The Republican War on Science

THE REPUBLICAN WAR ON SCIENCE….Hurricane Katrina has taken my mind off other things, but Chris Mooney’s appearance on the Daily Show last night reminds me that I’ve been remiss in not recommending his new book, The Republican War on Science. It’s a terrific read, and blogosphere reviews are already available from Brendan Nyhan and Henry Farrell.

The key question raised by the book, of course, is whether Republicans really misuse science any more than Democrats do. To answer that, here’s my favorite passage from the book:

It just so happens that we have a perfect case study that can be used to contrast the Clinton and second Bush administrations’ respective approaches to science: the question whether the government should support controversial needle-exchange programs to reduce the spread of HIV among (and by) intravenous drug users.

….Despite powerful evidence of their effectiveness, neither the Bush II nor Clinton administrations had the guts to support these programs with federal funding. But only one administration felt compelled to abuse science to justify its stance….In 1998, Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala fully acknowledged the science up front. “We have concluded that needle-exchange programs…will decrease the transmission of HIV and will not encourage the use of illegal drugs,” she stated, even as she went on to explain, awkwardly, that the programs would not be supported: “We had to make a choice. It was a decision. It was a decision to leave it to local communities.”

In contrast, the Bush administration simply twisted the science. In an extraordinary February 2005 editorial, the Washington Post revealed that to justify the decision to oppose needle-exchange programs (which are especially disliked by religious conservatives), a Bush official directed the papaper “to a number of researchers who have allegedly cast doubt on the pro-exchange consensus.”

The Post editorial Chris refers to is indeed extraordinary. You can read it here and it’s as good a primer as you’ll find on the willingness of the Bush administration to flatly lie about science in the hope that no one will bother to check up on them. The Post did, and everything they had been told was untrue.

This is the real difference. Science informs policy but doesn’t drive it, and administrations can legitimately propose a wide variety of policies regardless of what the science says. But that’s not what modern Republicans do. Instead, they try to subvert science itself. Global warming doesn’t exist. Intelligent Design is a legitimate scientific theory. Condoms don’t prevent STDs. Needle exchange programs don’t work. As Chris put it last night, Republicans want to turn science into yet another of the he-said/she-said shouting matches that work so well for them in other areas, generating uncertainty where none exists and undermining one of the few sources of objective knowledge we have.

The Republican War on Science exposes this effort for what it is. Highly recommended.