The Republican War on Science, Chris Mooney

Basic Books, 2005, 342 pages, C$32.95 hc, ISBN 0-465-04675-4

Faithful readers of these reviews (if any) already suspect my distinct lack of enthusiasm for the Bush administration in particular and modern Republicanism in general. If there was plenty to admire in the traditional Republican model (fiscal restraint, promotion of civility, determination to use force when necessary), the newer post-Goldwater Republicanism has forged an alliance between religious conservatives and big-business interest that’s simply too dangerous to condone. Especially when its starts messing with science.

In The Republican War on Terror, science journalist Chris Mooney takes aim, as the title clearly indicates, at the steady pattern of anti-scientific behaviour from Republican politicians. While acknowledging early on that political abuse of science is a bipartisan affair, Mooney thinks that there is particular cause to single out Republicans (not just the Bush administration) as the worst offenders. They, argues Mooney, have a long history of deliberately misrepresenting research, shutting down independent enquiries and financing their own brand of contrarian research through ideological think-tanks. After reading the book, you’ll be hard-pressed to disagree.

The problem stems from the modern Republican Party’s two biggest constituencies: The Religious Right and Big Business interests. Neither of them are particularly interested in the objective assessment processes of science, nor in factual conclusions. Mooney takes us back to the Reagan years, with a look at the Goldwater campaign, to demonstrate the long history of anti-intellectualism within the Republican Party. Then he works his way forward, showing the damage caused by both of those factors.

Big Business, of course, has a number of business models to protect. Anything that suggests health impacts from industrial activities directly threatens those business models. Hence the tobacco companies’ efforts at discrediting links between cigarettes and lung cancer. Hence the efforts to finance studies by ideologically-driven institutes to disprove or dismiss evidence of Global Warming. You can expect industry lobby to say these things, but when Republican members of congress parrot the same lines, (allowing the “moderate” Bush administration to say “well, there’s doubt out there”), it’s clearly not the same game.

The Religious Right, on the other hand, has realized that strictly moral points aren’t “sellable” by themselves and so resorts to false science in order to “demonstrate” its ideological values. Can’t argue that abortions are immoral? Just manufacture proofs that abortions offer health risks. Can’t deal with the reality of condoms? Just say they don’t work. Studies that suggest that abstinence-only sexual education programs are ineffective or that needle-exchange programs work are dismissed not because they’re flawed, but because they don’t agree with the conservative social agenda. Again, you would expect church leaders to make those claims, but when carefully-chose federal officials start messing with research funds in order to eliminate dissenting research, it’s time to ring the alarm bell.

Mooney shows, over and over again, a steady pattern of scientific abuse, dismissal, politicization of government agencies, anti-intellectual trends, attack mechanism that the anti-science agenda of the Republican party becomes more than obvious. (And we haven’t even said anything about the “Intelligent Design” nonsense.) Particularly revealing is the pattern through which politicians can influence scientific research through spin or budgetary manoeuvres. It’s impossible to claim an interest in the modern scientific research process and ignore this book. (And lest I be accused of cheap anti-Americanism, it’s true that Canada’s own federal research infrastructure has known its share of controversy. Search around for “Shiv Chopra” for the details.)

The Republican War on Science is certainly not a pleasant reading experience. It’s infuriating, depressing, mind-boggling and completely convincing. Mooney has spent a lot of time and effort proving his thesis: Of the book’s 342 pages, eight list interview subjects and over sixty are made of notes and sources. A dozen-page index makes this a great reference source. The main text itself is clearly written and utterly damning. The thin appendix suggests a few solutions, but the problem itself seems formidable. Maybe it’s time for our American friends to clean their House?

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