18 November 2005

The War On Science

By Rusty Rockets

"Science" is frequently perceived as truth incarnate, so does it follow that a politician who controls science controls the truth? In a very disturbing sense the answer seems to be yes. In his best selling book The Republican War on Science, Chris Mooney makes a convincing case that the current Republican government has been using tailor made science to support its policies on a wide range of issues. Mooney writes that an aggressive shake-up of government science organizations during the 1990s now means that science policy is subject to the ideologies of the GOP and the whims of industry. Mooney paints an even more disturbing picture when he points out that the Republican Party is not merely ignoring scientific advice, but is actively engaged in using industry funded research to distort and misrepresent scientific consensus. Under previous administrations, you may have been correct if you assumed that science policy was informed by scientific research. Make that same assumption today, however, and you'd probably be wrong.

George W. Bush's intentions were made clear early on. During the President's election Campaign of 2000, Mooney writes that, "Bush told the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that taxpayer money 'should not underwrite research that involves the destruction of live human embryos.'" The situation became difficult, however, as some high profile Republicans thought that stem-cell research might be worth exploring. To extricate himself from this thorny situation, Bush compromised and publicly announced that research could be conducted on stem-cell lines derived from human embryos already in existence. "As a result of private research, more than sixty genetically diverse stem-cell lines already exist," Bush told his fellow Americans. The rationale was that since the fate of these lines had already been determined, and because the central moral dilemma had been addressed, it was ok for the federal government to fund future stem-cell research under these conditions. Scientists were skeptical.

Bush's ad hoc policy on stem-cell lines was not based on any scientific, peer-reviewed research, and according to Paul Berg, Stanford professor emeritus of medicine and Nobel Laureate, many of the stem-cell lines were either dead, or it was too difficult to distinguish cell lines at all. During this period, writes Mooney, Bush had no science advisor of his own and had failed to confer with Bill Clinton's advisor, Rosina Bierbaum, who had stayed on as a stand-in. Without such advice, or even the inclination to seek it out, Bush's promise could only be considered an exercise in public relations at the expense of science.

With this trenchant introductory chapter, Mooney introduces us to the world of Republican science policy, which is steered not by Bush's personal moral concerns - despite claims to the contrary - but by political opportunism. This does not discount the fact that some Senators and interest groups are indeed morally motivated, rather it shows that President Bush will distort and misrepresent scientific research on the grounds of satisfying fringe interests. As Peter Singer pointed out in The President of Good and Evil, Bush's morals are either confused or non-existent considering that he will not sacrifice one human embryo on research that may save many lives, while not finding any issue or fault in sacrificing lives to meet military ends.

As Mooney explains, the politicization of science does not stop with Republicans pandering to the whims of pro-lifers and religious groups. It's certainly no secret that the Republican Party advocates a free-market ideology. But while this political bent in itself may not be distressing to everyone, the way that it is protected should be. "Industry science" is the most alarming aspect of the Republican War on Science, as Mooney details how industry funds much of the research used by the Republicans to counter and distort mainstream science on issues such as passive smoking, mercury poisoning, evolution, abortion, conservation of wildlife and global warming. "Some industries and interest groups have even plotted strategies for upsetting a consensus scientific view or shaping the development of scientific understanding in a way favorable to their interests," writes Mooney. This is a trend, he explains, that sprouted from the 1970s, when industry began to feel the heat on a raft of issues, which led them to "rethink the way they would spend their money in sponsoring research and intellectual enquiry." This has resulted in a large number of Right wing think tanks popping into existence designed solely to advance their own agendas irrespective of scientific truths. "Often, the goal has been to manufacture scientific uncertainty to create a semblance of controversy where it doesn't actually exist," writes Mooney.

These days, there are few scientists worth their NaCl that would deny the claims contained in the most recent Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA) that human activities are causing the climate to change in adverse ways. Arctic climate research may seem a universe away from the comfort of your armchair, but as the ACIA report states, the Arctic plays a unique role in a global context with environmental consequences that extend well beyond its indistinct borders. "The Arctic plays a critical part in driving the global thermohaline (Thermo (heat) haline (salt) determines the density of sea water) circulation," says the ACIA report. "It is possible that increased precipitation and runoff of fresh water and the melting of glaciers and ice sheets, and thawing of the extensive permafrost underlying northern Siberia, could freshen arctic waters, causing a reduction in the overturning circulation of the global ocean and thus affecting the global climate system and marine ecosystems," the report adds. It is an understatement to say that the task of modeling such complex climate patterns in the Arctic is difficult, and there are often unexpected results and unpredictable outcomes resulting from climate studies. In fact, one predicted possibility might see regional Arctic temperatures cool rather than warm. Despite these possible anomalies, scientists are now trying to predict what will happen when warming reaches a critical level, not if. That's the thing about natural phenomenon; unlike politics it doesn't hang around waiting for politicians to act, it just steamrolls over any species not able to, or unwilling, to adapt.

As it is such an important issue, global warming and the Republican response to extensive scientific studies on the problem are covered in the book in more detail than can be covered in this article, suffice to say it makes for an unnerving read. He relates how President Bush, while publicly acknowledging global warming as an issue of note, fails to take any initiative to limit its possible damaging effects. As we read through a litany of government and industry engineered "scientific" sleights of hand, it soon becomes obvious that the Republicans will go out of their way to avoid scientific responsibility while simultaneously taking the time to present themselves as a friend of science. Mooney explains that this Janus faced approach has partly been made possible due to the introduction of a number of key acts and legislation amendments, such as the Shelby amendment and the Data Quality Act (DQA), left over from the Gingrich era.

