Wednesday, October 12, 2005

The Republican War on Science

Chances are, if you follow science policy debates at all, you are aware of Chris Mooney's recently published book, The Republican War on Science.

Not surprisingly, it has generated a lot of controversy. You can find a good sample of the arguments in some recent discussions involving Mooney and two critics, Lawrence Krauss and Roger Pielke, at TPM Cafe. The comments from others there are very interesting as well.

Although Pielke has good credentials, his style of argumentation seems sophistical and even, perhaps, deliberately deceptive. There is, for instance, in this article a real howler.
A central part of Mooney's thesis is that "bad scientific information leads, inexorably, to bad policy" (p. 4). But scholars who study the relationship of knowledge and action paint a far more complicated picture of the relation of knowledge and decision making than is implied by this overly-simplistic, linear formula.
OK so far. But then he uses as his first example studies of needle exchange programs. Such programs were rejected by both Clinton and Bush administrations. But while the former didn't dispute the scientific studies (which supported exchange programs), the latter claimed, falsely, that the evidence for the efficacy of exchange programs is shaky.

Pielke notes, appropriately, that "Science appears to have been mostly irrelevant in either case." But that does not in the least contradict Mooney's assertion. Because what we have here is an instance where good science did not lead to good policy, because it was either ignored or disputed. That does not address at all the very plausible assumption that bad (i. e. inadequate, inept, disproven, distorted, or dishonest) science may very well lead to bad policy -- especially if it is relied upon instead of simply ignored. So Pielke's whole argument begins with poor logic.

On a related note, there's an especially harsh review of the book from Keay Davidson, orgininaly published in the Washington Post, and also posted at Amazon. Davidson is a science journalist who sometimes takes a critical view of science.

Davidson asserts, reasonably enough, that "Historically, debates over U.S. science policy have at least two broad features. First, there are the scientific/technical details of the debates," and "Then there are the broader, quasi-philosophical questions that loom beyond the technical details." All well and good, but Mooney is taken to task because his book doesn't involve much of either.

Well, duh, just looking at the book's title shows neither of these was the purpose, because the book -- whether it's mainly right or wrong -- is obviously about politics. It's a work of political journalism. Nothing wrong with that. Mooney is much more concerned with how science is misused and/or abused by politicians and government officials rather than with how it can be used legitimately and effectively.

Mooney's a fine writer, and on his own blog he points to other problems with Davidson's review. In particular, he disputes Davidson's allegation that the book fails to address the difficult problem of discriminating between "good" and "bad" science. One must admit that though the book mentions the problem in passing, it doesn't deal head-on with the issue. But again, the book isn't intended as either philosophy or sociology of science. It's about the politics of science. And questions about what makes science "bad" (i. e. inadequate, inept, disproven, distorted, or dishonest) deserve (and have many) book-length treatments.

Further response from Mooney is here.

Interestingly enough, Davidson works as a science writer for the Chronicle. But the review of Mooney's book that the Chronicle actually published (Bush and company blinded by pseudoscience), by David Appell, is a lot more favorable.

Update, October 15: Pielke and Mooney go another round here and here. Pielke's contribution is mostly a complaint about the "war" metaphor, but he continues to avoid specifics. His position is that science shouldn't be "politicized", and that at worst the various sides in a given issue mostly just cherry-pick the science that supports their case. Mooney continues to respond (with good basis) that the Republican actions are worse than that, when they ignore the scientific consensus altogether (global warming), pack advisory committees with people favorable to their side, and even apply political loyalty tests to as many professional civil service positions as possible (when the purpose of the civil service in the first place was to avoid that).

Pielke's quibble with the word "war" is this: "When you declare "war on" something this means that you are trying to get rid of it." That's one possibility, but not entirely correct. The U. S. went to war against Iraq (most recently) not to get rid of it but merely to change its government to one that is more favorable to the interests of the regime in the U. S. That seems like an apt description of the Republican war on science -- not eliminate science, just make it favorable to the party's goals.

Another review of this book: 'Swift Boating' Science

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