No facts, just the Right answers

The Republican War on Science
December 23, 2005

The neoconservative agenda set by Reagan and accelerated by Bush Junior has savaged US science. Philip Anderson hears the damning case

In the US, science and politics are never very comfortable with each other. The message of Chris Mooney in The Republican War on Science , substantiated by a number of well-researched case studies, is that under George W. Bush the relationship of science with the Republican Party hegemony is worse than uncomfortable: it has deteriorated into something like open warfare. Mooney dates the beginnings of this deterioration to the Reagan revolution of the early 1980s but notes a remarkable acceleration under Bush the younger.

It was Ronald Reagan who formed the alliance of conservative Southern and Midwestern populism with the economic radical Right of "new money" capitalism that dominates today's politics. The populist wing of this alliance subscribes to various forms of religious fundamentalism, with its strong bias against the study of evolution and modern biology in general, while the economic Right opposes science-based regulation in any form. The two streams coalesced in such figures as James Watt, Reagan's first Secretary of the Interior (responsible inter alia for the national park system), who, believing in the imminence of the Second Coming, opposed all forms of conservation.

Before Reagan, science had fared much the same at the hands of either party. President Richard Nixon, for instance, fired his science adviser in a fit of pique at scientific opposition to his pet projects, supersonic transport and the anti-ballistic missile system, yet he signed into law several of the key environmental measures now under threat. In response to the Nixon Administration's downgrading of the science adviser's office, Congress came to rely more and more on its own Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) and to contract for reports on controversial subjects from the National Academy of Science or other impartial sources. There also grew up a competent regulatory civil service in the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Centers for Disease Control and other agencies. The industrial giants of the mid-20th century, such as AT&T, IBM, DuPont and GE, contributed major figures to the scientific advisory apparatus and strongly supported technical and scientific education, even though, not unwittingly, they were at the same time resisting environmental regulation and leaving behind horrendous pollution problems. Over that period, public opinion polls gave scientists a high score for trustworthiness relative to other professions.

But with Reagan's accession, the more or less comfortable relationship between science and government began to unravel. Reagan's attitude towards science seems to have been complete and cheerful ignorance, and a seemingly deliberate determination to ignore any bad news it brought to his attention. He may have been the first presidential candidate since the 19th century to question evolution on the campaign trail, and as Governor of California, he promoted weakening the teaching of evolution. A number of his appointees were anti-evolution; even his science adviser, George Keyworth, equivocated on evolution in his confirmation hearings - not his last abandonment of scientific integrity.

An anecdote may serve to illustrate Reagan's attitude toward science. After two years in office, he was persuaded to award the ten National Medals of Science, due in 1981, for 1982; but the award ceremony was put off until fairly late in 1983. His five-minute speech for the occasion made two points: that he regretted his inattention in science in school, which precluded him from being a medallist; and that science is wonderful at producing better weapons. I was present, and I cannot recall that any of us had worked on weapons except for Edward Teller, who was added as an 11th recipient at the last minute. Reagan then left promptly for a photo opportunity in the Rose Garden with a professional ice hockey team.

The biggest scientific brouhaha of the Reagan Administration was undoubtedly the Strategic Defense Initiaitive (SDI), aka Star Wars, the programme for a space-based anti-ballistic missile defence that emerged in a Reagan speech of April 1983. The programme seems to have originated with a private fringe group called High Frontier - and to have been firmly quashed within the Pentagon before being revived by Reagan's embrace. A history of the Star Wars episode was published in the book Way out There in the Blue by Frances FitzGerald. Her conclusion was that the programme was finally dropped not because of the public reports on its total impracticality produced by the OTA, as well as by organisations outside the Government such as the American Physical Society, but because the Pentagon's internal advisory apparatus worked as intended. This fact is frightening because, as we now see, under George W. Bush such internal checks are being dismantled.

It is regrettable that President Bill Clinton felt it politically necessary to reinstate a much-reduced programme of missile defence. Despite this reduction, the scheme continues to be a wasteful embarassment. Only its very incompetence mitigates the threat of the militarisation of space, the worst aspect of Star Wars.

