Related Articles: Literary Arts, All

The Republican War on Science by Chris Mooney

Defending Science Against A Rampaging Elephant

When Chris Mooney was a boy in the 70s his grandfather, a biologist, used to shake his head in disbelief at the transparent ruses of religious "creationists" who contrived attacks on the idea of evolution to insist that the earth was, as claimed in the Bible, only a few thousand years old. So-called "Creation scientists" would try to cast doubt on radioisotope dating, for example, or claim that evolution violated the second law of thermodynamics.

Now Mooney is a young reporter who has published a highly-touted book called The Republican War on Science and he finds himself defending science against new and cleverer attacks along the same lines. The transparent ruses of creationists have mostly faded away, replaced by a new anti-evolution doctrine called "Intelligent Design," which instead of crude attacks on Darwinism, recruits idealistic Christians to teach school kids and, in the words of the founders of the doctrine, "replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God."

On the right-hand side of the political dial, this is a practice known as "teaching the controversy". Instead of defending their spiritual beliefs, the founders of Intelligent Design disingenuously describe their attack on evolution as a defense of "sound science". In this, Mooney shows, they are following a trail blazed by the tobacco industry, which for decades profitably resisted regulations designed to protect non-smokers against second-hand smoke by claiming such efforts were "political correctness". Mooney quotes memos from Philip Morris laying out secret plans to hire public relations consultants to form phony "local" coalitions to help "educate" the public against what the tobacco manufacturer called "junk science".

For Philip Morris, "junk science" was any attempt to regulate second-hand smoke, while their paid spokespeople also scoffed at the risks posed by acid rain and the thinning ozone layer, and railed against attempts to regulate pesticides, dioxin and asbestos.

Today Fox News publishes a column called "Junk Science", in which a highly-paid commentator rails against the idea of global warming, scoffs at the risks of pesticide "endocrine disrupters" in the environment, and minimizes the proven connection between sugary drinks, diabetes and obesity. Just as the tobacco industry set out to "establish a controversy", the column by Stephen Milloy relentlessly argues against any sort of regulation against soda drinks, the pesticide industry, or the oil industry -- all major contributors to the Republican Party. Mooney goes on to show explicitly how lobbyists for the U.S. sugar industry, for example, were able to bat down attempts by health administrators to warn the public against the consumption of sugary drinks, in part with savage personal attacks on a scientist from the University of Pennsylvania.

Despite the title, Mooney focuses on fact, not politics, and interviews scientists, doctors, and policy-makers, not politicians and pundits. He criticizes leftists and politicians who spin scientific issues for personal gain (calling John Edwards' claim that the late Christopher Reeve would soon be able to walk again--if John Kerry was elected and stem cell research funded -- simply "hype"). And he introduces us to a number of middle-of-the-roaders appalled by what has happened to research and regulation under a Congress and a White House dominated by the Religious Right and working closely with business interests.

Perhaps the most memorable individual in the book is Russell Train, a lifelong Republican who helped found the influential World Wildlife Fund in this country, and ran the Environmental Protection Agency under presidents Nixon and Ford. Train, still at work on environmental issues today, is shocked by the Republican swerve to the right, and horrified to see his party intrude not just into policy decision-making at the EPA, but even into the writing of official reports on issues such as global warming.

Mooney honors the fact-based, open-minded spirit of the scientists he admires with rigorous footnoting and a calm, unruffled tone. The sharp focus and precise detailing makes Mooney's indictment of modern-day Republican "science abuse" all the more damning.

The Republican War on Science by Chris Mooney
September 9, 2005
Basic Books
Hardcover/24.95
ISBN: 0465046754
342 pages