Thursday, December 01, 2005

More on the War on Science and it's origins

Chris Mooney responds to Michael Ruse's review of the Republican War on Science. It's an interesting discussion, and it gets at what I tried to argue in my review, perhaps unsuccessfully. Mooney and I corresponded about this line in the review:

Unfortunately, Mooney doesn't build those examples into a broader thesis about why this is happening now, and why the Republican Party should be the prime agent of the shift
He rightly objected that this is exactly what the book does, and then I spent some time trying to clarify what I was after, and I suspect that it's similar to what Ruse is after in saying:

One longs for an analysis that digs into the reasons why we have the kind of politicians that we do and why science is in their sights.
I think one could find similar questions raised in all of the reviews, even (perhaps especially) in positive ones. I hope Chris takes the hint and writes this sequel, and I hope he realizes that these criticisms are a mark of success. He took people who were generally interested in politics and science and convinced them of a particular perspective so effectively that we want more. Thanks to his research and writing, we have enough of a background in what's been happening for the last few decades in Republican politics that new and essential questions are emerging.

Here are some questions I have. Is it mere historical accident that religious groups and business both found the value of attacking science and expertise, or is there more to that history than we know? Why have the left's attacks on GMOs, for instance, been so ineffective, while the right's attacks on global climate science have worked? Why haven't libertarians, Luddites, or patent reformers been able to turn these same techniques to their advantages? I'm not enough of a nerd to know the ins and outs of Social Security demographics, but I think everyone agrees on the basic facts of the impending demographic shift and the need to do something, some time. Why haven't rogue demographers been dragged into the Senate to insist that the bulge is much nearer or much further than it actually is. It would be no more brazen than some episodes in RWoS, but the anti-tax wing of the Republican party seems not to have taken this strategy and run with it.

That would be a terrifyingly effective path to take. Consider the basic strategy that recurs in RWoS. There's some policy proposal (stricter atrazine regulations, say). These regulations are based on empirical research demonstrating that there's a problem, and a given regulatory scheme would minimize the risk (atrazine causes hormonal problems, including hermaphroditism and sex changes in frogs, reducing atrazine use will prevent that and possible risks to human hormonal systems). Opponents of the new regulatory scheme (say, atrazine manufacturers) push out their own science which claims to find no such effect, and insist that the new regulatory scheme would have horrific consequences.

What if, instead of atrazine, we used schools in that example. We find that schools are not producing the smartest kids in the world. We propose increasing funding so that we can reduce class sizes in at-risk districts.

These are not questions I would have bothered asking before, nor would I have noticed examples of the War if not for the book. This is a book that people will be referring to for years to come, and that's good. This is a valuable conversation for us to have as a society, and without the meticulous cataloging of the battles which have been and are being fought, we wouldn't be having the debate.

The Republican War on Science by Chris Mooney would make a great gift to a loved one for your favorite holiday, by the way.