An aspect of the Reagan Administration's record that Mooney recounts in some detail is the struggle of the Surgeon-General, Everett Koop, to get any attention focused on the rise of the HIV pandemic, a rise that was almost coincidental with Reagan's terms of office. During the entire first term, Koop was prevented from speaking on Aids publicly - Reagan himself never mentioned it before 1987. As with the present Bush Administration, there was strong opposition to preventive measures such as the distribution of condoms.

Mooney does not feel, however, that the Reagan Administration and its successor, the Administration of Bush senior, were unequivocally antiscience. Funding for medical science was constantly increased by the Democrat-led Congress, and physical scientists managed to switch to an extent from civilian to military funding despite a successful self-denying oath against SDI funding circulated in 1983-84. A congressional assault on the international agreement on ozone-destroying chemicals was turned back by a Reagan appointee, Koop was eventually ungagged on the Aids crisis, and President Bush senior's science adviser was the effective and well-respected D. Allan Bromley.

The first battle of the Republican war on science, according to Mooney, was won under Clinton's presidency, by the Congressional majority achieved in 1994 by Newt Gingrich's Contract with America: as Speaker of the House, Gingrich abolished the OTA, Congress's only official source of scientific expertise.

As Mooney emphasises, well before 1980 the Right had begun to develop an intellectual-political wing. A variety of conservative think-tanks such as the Heritage Foundation, the Hoover Institution and the American Enterprise Institute, as well as William Buckley's magazine National Review , grew up in the 1960s in response to what seemed to be the disastrous collapse of conservatism in the 1964 election. The "neoconservative" movement of today also dates from this time. As the influence of this "intellectual" outlier of the conservative revolution grew, the attacks of the Right on science began to take on a new and more damaging aspect. In my opinion, this book is strongest in its analysis of the tactics developed by this fusion of Reagan populism with the intellectual sophistication of the neocons and their conservative brethren.

One of these tactics is broadly characterised as the "sound science" approach, that phrase being a Newspeak (Newtspeak?) designation for something that is precisely the opposite. Once Congress had abolished the OTA (whose mandate was to report the scientific consensus on any controversial issue), members were free to assemble their own panel of "expert" witnesses and to pick and choose among them. Since there are inevitably "outliers" in the scientific community who are available to present views that contradict the consensus, it is always possible to bias the selection of witnesses towards any given opinion and to call the fringe opinions "sound science", in contrast to the consensus opinions voiced by such organisations as the National Academy of Science. Outliers can often be identified on the basis of two characteristics: first, that a little digging often reveals a financial interest in the outcome; and second, that the same few names recur as witnesses on issue after issue.

One of the more persistent of these is Dr S. Fred Singer, a member of the small but very vocal group of contrarians outside the Government who supported SDI publicly. He has testified before Congress against the reality of "acid rain" pollution and against the ban on fluorocarbons imposed to save the ozone layer, and now is called on to testify against the reality of global warming. He seems to represent nothing but an organisation of his own creation called the Science and Environmental Policy Project and to have no widely recognised expertise on any of these subjects. But he gets around; I was shocked to find him giving our physics colloquium here at Princeton University - on global warming, no less, or call it global non-warming. Since then, the data he was using to refute the consensus view have been shown, predictably, to have resulted from a calibration error in one type of study.

It is with the current Bush Administration that the present condition of virtual open warfare between politics and science comes to a head. The first rumblings came from the handling of appointments to advisory committees within the Department of Health and Human Services under Bush's new Secretary, Tommy Thompson. These committees have little official power but considerable actual power because agencies need them to test the scientific consensus on a given subject. Appointments to them have always been considered apolitical, and membership can outlast several administrations. Quite suddenly, one began to hear of cases where long-term members were eased out, and where new members seemed to have been vetted on their politics - at least one prospect was asked directly whether he had voted for Bush.

On several issues, and these perhaps the most important ones, the problem has not been one of stacking the advisory committees but of disregarding technical advice altogether. Vice-President Dick Cheney was put in charge of the "task force" developing a national energy policy, and since the very first year of the Administration he has absolutely refused to reveal whom the task force consulted; no scientists are known to be in that number. Energy company executives are Cheney's main personal contacts. The only "scientific" initiative on energy has been the futuristic dream of a hydrogen fuel cell economy; here as elsewhere it is a feature of this Administration that the financial burden of its policy is timed to mature under its successors. (I do believe that there has been a directive to White House staffers to turn off computers at night.)

