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Book Review: <i>The Republican War on Science</i>

April 29, 2006, 1:30 PM

Once the party of small government and fiscal conservativism, America's Republican party has in the past few decades been hijacked by an unlikely coalition of religious extremists and big-business interests. This coalition has risen to power by cynically exploiting people's fears, courting the support of minority special interest groups, and attacking its opponents' patriotism as a cloak to hide its own noxious ideals, and now threatens the very constitutional ideals upon which this country has built. This much should be obvious to every informed observer, but Chris Mooney's The Republican War on Science chronicles in meticulous detail one effect of the Republican agenda: the damage done to science, damage that now threatens the scientific standing of a country that invented some of the modern world's most revolutionary innovations, from atomic power to the Internet.

Both groups making up the Republican party tend to oppose science, but for different reasons. The religious conservatives oppose areas of science that infringe on their faith-based conclusions, such as evolution, sex education, and stem-cell research. Business interests oppose science that might lead to regulation of their industries, such as global warming, endangered-species protection, pollution controls, and research into the health impacts of foods and drugs.

Mooney's book explores politically motivated abuse of science in the above-mentioned fields and others, showing how anti-science elements of the GOP have done their damage. Their tactics include stacking scientific advisory committees with ideologues, passing new laws to bury proposed scientific studies in red tape, commissioning contrarian "science" to create a false impression of controversy, and outright suppressing scientific research whose conclusions they disagree with. He also notes how the religious right, and George W. Bush in particular, magnifies scientific uncertainty as an excuse for inaction where it suits their purposes (such as environmental protection), yet ignores it altogether where it does not suit their purposes (such as missile defense).

Finally, Mooney provides a historical account of how the Republican party, once a friend of science, became the party of anti-science. This transformation began in the 1960s, where conservative politicians such as Barry Goldwater first began to rail against the "scientific elite", and escalated in the 1990s with infamous episodes such as the Gingrich Congress' dismantling of the world-renowned Office of Technology Assessment, leading up to the full-blown Republican war on science today. Mooney quotes Republicans such as Russell Train, administrator of the EPA under two Republican presidents, who are dismayed by the direction their party has taken.

The Republican War on Science thoroughly documents how partisan attacks have touched many fields of science; but if I have any complaint, it is that it does not go for the jugular often enough. Mooney's discussion of the Data Quality Act was a case in point: he does not, in my opinion, explain clearly enough why it is bad to someone unfamiliar with how science works. He could have summed up the law's purpose, which is to give well-funded industry groups as many chances as possible to stifle regulation by burying scientific research in legal red tape, in stronger terms. Similar points could be raised about other chapters. Nevertheless, as a source of information and inspiration, this book is worth reading. As one of the reviews on the cover says, it won't make you feel good, but it will make you wiser.

(Crossposted at Ebon Musings.)


Book Review: <i>The Republi...

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