Speaker Dissects “Republican War on Science”
Chris Mooney began his lecture, “The Republican War on Science” with a joke designed for his liberal audience.
“Do we have any Republicans in the audience?” Mooney asked. No one raised a hand. “Just so I can know what I can get away with,” he continued, “I’m not here to slam every last Republican, but since there’s none in the audience, I could.”
Mooney is a Washington correspondent for Seed magazine and the author of articles exploring the politicization of science. He is also the author of the best-selling book that shares the lecture title’s name. His visit to Oberlin this past Thursday was funded by the Mead Swing Lectureship Committee, which supports religion and science discussions.
Having established that his lecture would be both light-hearted and serious, Mooney began to discuss the topic at hand. According to him, the Republican Party has successfully politicized science
“The constituencies under the republican base have gotten better at using science, or rather misusing science,” to fit their moral agenda, said Mooney.
Signs that this is happening include “edited” reports about climate change, President Bush’s endorsement of intelligent design,and the administration’s manipulation of the Food and Drug Administration.
“The war on science is opportunistic. It takes many forms,” he explained. He described five “strategies” the Republican Party uses to manipulate science.
First, said Mooney, the religious conservatives and big businesses are influencing policy. “They both are running up against scientific information they don’t like,” said Mooney. “A small army of political appointees [are] staffing political organizations...to undermine mainstream knowledge.”
Business has attacked the “regulatory process” of environmental policies whereas religious conservatives have attacked moral issues such as evolution, abortion, embryonic stem cell research and the morning-after pill.
When religious conservatives dress moral issues to seem like facts, said Mooney, it forces scientists to disprove the facts. If scientists fail to respond, their information becomes discredited. “They have to redefine the nature of science,” he said.
The “Religious Right” is “trying to smuggle supernatural explanations back into the fabric of scientific inquiry...They’re trying to turn modern scientists into people on endless speculative searches for ghosts or genies or what else,” joked Mooney. At this point, the Ghostbusters movie poster appeared on the screen behind him.
A third tactic, said Mooney, involves the “the politically forced editing of scientific documents.” Some agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, have complained about the White House changing sections of their reports. Through the “forceful editing process,” the Republicans make information sound uncertain, said Mooney. They add words like “potentially” and “may” to exaggerate uncertainties.
“Perhaps more disturbing are the political and personal attacks on scientists because [Republicans] don’t like their works,” he said. Threatening to take away research funding is another tactic to “politicize” science. When scientists presented graphs showing global temperature change, the graphs were “wildly, ferociously attacked” by conservatives who originally started the study. Mooney thought threatening funding unfortunately influenced some scientists.
“The real people who have dropped the ball in addition are the scientists who are content to receive federal funding if they don’t rock the boat...They are afraid to call out politicians on the misuse of science because they’re afraid the gravy train will stop for their research,” he said.
A final troubling fact is the Republicans’ hold on the legislative and executive branches. There is no pressure from Congress to “make a stink” about the misuse of scientific information, said Mooney.
He ended his lecture stressing the issue’s importance. “The misuse of science threatens public health, threatens the environment [and] threatens the public education,” said Mooney. Americans are unaware of what is happening in policy. It is “veiled by the complexities by the government regulatory process,” he said.
The best way to halt politicization of science, he concluded, was to open communication between science and politics.
“Under the Bush administration, these needed channels of communication [and] these crucial channels of communication between scientists and our administration have deteriorated...There’s a breakdown between discussion and communication and that’s a terrible condition for our country to be in.
“My advice to liberal advocates is to not get embroiled in the
scientific fight because science is not what [Republicans] really care about.
They care about the moral issues and they will drag you down into