Tuesday, August 30, 2005

"The Republican War on Science"

A coalition of insurgents with brilliant strategic and tactical advisers threaten to overthrow a hard won constitutional settlement.

Welcome to the United States, where anti-science activists are the ulimate guerillas, who "win if they do not loose" (to borrow a phrase that Henry Kissinger has quoted in a different context).

Chris Mooney's new book The Republican War on Science documents the strategies and tactics of the religious right, some big business interests and their allies in the US to undermine the scientific method and scientific findings on which a better future for humanity depends.

(the formula includes: undermine science itself and suppress valid research; target individual scientists; rig the process; misrepresent and distort the argument; magnify uncertainty beyond reason; and portray the extreme fringe as central)

The book is especially timely given controversy over climate change and – in the US – “intelligent design”. It provides some depth, context and analysis on some critical issues and political struggles in US and world politics. (It is poorlyl edited and won't win prizes for style, but those are minor quibbles).

I value Chris’s clear, consistent and rigorous journalism for outlets such as The American Prospect and his own blog, and commissioned him for openDemocracy’s debate on the politics of climate change (see Kant and climate change).

TRWS should help to move the agenda forward, although the recommendations for what should be done (e.g. restore the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment; safeguard science advisory committees from political manipulation; reduce incentives for science politicisation; use the legal system to deter corporate abuse of science; raise journalistic standards; and politically oppose the anti-science right wing of the Republican Party) tend to undescore the sheer scale of challenges at least as much as they offer an actionable road map.

It should be read in conjunction with lots of other work out there, from Toxic Sludge is Good For You to Thomas Frank’s outstanding work on US cultural politics, and from RealClimate on the Wall St Journal to efficient debunking of ID such as this, this and this (as well as light relief such as The Onion on Intelligent Falling and the case for the flying spaghetti monster).

In particular, liberals should not underestimate the emotional pulling power and organisational smarts of those engaged in anti-scientific thought (see for example Beyond the News), which make it far from sure that, as Winston Churchill put it, “Americans invariably do the right thing, after having first exhausted every other alternative”.

At the same time, liberals should not forget the gross abuses and distortions to which a scientific, materialist view (including Darwinism) can, in some circumstances, be vulnerable, and which in the 20th century have contributed to world historical catastrophes.

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