Book Review:

The Republican War on Science

by Chris Mooney

Basic Books, 2005. $14.95 (357pp.) ISBN: 978-0-465-4676-8.

Review 20 January 2009 by Dowman P Varn

In his debute offering, journalist Chris Mooney hands down a damning indictment of the abuse of science and the scientific process by conservative Republicans over the last quarter century.

The central thesis of The Republican War on Science is that Republican politicians, often in an effort to appease conservative right-wing constituencies, seek to misrepresent, suppress, or otherwise sow unwarranted controversy about inconvenient scientific knowledge. That politicians would misrepresent facts on occasion--either willfully or through sheer ignorance--hardly seems surprising. After all, we know that politicians do lie. And the public, sadly, has come to accept it. But Mooney isn't talking about the intermittent instances, instead he sees and chronicles what appears to be an orchestrated campaign to distort science for political purposes.

Mooney sets the stage by reviewing the relationship between science and politics from Roosevelt to Reagan, touching on, for example, the Reagan administration's response to the AIDS crisis and its promotion of the controversial Strategic Defense Initiative ("Stars Wars"). He also discusses the dismantling of the Office of Technology Assessment (an agency that was designed to supply Congress with an independent assessment of scientific and technological issues so that Congress doesn't need to rely on the executive branch or industry sources for such information) by the Gingrich Congress.

The meat of the book begins with chapter 7. Here Mooney introduces the reader to Senator Inhofe (R-OK), chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Using this position he was able to skew a Senate panel in favor of climate change deniers and ultimately helped defeat the McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewartship Act in 2003 by a vote of 43-55. This Act would have mandated the first ever caps on greenhouse gases by the United States government. Part of the strategy he used, which is described in some detail by Mooney, is to manufacture scientific controversy where in reality none exists. Since the 2001 report from Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluding that the Earth's climate is in fact changing and human activity is largely responsible, this position really is untenable. (See this article from EOS for a more recent discussion of the scientific consensus.) But by inviting a disproportionate number of deniers to testify, he managed to obscure this. He even has referred to climate change as "the greatest hoax ever perpetuated on the American people."

In chapter 8 we meet Jim Tozzi. Mooney was able to interview Tozzi in person, and we find a flamboyant and charismatic character. Tozzi, a Ph.D. in economics and a former Office of Management and Budget official, takes some credit for the Data Quality Act. Ostensibly, the Act seeks to ensure the quality of science used by the government in forming regulatory guidelines, but in fact industry can wield the Act as tool to discover from the beginning of the process, and thus challenge, scientific research. Mooney shows how the Act was used by industry trade groups to limit tighter restrictions on the pesticide atrazine, suspected of causing endocrine effects in frogs, and perhaps by extension in humans. By submitting challenges early in the process industry trade groups could actively question the science as it was being done, and thus have a greater influence on EPA decisions.

In subsequent chapters, Mooney tells how personal attacks are launched against scientists, as in the case of Shiriki Kumanyika, an epidemiologist at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine over studies on the effects of a high sugar diet. He discusses attempts to water down the Endangered Species Act by challenging the science used to identify troubled animals. In following chapters, Mooney talks about the "creation science" movement and the Bush ban on federal funding of stem cell research. In both cases, science is distorted or misrepresented for political gain. He also treats how the FDA, under meddling by Bush administration officials, denied over-the-counter availability of the Plan B emergency contraceptive. In this case, scientific standards for safety were altered. In the final chapters, Mooney points out the general hostility of the Bush presidency to science. The responses to questions by John Marburger, a physicist and President Bush's science advisor, are particularly revealing.

Mooney's prose is fluid and easy to follow, making the book a joy to read. He interviewed many of the players in this drama, from industry, government, and science. He includes a list of interviewees in an appendix. There are also notes at the end of the book, indexed by page number, but they are not (unfortunately) footnoted in the text. In the paperback edition (which I read) there are updates (as of 2006) at the end of several chapters.

If you care about science or the people who do it, this book will make you angry.

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