to the ‘70s when people like Irving Kristol, who was an important conservative thinker, helped corporations to fund their own think tanks and other outlets that would reflect their pro-business philosophy. There’s a quote from Kristol at the time where he says that corporate philanthropy should not be disinterested. Sure enough, the think tanks that emerged are not disinterested.
It seems conservatives have risen to dominance on creating these strange bedfellows in terms of religious and corporate interests.
It’s pretty clear that the biotech industry and Christian conservatives could not be more at loggerheads on something like embryonic stem cell research. Somehow that doesn’t explode within the Republican Party. They control that somehow; it’s very good at keeping everyone together and not letting it schism.
Sometimes this all feels very 1984 – an authoritarian affront to the culture of intellectual inquiry.
Right. The reason I think there should be interest on campuses is partly that the think tank strategy and the attack on science generally is essentially an attack on university-based scientific inquiry – the notion that that can be supplanted by think tank expertise, and what I would argue is essentially politicized, convenient, carefully selected expertise.
Totally. As relevant as this all is for college students, the solutions can feel remote. What can people on campus be doing to tackle this issue?
Here’s a great example – it happened after the book was finished: Joe Barton, the head of the Energy and Commerce Committee, basically launched this extremely intimidating "inquiry" on a group of climate scientists, demanding data and funding information for all the research they’ve ever done. The scientists in the community spoke out and said "Barton, this is unprecedented, this is a witch hunt." This was the National Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Academies, America’s meteorological societies, the American Geophysical Union, etc. What we didn’t have there and really should have was a collective statement from university presidents. I think that’s also true on evolution – what can a university stand for if it can’t stand for the teaching of evolution? Maybe it’s because they receive federal funding and they’re shy about doing that but I’d like to see universities take more of a stand on some of these very fundamental issues where someone in Congress is going to launch an outrageous and intrusive and burdensome attack on science.
You mention a number of tactics that right-wing Republicans use to stymie science, including suppressing evidence, deliberately misinterpreting data, and dressing up values in scientific clothing and so on. You also mention the Data Quality Act, which sounds kind of boring but is quite important.
I’ll try to make it interesting. The Data Quality Act is not an act, it’s over-glorified; it’s really just a couple of sentences that were cleverly slipped into an appropriations bill that the Bush administration decided to seize upon and use to build all sorts of new rules and regulations and structures governing how government agencies use science. What it does is set up a process that lets industry launch attacks on scientific studies that they don’t like, that might actually prompt the government to do something, and slow the process down. It’s a bureaucratic foothold that they’re now exploiting, and it sets up the whole government regulatory process a little more in their favor. So you can tie things up forever with the Data Quality Act because if there’s just one study that suggests this specific chemical might be doing something bad, and the government’s just starting to look at it, [industries] file a data quality challenge and it sets back the whole regulatory process which takes years and years anyway.
Abstinence-only education has been a big issue for students. It seems like this religiously motivated approach to sexual health education requires science to be bent to fit around belief systems. It all seems strange because you could make the abstinence-only argument quite well relying only on the moral argument, not on bad science.
There’s a number of groups that I would define as religious conservative think tanks that are dedicated to promoting the abstinence agenda. That involves a number of forms of scientific argumentation that I think are misleading. One of them is the attack on condoms – which is essentially an exaggeration of the failure rate. Unfortunately, the Bush administration has gone with this and government websites have been changed to highlight this distortion of condom effectiveness campaign. It’s another case study where the right has generated its own science, completely out of whack with mainstream public health science. There was a government website that created this huge hoopla – HHS created a site that was filled with misinformation about the dangers of sex and misinformation about the dangers of abortion. That is another scare tactic: abortion is going to cause you breast cancer, abortion is going to cause you mental illness. Again, these ideas are scientifically rejected, but you’ve got a couple people who won’t accept it; they’re always on the Christian right, they’re always attached to think tanks. It’s structurally the same problem across all these issue areas.
Illustration: August J. Pollak
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