The Body Politic: The Battle over Science in America

This punchy work helps to address the denial of scientific knowledge in the US, says James Wilsdon

November 10, 2011

It's a depressing sign of the state of contemporary US politics that support for science has become, in some quarters, an out-and-out electoral liability. When Jon Huntsman, the former US ambassador to China and contender for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, recently observed via his Twitter feed: "I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy", many who commented did just that, suggesting that such an explicit endorsement of the long-established scientific consensus on these issues would spell the end of his campaign.

Huntsman's opponents in the Republican race have shown no qualms in opposing mainstream science. Texas governor Rick Perry has described evolution as "a theory that is out there - and it's got some gaps in it". On climate change, Perry has said that "the science is not settled", Herman Cain has argued "I don't believe...global warming is real", and Michele Bachmann has insisted "It's all voodoo, nonsense, hokum, a hoax."

In a country that numbered among its founding fathers several of the foremost scientists and intellectuals of the day, including Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, how has it become acceptable for political leaders to define themselves in such stark opposition to science? And what does this mean for the future of US democracy, and for the country's standing in the world? These questions form the starting point of Jonathan Moreno's articulate, timely and impassioned book.

A professor of bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, Moreno is also affiliated to the Center for American Progress, a progressive thinktank, and he served on President Obama's transition team. So he writes as a scholar of these debates, and as a Beltway veteran who is used to navigating Congressional committees and White House advisory commissions. His primary purpose here is not so much academic as practical: over the course of seven punchy chapters, he aims to provide a coherent explanation of how this situation has arisen, and what the US should do about it.

Moreno chooses to focus on the ethical, social and political dividing lines generated by advances in biomedicine. We are living, he argues, in an "age of biology", accompanied by a sharper, more contested biopolitics that is concerned with "control over the tissues, systems and information that are the basis and manifestation of life in its various forms". The controversies that have erupted in the biomedical arena over the past decade - notably over embryonic stem-cell research, "personalised medicine" and novel forms of non-therapeutic human enhancement - are initial skirmishes in what may become a permanent cultural and political battleground as the frontiers of scientific and medical knowledge advance.

The stem-cell debate is emblematic of these developments, Moreno argues. He recalls that in August 2001, George W. Bush gave what was considered at that point the most important speech of his young (pre-9/11) presidency, on the future of federal funding for human embryonic stem-cell research. Alongside this policy, Bush created the President's Council on Bioethics, under the chairmanship of Leon Kass, to advance a culturally conservative response to the latest advances in biomedicine.

There was profound disquiet across the scientific community about the lack of government support for stem-cell research. This was heightened by the perceived ideological agenda of the President's Council on Bioethics, which the inclusion of a handful of leading scientists as members did little to assuage. The mood was well captured by a best-selling book of 2005, The Republican War on Science, by Chris Mooney, a journalist.

Moreno shares much of Mooney's earlier analysis, but he attempts to strike a less partisan note by tracing the history and current manifestations of "bio-conservative" thought on both Left and Right. He acknowledges that portrayals of the Republican Party as crudely opposed to science have paradoxically helped to foster the current climate of anti-scientific rhetoric in US politics. Similarly, presenting Obama, who promised soon after his election to restore science to "its rightful place", as an unqualified champion of rationality can serve to aggravate unnecessary divides.

The book ends with a rallying call for a progressive politics of science and innovation that transcends narrow party lines. This is not to deny or downplay the complex ethical and political choices that will continue to confront us as science develops in new directions. Genomic medicine, synthetic biology and human-animal hybrids are just some of the emerging fields that are likely to become focal points for future debate. As Moreno notes: "There is no doubt that the new biology has disquieting implications that will continue to stir the biopolitical pot."

But if the American vision of progress is to retain the scientific and technological dimension that has sustained more than a century of radical innovation, a new settlement is needed between science and politics. This can best be achieved, argues Moreno, by a fresh emphasis on the importance of "experiment", both as the foundation of the scientific method and as the basis of US democracy. "The fundamental value that drives science is not material or technological progress, but the value of openness to evidence...This point was well appreciated by the American founders. For them, as it must be for us, America is a question - a hypothesis about self-government - not an answer."

The Body Politic is not without its faults. It has an informal and lively style, and is clearly intended for a general political readership, rather than an audience of specialists. But at times, this can result in a rather shallow presentation of topics that have been the subject of intense academic debate. There are also some surprising omissions: for example, no reference is made to Designs on Nature: Science and Democracy in Europe and the United States, Sheila Jasanoff's magisterial 2005 study.

Occasionally, Moreno also adopts the irritating habit of quoting at some length from "a leading scientist" or commentator, with no name or reference provided. A further weakness can be found in his discussion of the international dimension of these debates. Having described at some length how the complex dance between science and democracy has helped to build and sustain the political, economic and scientific leadership of the US, Moreno warns that this is at risk from the vast amount of investment that countries such as China and South Korea are now pouring into science. But he doesn't discuss how the absence of formal democracy, and other forms of openness to intellectual and scientific enquiry, may over time impede the progress of these new players every bit as much as it accelerated America's advance.

Nevertheless, none of the aforementioned faults detract too greatly from the power and force of Moreno's argument. And it is hard not to agree with his final call for bio-progressives of every political hue "to embrace and encourage [their] sense of adventure and discovery". Regardless of who ends up occupying the White House in January 2013, one hopes that a few hours will have been set aside on the campaign trail to engage with this important book.

The Author

Jonathan Moreno gained a bachelor's degree in philosophy and psychology from Hofstra University in Long Island, New York in 1973 and a doctorate in philosophy in 1977. At Hofstra he pursued many interests, including American football, student politics and anti-war activism. "Oh yes," he adds, "there were some academic studies in there as well."

In 1978, he became assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Texas. "Austin was overflowing with sunshine, music, the best Tex-Mex food in the universe and other factors that would make a 26-year-old single man happy."

Soon thereafter, Moreno accepted a post at George Washington University, which allowed him to be near friends and family. At George Washington, work on an experimental course in bioethics at the medical school led him to become professor of bioethics. He subsequently began a progressive bioethics programme at the Center for American Progress and founded a science policy journal, Science Progress.

Moreno's ideal evening would be dinner with his wife and two children then a film or a rock concert. British rock of the 1960s (especially the Kinks) is a favourite, but he is also a Lady Gaga fan, "although I think my kids are reluctant to go see Lady Gaga with me - they're too hip".

The Body Politic: The Battle over Science in America

By Jonathan D. Moreno

Bellevue Literary Press

224pp, £12.99

ISBN 9781934137383

Published October 2011

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