These acts and amendments mean that a great deal of time can be spent peer-reviewing such things as environmental impact studies over and over again, ostensibly stalling action on, say, preventing the extinction of a particular species of wildlife. The deception in this is that most people would query why anyone would want to argue against extensive peer reviewing, and normally they'd be right. However, very often there is simply little or no time available to have every interested party peer review a crucial piece of environmental or medical science. In these immediate instances, scientific tools such as population modeling and ecosystem data are relied upon to make predictions about the fate of a species. Nature waits for nobody. Subsequently, we get President Bush's response to a question posed by the journal Science in regard to human activity and global warming: "The nation's most respected scientific body found that key uncertainties remain concerning the underlying causes and nature of climate change." As has already been pointed out, there are anomalies and uncertainties in any climate report, but there is no uncertainty among mainstream scientists in regard to global warming being caused by human activity. The combination of government legislation amendments and Right wing think tanks opposing mainstream science, means that initiatives to curtail global warming, save wildlife or sign treaties such as the Kyoto agreement can be put off indefinitely.

The Republican war on science is exacerbated even further by news media accounts that give equal weight to both sides of what is in actuality a very disproportionate debate on hot-button issues such as climate change, abortion, stem cells and evolution. Such depictions of science debate, while good for news sales, play right into the hands of the Republican Party stratagem. Women's health and the over-the-counter "morning after" pill (Plan B) is a case in point. As a result of having their own scientific research bodies, the Republican government conducted their own studies to see if Plan B had any adverse side-effects in teenagers, "even though such data had rarely, if ever, been demanded for other drug approvals and no evidence suggested that young teens would use the drug any differently than would older teens and adults," writes Mooney. By researching the effects of such a drug, the government draws media attention to any unsubstantiated claims made by their own research scientists, which are in effect little more than scare campaigns. It also seems that this Republican stratagem is spreading among other conservative governments. When the conservative Australian Liberal party was elected into office in 1996, the abortion pill (RU-486) was banned on the basis that it was detrimental to women's health, despite both the Australian Medical Association (AMA) and College of Obstetricians supporting the use of the drug. While a conscience vote on the matter is trying to be forced in the Australian parliament, it should not have to come to such extreme political measures if the appropriate scientific studies are already at hand. As Mooney suggests, why cite questionable medical evidence when your gripe is actually grounded in moral issues? It's no less than a blatant abuse and politicization of science.

So far the various symptoms of the government's de-emphasis of science have produced mixed results, but recent challenges to evolution demonstrate that it is still early days. Yes, the evolution versus creationism debate also features in The Republican War on Science, with creationism, and its more recent incarnation, Intelligent Design (ID). The campaign to introduce ID into schools as science is probably the most vivid and colorful example of how pseudoscience attempts to cloud and fog the mind. Mooney again goes into some detail about Intelligent Design proponents and the moral and political agendas behind their attempts to sneak creationism into schools. Well, let's face it, many of them would love to see the back of evolution altogether. Mooney lines up the usual suspects, like ID's poster boy Michael Behe, who claim that life is far too complex to have evolved. Behe's theory is an argument called Irreducible Complexity (IC), and it is the foundational argument to ID. Mooney also discusses the Discovery Institute that is, says Mooney, heavily supported by the religious right tycoon Howard F. Ahmanson, jr., who also happens to sit on Discovery's board of directors. He also raises the issue of the famous "Wedge Document" that is really a modus operandi for the Institute and ID proponents, who must "win a popular base of support among our natural constituency, namely, Christians."

Unfortunately, as a result of incessant campaigning, their voice has been picked up and given equal weight in some news media, under the mantra that all theories must be considered. It's just one more example of how pseudoscience muddies the waters and drags down science. Without giving too much away, it is this that is the crux of Mooney's argument against ID, that there is a concerted effort to shift the goal posts in regard to what constitutes a scientific theory. The best way to illustrate this is by relating a recent case where parents took their children's school board to trial because the board tried to introduce ID into the classroom. This showdown occurred in a Pennsylvania town called Dover, where Behe himself was called as a witness. The trial had a number of amusing highlights, but one exchange between Behe and the plaintiff's (consisting of 11 parents) lawyer, Eric Rothschild, demonstrates how pseudoscience does attempt to redefine the rules of science. During cross-examination it was established that Behe was happy to redefine the criteria of a scientific theory, in order to incorporate IC, to such a degree that it also allowed astrology to be classed as a scientific theory.

While the arguments for ID often verge on slapstick and the ultimate goals of its proponents may seem at this point a laughable endeavor, it should be remembered that it is not an isolated case of the use of pseudoscience and abuse of science. Mooney's book highlights a much larger and more widespread initiative that is accomplishing these ends in a frightening and destructive manner. If left unchecked, the Republican war on science has the potential to engender ignorance and indecision to such a level that there may be no way to counter the effects of some of the most pressing global phenomena faced by humanity. For this reason alone it is hard to find fault with Mooney's book. It is well researched, provides ample examples to support his arguments, balanced and is written with an easy and unaffected style. The only problem that it may encounter is becoming a victim of its own thorough methodology, since, according to Mooney, a thorough scientific approach is apparently becoming less of a priority in democratic society. Despite the doom and gloom, in addition to other equally fascinating topics of discussion not mentioned here, you'll be glad to know that The Republican War on Science's closing chapter does offer a glimmer, maybe a flicker, of hope.