Reviewing The Republican War on Science, by Chris Mooney
Part II --
(This review will appear in theSan Diego Union Book Review. It is posted here entirely for comment as a working draft, for commentary by members of this community. Please do not copy elsewhere. A final version will be posted in September 2005 at http://www.davidbrin.com/gopwaronscience.html)
First a reprise from Part I...
Stepping back, we see a common theme. "My side favors truth while your side is warped by dogma."
If I must choose sides, I’ll pick Mooney, because the perfidies that he describes are accelerating. For example, it is unambiguous that the GOP Congress cuts funding for the National Science Foundation and NOAA even while calling for "more research" on global climate change. Nothing could be more bald-faced. In any event, rightwing abuses are inherently more dangerous, because that side currently holds sway in countless boardrooms and every branch of government.
Yet, the very title of this book - The Republican War on Science - ensures that it won’t be helpful. Providing ammo for one side, it will be contemptuously ignored by the other, while just a few -- those still with open minds -- may crack the covers with sincere interest in learning something new. This is ironic, in light of some wise words about the scientific process that Mooney quotes from cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker:
"The success of science depends on an apparatus of democratic adjudication --anonymous peer review, open debate, the fact that a graduate student can criticize a tenured professor. These mechanisms are more or less explicitly designed to counter human self-deception. People always think they're right, and powerful people will tend to use their authority to bolster their prestige and suppress inconvenient opposition. You try to set up the game of science so that the truth will out despite this ugly side of human nature."
==Now on to Part II==
In The Republican War on Science, Mooney claims a desire to be fair, so there are a few pages describing left-wing anti-scientific duplicities. He mentions the blanket and quasi-hysterical opposition by Greenpeace and other groups toward all genetic engineering of food plants, a sweeping paranoia that ignores every subtlety. (Some kinds of genetic engineering are intrinsically no more threatening than old-fashioned agricultural selection.) Going back much farther, he tells how the left was once a chief locus of anti-science political extremism, during the monstrous, Stalin era phenomenon called Lysenkoism.
Alas, as you might expect from Mooney’s chosen title, this page or two of "balance" quickly gives way to the tedious habit of all sides in the Culture War -- squeezing complex issues along a cramped left-right political axis, inherited from the French Revolution -- a dismal and demeaning metaphor that nobody can define. Especially absurd is Mooney’s oversimplification that "big business" has lined up against science. Not all capitalists or conservatives resist the notion of fine-tuning market forces to match our evolving understanding of the world. Moreover, it was Republican President George Herbert Walker Bush who said in 1990: "Science relies on freedom of inquiry, and government relies on the impartial perspective of science for guidance."
The "war on science" is better defined along a completely different axis. Future vs. past. On one side are traits that dominated nearly all other cultures and eras: nostalgia, faith in dogmatic incantations and a reactionary fear of change. On the other side are qualities compatible only with a scientific age: pragmatism, confidence, and eagerness to confront change. Plus -- perhaps - a deeper assumption. That any Creator (if one exists) will approve of children who study and use His tools.
Reactionaries of "right" and "left" differ in some ways. As Mooney points out, conservative antimodernists aim their wrath at can-know scientists. But lefty post-modernists despise can-do engineers. Some difference. *(Sharing a characteristic retro-nostalgia, one group yearns for feudalism while the other romanticizes ancient tribes.) Both despise the plan of Vannevar Bush that has worked for us so well – a commitment to experiment, question, invent, negotiate, revise and devote whatever resources it may take to try new things, solve problems, overcome inevitable errors, improve ourselves and keep making a better world.
The evident tragedy is that a modernist majority still believes in all these things. But pragmatic liberals and progressive conservatives face a starkly artificial choice between extreme left and extreme right mirror-dogmas that share the same reactionary agenda. To spread fear of tomorrow.
Will people someday learn to refuse both sets of dyspeptic incantations? That is the common nightmare of all anti-future dogmatists. And it is the hope of modern civilization.
Do pick up The Republican War on Science, if only because these are crimes being committed against us all, right now, by ideologues with real political power and fierce determination to impose their dogmatic will. In contrast, antimodernists of the left are (at present) pallid and impotent, unable even to control the Democratic Party. Mooney’s crisis is more urgent and imminent.
Still, books like this one ultimately play into myopic paranoia, instead of drawing our eyes to the horizon. Who would have imagined that the 21st Century would be a time of pulling inward, focusing on dogmas and petty limitations, when we have already accomplished so much?
And when the future is as filled with possibility as it ever was.
Side extract from the book:
"If a politician presents a fair picture of climate science, but nevertheless opposes the Kyoto Protocol on economic grounds, I leave it to economists to criticize him or her. If a president takes advice from a well-balanced panel of experts and then makes a contrary decision, that too is his or her prerogative, as long as the decision doesn't get bedecked in scientific garb.
Commentators across the political spectrum generally agree that science should inform, but not dictate political choices, in much the same way that input from the intelligence community helps to inform military strategy and foreign policy. "I don't think there are very many scientists who are naive enough to think that science should always determine outcomes, but you shouldn't defend outcomes by distorting the science," says physicist John Holdren, director of the Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program at the Harvard Kennedy School.
See also my article: The Case for a Scientific Nation