(This review will appear in the .... edition of the San Diego Union Book Review, edited by Arthur Salm. It is posted here entirely for comment as a working draft. A final version is posted on my website.)
Sixty years ago, science emerged dramatically from its ivory tower, with a flash and a bang.
Alas, "wisdom" is seldom obvious. We rely on politics to determine policy, a definite improvement over the whim of kings. But politics, despite centuries of hard refinement, is still far more ego-driven art than craft. Habits of at least four thousand years seem to favor self-interest, hierarchies and dogma, instead of gathering evidence and cheerfully letting facts guide us.
What’s more, science has accumulated enemies. Some are put off by the ambitious and optimistic Modernist Agenda of perpetual human self improvement -- a program aimed at discovering and then applying the very tools of Creation, in order to make better societies, better lives, better generations. Some question whether this ambitious goal is possible, or ethical, or even sane.
Aldous Huxley once spoke for all grouchy intellectuals, when he derided progress as "just another idol." Grumbling that it will all come to no good, voices ranging from Bill Joy and Francis Fukayama to Osama and the Unabomber have shared a common underlying theme, protesting the West’s headlong plunge into territories and powers once left to God. Artists and authors, from Michael Crichton to Margaret Atwood, portray technological ambition as hubris, that age-old, prideful route to chaos or damnation.
It wasn’t always like this. Back in 1945, even as humanity was climbing out of the wreckage of its Nadir War, a sense of resilient, can-do determination seemed to overflow. In his famed report Science: The Endless Frontier, Vannevar Bush called upon the United States to transform and multiply its martial accomplishments with unprecedented peacetime zeal -- using both technology and perseverance to rebuild cities, refute bigotries, revitalize education, end poverty and provide more fulfillment for all.
So stirring was this aspiration that cynics and curmudgeons could do little more than bide their time.
Nor was this a partisan matter. The aspiration proclaimed by Bush was thereupon propelled as much by Harry Truman and George Marshall as by Dwight Eisenhower, who established the office of Presidential Science Advisor and gave it real clout. John F. Kennedy is remembered as a gung-ho science booster, especially regarding outer space, but Richard Nixon embarked upon just as many ambitious, science-driven endeavors, for example vastly increasing funding for biological research and responding to clear evidence of human generated ecological harm by creating the Environmental Protection Agency.
Moreover, it is plain that such endeavors were generally successful, spawning genuine achievements that did tremendous good. To name only a few, weather and communication satellites transformed our lives, while advances in medicine, biology and agriculture enabled far more people to survive and thrive. Acid rain and stratospheric ozone depletion were rapidly diagnosed, prompting measures that -- at least -- checked immediate calamity. And while there is still plenty of bad news to spur activism, anyone who grew up in Los Angeles, forty years ago, should attest that five times as many people now live there, breathing air that's five times better. (Or, rather, a fifth as bad.)
If the "greatest generation" deserves acclaim for defeating Hitler, let’s add a few more feats to their credit. Like cranking up a thousand universities, combating ancient habits of racism, liberating the ambition of girls, building interstates and internets, while turning a nation of provincially isolated tenants into globe traveling homeowners. Gathered together, these and countless other accomplishments were all rooted in the modernist-scientific agenda.
So why has the whole ambitious program lately come under fierce attack?
According to Chris Mooney, author of The Republican War on Science, we need look no farther than an alliance of two reactionary forces. Big business and religious fundamentalism. This era’s burgeoning hostility toward rationality, skepticism, accountability and can-do ambition is little more, and no less than, a deliberate campaign against modernity on the part of "conservatism." A matter of right versus left.
Mooney presents a long list of cases to support his indictment, portraying a methodical campaign to politicize, ignore, twist or undermine science. His list of topic areas will sound familiar: the effects of smoking and of air pollution, the feasibility and benefits of energy savings through increased fuel efficiency standards, global warming and stem cell research, educational standards and the Drug War, all the way to a campaign aimed at teaching "alternatives to evolution" in the classroom.
Some of these matters are still under some legitimate dispute among reputable scientists, implying that we need more research, pursued promptly and professionally. Others have coalesced around deep and profound expert consensus, with clear majorities of qualified experts recommending urgent action.
Mooney shows there are countless tricks, some old and others innovative, that special interests can use when scientific consensus becomes politically inconvenient. One has been to banish science from centers of power – for example, when the GOP-led Congress dismantled its own, nonpartisan advisory tool, the Office of Technology Assessment, because its counsel kept conflicting with ideological views.
Another is for political aides to edit the reports of scientific panels, so that final versions offer conclusions quite different than panel members intended. Another method used more frequently, of late, has been to pack advisory groups with "experts" who were selected on a basis of ideology, or industry affiliation, or promises to reach a predetermined outcome.
A favorite maneuver, in recent years, has been to magnify uncertainty, especially regarding contentious issues like Creationism and global climate change.
Now, unlike past dogmas, science is unafraid of uncertainty, so long as it is faced in courageous and disciplined ways. Young scientists are taught to nurse some residual doubt toward even the strongest theory. (And yes, even a widely held "consensus" can sometimes be wrong. Graduate students constantly look for these rare "faulty paradigms," which can be toppled and make a newcomer’s reputation.)
This kind of healthy skepticism accompanies -- but does not generally undermine -- the collaborative process of building ever-better and increasingly valid models of the world.
Opponents of science try to turn this strength into a weakness by exaggerating doubts, calling all theories equal, or even claiming that "scientific consensus" is a meaningless phrase. (Is it ironic that officials who were elected by the slimmest of political margins then dismiss as "uncertain" concerns that are expressed by far greater majorities of experts in a given field?)
For those who view this kind of behavior as uniquely a sickness of the right, Mooney’s book will offer powerful support. Evidence overwhelmingly points to orchestrated manipulation of both science and public opinion by groups ranging from the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute all the way to elements now running both Congress and the Executive Branch.
And yet, is this issue really as one-sided and simple as liberal partisans contend?
Not if you listen to a steady stream of punditry pouring from the other side, proclaiming that liberals are the ones betraying both science and modernity. Some of the very same arch-conservative think tanks that Mooney decries have issued their own accusations, for example, the Marshall Institute’s Politicizing Science: The Alchemy of Policymaking and the Cato Institute’s Silencing Science.
While much is specious, one of their higher-quality efforts has been to effectively demolish the left’s rigid opposition to nuclear power, a reflex that ignores real potential to reduce carbon emissions and help bridge the next few decades, while we develop sustainable technologies.
Stepping back, we see a common theme. "My side is on the side of truth while your side is warped by dogma."
If I must choose sides, I’ll pick Mooney, because the perfidies that he describes have been accelerating in profoundly disturbing ways. For example, it is unambiguous that the GOP Congress cuts funding for the National Science Foundation 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:
Continue to part II where I will show that Mooney DOES recognize a few left wing anti-science faults, but only a few. I will talk about how problematic a book like this is... telling scary truths, but not - in the long run - being much help.
See also my article: The Case for a Scientific Nation