September 29, 2005


The Republican War on Science. By Chris Mooney. Basic Books. $24.95.

     The people who ought to read this book won’t, except to find new things to complain about and condemn.  And at least part of that is Chris Mooney’s fault.  This is Mooney’s first book – he is Washington correspondent for Seed magazine and has done a fair amount of short-form writing elsewhere – and it fits perfectly into the current Washington culture of turning everything into politics and then staking out a clear position on one side or the other of the great political divide.  This sort of thing pulls in only the audience on the side of the divide where you happen to be – and makes the divide wider at the same time.  That may be the way Washington works, but it’s no way to make Washington work better.

     Mooney’s basic thesis is that Republicans – including President Bush but by no means limited to him and his immediate circle – have become virulently anti-science, part of an “ideological merger between business interests and religious conservatives that occurred in the 1970s and 1980s” and is only now coming fully to fruition.  Mooney is distressed that this is so different from the use of science and politics together to win World War II in the glory days of FDR, and from “the romance with scientists” under President Kennedy.  All the misguided modern handling of crucial scientific issues – global warming, stem-cell research, missile defense, sex education and many more – is traceable, Mooney writes, to the unholy alliance of business and religious conservatism.

     Well, there’s nothing new about railing at the military-industrial complex (which President Eisenhower first identified, except that he called it the “industrial-military complex”).  And there’s nothing new about attacking this or that unholy alliance, especially in Washington circles.  But in this case, those being attacked consider themselves a holy alliance, and this is where Mooney has trouble figuring out what is going on.  He quotes Russell Train, who founded the U.S. branch of the World Wildlife Fund and subsequently worked for Republican Presidents Nixon and Ford, as saying, “I don’t understand the religious conservatives.  They’re so far out of my ken.”  The statement applies equally well to Mooney, who no more understands the forces he despises than those forces understand how anyone can try to interfere with what they see as the clear will of God.

     Read this book for a series of in-depth looks at science-related controversies from a specific political point of view, but do not even try to read it as an attempt to find an answer to any of those controversies.  It may be that no answer can be found – how can one start a dialogue with someone who genuinely believes that God is on his or her side and that anyone holding different opinions is at best a heretic?  But not all Republicans are religious zealots, and not all have a monolithic anti-scientific view.  And the scientific view itself has a way of shifting as new data emerge or old data are reinterpreted: it was just a few decades ago that most climate scientists were warning the world about imminent global cooling.  Mooney’s conclusion that “we have no choice but to politically oppose the antiscience right wing of the Republican Party,” even assuming everyone knows who “we” are, is simply a recipe for more of the same – in both science and politics.  “We” – and that means all of us – can do better, starting with an attempt, which Mooney does not offer, to accept as valid, or at least heartfelt, the concerns of those with whom we disagree politically.

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