Monday, October 10, 2005

She Blinded Me With Science

The Republican War on Science is a new book by Chris Mooney that examines how science has become politicized. Most of us can name at least several examples off the top of our heads. In an excerpt paired with an insightful accompanying interview at AlterNet, Mooney talks about global warming and evolution/intelligent design. These are great examples because they involve the two bases that the GOP is trying to satisfy by rejecting the bulk of scientific evidence: big business and evangelicals. Industry claims that humans are not responsible for global warming while evangelicals believe intelligent design is right and evolution is wrong. Incidentally, these are two arguments that make the U.S. the laughing stock of the educated world. Everyone signed the Kyoto Treaty except us. Numerous overseas newspapers ran editorials in the wake of Katrina surmising that now the Bush administration would surely have to acknowledge global warming. Alas, they were applying science and logic to the American political system, and those things don't mix these days. Intelligent design is even more puzzling to me. Didn't we figure out this whole evolution thing a long, long time ago? Intelligent design is more of a spiritual concept than a scientific one, so how can one claim that science supports it?

Mooney discusses scientific consensus and wonders why reporters don't seem to give it any credence. They often try to "balance" science stories by treating both sides equally even though one is clearly more accepted than the other. By doing "he said she said" reporting, the writer gives readers the false impression that the topic is hotly debated among the scientific community, even when a scientific consensus is clear. Of course, to some extent these reporters have been pummeled into this approach by harsh criticism from whichever side feels their views are not being covered fairly (I have a lot of problems with "balance" in modern reporting, but that is a subject for another time).

According to Mooney, the demise of the Office of Technology Assessment and the shift away from government funding of science has led to more and more science being done or funded by people who have a vested interest in the results. University research has declined, leaving corporations and think tanks to do the work. This must please the Republican party's privatization fanatics. All the "controversy" about global warming has originated from scientists paid to reach a predetermined conclusion (if they don't reach that conclusion, the research "disappears" and the scientists lose their jobs).

This sort of thing has been going on in the "morality" and social science arenas for decades. Look at the statistics used by groups on both sides of the abortion and gun control issues. The result is that a person cannot possibly make an informed decision about which is side is "correct." One can make a moral or emotional judgement, but the facts have been twisted into uselessness. I once argued for gun ownership against a rabid anti-gun person (my dad would have been so proud!) just because his lack of critical thinking bothered me. He would trot out "FACTS" (in all capitals, no less) from Handgun Control, Inc. In turn, I could easily refute them with info from other equally biased sources. The difference was that I knew those sources were biased and said so, whereas he was convinced that his source was not. What I found most disturbing about our exchange, aside from his pigheadedness, was the absence of solid, unprejudiced information.

This is why the politicization of science matters. Social sciences are somewhat interpretive, but most of us view natural sciences as more factual (i.e., about finding an answer rather than merely formulating an opinion). Republicans (not all, but many) are trying to call accepted findings into question to satisfy their supporters regardless of strong evidence to the contrary. If the current trend continues, we will become the most ignorant society on earth, a nation so overwhelmed with politics that no one's facts are trusted.

Stem cell research is a prime example. Everywhere else in the world (and within most of the scientific community in the U.S.), scientists agree that adult stem cells have limitations and that embryonic stem cells must be studied. But certain Republican groups claim that adult stem cells are all we need. The reason behind this is not scientific consensus, but rather, it is because the "Christian" right has the mistaken idea that using embryos for research is equivalent to aborting fetuses (which I previously debunked). The average American might say, "Well, there is some debate about using embryonic stem cells because adult stem cells are just as good." A European who, because his government did not make it into a political issue, accepts the value of embryonic stem cell research as common knowledge would be utterly shocked to hear this. I realize that there are moral elements to this debate, but minority-viewpoint, politicized "science" is also being used to argue the issue.

Indeed, Mooney's quarrel with Republicans is not about their opposition to scientific issues so much as the way they claim science is on their side when it is not. It is quite acceptable to say, "We oppose this on moral grounds," but instead they make up science that "proves" them right. Even worse, they claim that the other side, i.e. the scientific consensus backed up by years of research, is completely wrong. The stakes are higher than just making us look stupid, though. When America's best and brightest are recruited to validate or invalidate these ideas that were pretty much proven long ago, they are being diverted from the important, groundbreaking research that can truly benefit mankind.

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