There also appears to have been no advisory input on the "Moon-Mars" programme, the only big scientific initiative to be announced by the President. In the past decade or so, there had grown up a very successful programme of science in space carried out by unmanned robot missions, of which the Mars Explorers are the poster children, a shining contrast to the disasters of the manned Space Shuttle and Space Station programmes. With great fanfare, Bush has announced that the unmanned programme is to be curtailed in favour of an hugely expensive manned programme for colonisation of the Moon and Mars (with the major fiscal burden falling on later administrations).

The book's central chapters, however, focus on a series of issues where administration policy has come into greater explicit conflict with scientific advice. Global warming - in Republican Senator James Inhofe's words, the "greatest hoax" - is the most important of these, starting with one of Bush's first acts as President, the abrogation of the Kyoto agreements, and followed by virtual abandonment of fuel economy standards for vehicles. Again and again, as Mooney describes, the attempt has been to attack the science and the scientists who identified and researched the warming phenomenon, both in the halls of Congress and in the media. Given the unanimity of accepted scientific opinion, these attacks indeed amount to a war on science generally, even when they are transparently disguised as calls for "more research". (Perhaps "sound science" refers to acoustics?) As Mooney describes in two central chapters of his book, comparable assaults have been mounted on the science behind the Endangered Species Act, the control of power-plant emissions with regard to mercury emissions and acid rain, and on a joint report from the United Nations, the World Health Organisation and the Food and Agriculture Organisation on nutrition, obesity and health. This latter case involved an unprecedented tactic, the assertion of a right of the Administration to select the government employees to be called on by UN bodies for technical assistance and advice.

Since before Bush assumed office, perhaps the most heavily politicised set of issues related to science have been those involving reproduction and sex. Here, the President has been assiduous in following the doctrines of his religious supporters. Already in a campaign speech, he misstated the scientific facts in proposing impractical limitations on stem-cell research, and his Administration continues to promote the views of outliers on the realism of his regulations.

The most recent of many incidents has been about the "Plan B" emergency contraceptive, where political appointees within the FDA bypassed the normal approval procedure and ignored a unanimous advisory committee recommendation.

In concluding chapters, Mooney describes what amount to ineffectual attempts to restore scientific integrity in the administrative councils. He ascribes perhaps too much impact to the manifestos organised among scientists to bring the situation to public attention - scientists were, for instance, almost equally unanimous in condemning SDI, and the public ruckus we created had little effect. Certainly Jack Marburger, Bush's nominal science adviser, cut a rather pathetic figure attempting to counter these manifestos, but even the well-informed public hardly noticed this. In my opinion, we can hope only that the multiplication of disastrous policies resulting from exclusive solicitude for the Republicans' "base", and the determination to weaken the federal government by diverting power to corporate leaders and the churches, will in the end lead to the break-up of this Republican majority.

While his assessment of the political weight of scientific opinion may be dubious, Mooney's epilogue, titled "What we can do", is an excellent guide to how the advisory apparatus could be reformed. He is correct that restoring the OTA is key. He is correct that the legislative and administrative measures of the "sound science" movement must be removed. We must hope that a centrist president can restore the science adviser and his staff organisation to the inner circles. The world is global now and fast changing, and fact-based advice is vital.

A good point is that a big part of the problem is a mistaken insistence on "balance" in the media. Science is not about negotiation and compromise, as is the political world that reporters work within; it is about the search for right answers. Of course many scientific issues are not open and shut, but reporters should realise that the issues can be very one-sided.

This book is a well-researched guide to the recent history and is to be praised in its original analysis of the tactics used by the new Right to starve the scientific advisory apparatus and in its bringing out the confrontational nature of the attitudes of the Bush Administration and its allies. It should be read by Americans and will be interesting to scientists everywhere. We should be grateful to Chris Mooney for his diligence.

Philip W. Anderson is emeritus professor of physics, Princeton University, New Jersey, US. He was awarded the National Medal of Science by the US Government, and a Nobel Prize for physics.

The Republican War on Science

Author - Chris Mooney
Publisher - Basic Books
Pages - 342
Price - £14.99
ISBN - 0 465 04675 4

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