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Review: The Republican War on Science
On August 1, 2005, in an interview with Texas reporters, the President of the United States of America publicly declared war on science. Siding with biblical literalists, George W Bush called for “intelligent design” to be taught in public schools alongside the theory of evolution (see p 13). An undeclared war that had smoldered behind the headlines suddenly broke out on the front pages. The war on science was now national news.
It was certainly not the first time that George W Bush had embraced ideologically driven pseudoscience. Large blocks of the scientific community had already been alienated by the President’s stand on such issues as climate change, missile defense, abortion, stem cell research, the environment, the test ban treaty, energy, and so on. But now, as if by design, he had found the one issue that seemed to offend every scientist. Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection occupies a special place in the world of science. When it was published in 1859, the reaction of the great biologist Thomas Huxley was “why didn’t I think of that?” Every scientist since, whatever his or her field, has felt that same sense of awe. How could an idea of such clarity and simplicity, an idea that explains so much of what is known, have eluded scientists for so long? Darwin’s theory of evolution demonstrates what the human mind is capable of when it’s freed from the shackles of tradition. It is treasured by scientists in every field — even as it is despised by the religious right.
By fortunate coincidence, even as the President was calling for a religious fable to be taught beside science in our schools, the story of how the most advanced nation on earth came to reject science, Chris Mooney’s The Republican War on Science, was already at the printer’s.
The Republican dismissal of mainstream science actually began two decades ago with Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, a missile defense program commonly referred to as “Star Wars”. Technological optimism was substituted for scientific reality. The reckless Reagan “dream” of “rendering nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete” never had any realistic prospect of working and risked initiating a peremptory strike from the Soviets. “Star Wars” — overwhelmingly opposed, even ridiculed, by the scientific community — simply did not work. Now, under George W Bush, a vastly scaled-down version of Star Wars is also opposed by scientists, and it also does not work.
George W Bush, like Ronald Reagan, has no interest in science. Bush, like Reagan, saw no urgency in appointing a science advisor and listens to whoever tells him what he wants to hear. It was almost a year before Jack Marburger, a physicist and director of Brookhaven National Laboratory, was confirmed as director of a scaled-down White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Moreover, the job had been stripped of the rank of Special Advisor to the President, greatly reducing the influence of science in this administration. None of this seemed to perturb Marburger, a registered Democrat, who was President of the State University of New York at Stony Brook prior to becoming director at Brookhaven.
Following the President’s comment on teaching “intelligent design”, however, Marburger, whom the President had not bothered to consult, told The New York Times that the President had been misunderstood. “Evolution,” he said, is the “cornerstone of modern biology,” whereas “‘intelligent design’ is not a scientific concept.” All of this is perfectly true, but he needed to be telling this to the President, not The New York Times. The President did not bother to take notice of Marburger’s comments.
Scientists have traditionally been reluctant to take public stands as a group on partisan political issues, believing that science should be a high priority for both parties. But as Mooney points out, that changed on February 18, 2004, when 60 leading scientists, including 20 Nobel laureates, signed a statement denouncing the Bush administration for distorting scientific information and manipulating the process by which science advice is factored into government decisions. To the charge of manipulating the science advisory process, the eloquent White House response was to eject two advocates of stem cell research from the Council on Bioethics, replacing them with three appointees whose opposition to stem cell research is solidly faith-based.
The number of Nobel laureates signing the statement eventually rose to an astonishing 48, along with 62 recipients of the National Medal of Science. The administration response was to trivialize the issue. John Marburger was assigned the task of belittling the statement. Marburger, after all, had nothing else to do. He told The New York Times that it was just a matter of a few scientists “getting their feathers ruffled.”
It is one thing to point out how pervasive the Republican war on science has become, another to devise a strategy for deterring future abuse. In a final chapter, or “Epilogue,” Mooney makes it clear there is no one solution. Legislative reforms are needed to safeguard science advice and rescind measures that have served to further politicize science. Moderate Republicans might convince their more extreme colleagues of the dangers of science abuse, but so far he points out, “we can detect no evidence” that they are having any effect. Indeed, in the short time since Mooney wrote those words, the lure of the White House has pushed Republican moderates such as McCain and Frist, who witnessed the power of the Christian right in the last election, to endorse the teaching of “intelligent design” alongside evolution.
Strong belief in “fair play” is one of the most appealing characteristics of Americans, but it is often exploited by fringe groups who have little rational justification for their positions. Reporters also justify giving “balanced” treatment to such issue on which one side has little or no sensible support.
But in the end, Mooney says, “We must mobilize the natural defenders of Enlightenment values: scientists themselves, who all too often fail to engage anti-evolutionists and other know-nothings in defense of what they hold dear.”