Volokh Consipracy Blog

GOP "War on Science" -- Mooney Responds:

Chris Mooney has posted a response to my review of his book, The Republican War on Science over at his blog, The Intersection. While Mooney and I often disagree, I consider his blog (along with Pielke’s Prometheus) to be among the few “must read” blogs on the intersection between science and policy. I also recommend Mooney's recent op-ed with Alan Sokal, even though I think it exhibits some of the same failings as his book (see also here), and look forward to his forthcoming book on hurricanes, Storm World.

With that said let me offer a not-so-brief rejoinder to Mooney’s response. While he and I clearly disagree, I consider this to be an important issue and believe there is value in continuing our exchange. So, with that in mind, go read his response, and then consider my comments below.

On the issue of embryonic stem cells, I think my characterization of Mooney’s discussion is fair. I should note, however, that Mooney is correct that I should have acknowledged he calls out John Edwards and others for exaggerating the promise of embryonic stem cell research. On the larger issue, however, I stand by my claim that Mooney “suggests that the number of cell lines, rather than ideological opposition to the destruction of embryos, drove Bush policy.” For instance, he writes the Bush Administration policy was “based on science fiction” and “a textbook example of how bad scientific information leads, inexorably, to bad policy.” (p. 3). These statements seem pretty clear to me. It is fair to criticize the President’s effort to spin the policy by relying upon questionable scientific claims, as Mooney does, but I believe Mooney also goes farther in an effort to make this episode a centerpiece in his argument.

On the question of whether Mooney confuses legitimate policy disputes with science abuse, his defense is that he acknowledges taking policy stances “against inappropriate legislative interferences with science and to advocate a strengthening of our government's science policy apparatus.” I don’t believe this gives Mooney the out he thinks it does. To claim that requiring a greater level of scientific certainty, peer-review, or critical examination before commencing government regulation constitutes an “inappropriate legislative interference with science” requires a prior policy judgment about whether the government should be more or less aggressive in responding to scientific uncertainty.

I reject Mooney’s argument that the Data Quality Act and proposed Endangered Species Act reforms uniquely “create (or would create) an environment in which further strategic attacks on, and misuses of, science will occur and, indeed, will be facilitated.” Under the ESA, for instance, there have been erroneous species listings, sometimes driven by an ideological desire to invoke the ESA’s regulatory provisions. This is “facilitated” by a more permissive scientific standard. Where as DQA-type rules create opportunities to attack scientific data to prevent policy action, precautionary approaches facilitate policy responses based upon erroneous scientific claims. The difference is not that one produces more science abuse than the other (indeed, Mooney acknowledges on page 31 that the emergence of precautionary regulation “spurred on scientific conflicts”), rather it is that each represents a different policy judgment about whether to err on the side of government action or inaction. Further, many environmental activists do sell the “precautionary principle” as a “science-based” approach to environmental risk. The precautionary principle literature is filled with such claims. (To take one example, that is how this volume edited by two prominent principle proponents is being marketed.) If Mooney is really concerned about how legal rules create a pressure for science abuse, he should have focused more on the institutional context (about which more below).

On whether “everybody does it,” I remain unconvinced that there is something “uniquely worrisome” about the Bush Administration or that conservatives “outdistance any competition” (p. 196) in science abuse. I think I’ve addressed the scientific abuses of liberals and prior administrations before, so I won’t do so here. Instead, let me note that there is evidence of science abuse by the Bush Administration in part because left-leaning activist groups, like the Union of Concerned Scientists and PEER, have sought to document these examples (and, as I noted here, have padded the list with bad examples). The question is not whether this administration has abused science – it has – but whether there is something “unique” here. For instance, if Mooney is to criticize the Bush Administration for rejecting a science advisory policy’s conclusion, as he does with Plan B, he should at least acknowledge that the Clinton Administration did the same (on creating embryos for research). Instead, he says there is not “much of a rap sheet for the Clinton Administration” (p. 254), and makes the astounding claim that environmental activist groups are a pro-science constituency. One cannot claim this is because liberal science abuse does not have policy consequences because it does, as it has in the context of genetically modified foods – something Mooney omits from his discussion of the subject.

Since I wrote my review, UCS has released a survey of government scientists that, more than anything else to date, might substantiate Mooney’s ultimate claim. It appears to demonstrate that a large number of government scientists have witnessed science abuse from during administration. I hope to engage the survey more fully at a later date because I think it bears further examination. Some on the Right have sought to dismiss it due to the low response rate, alleging some sort of selection bias, yet Mooney has correctly noted that the number of positive responses is itself significant (even if we don’t have a baseline against which the results can be compared). If the survey has a problem – and I have not yet examined it closely enough to say whether it does – it is because it classifies some policy disagreements and budgetary matters as “abuse" (as Roger Pielke Jr. notes here). If this accounts for a large proportion of the positive responses, then the survey would do less to substantiate Mooney’s claims.

As for whether Mooney’s solutions are adequate, I think my review’s conclusions stands. Mooney has made an effort to identify non-artisan solutions, but I do not find them very compelling. Recreating another source of official government science, in the form of a reconstituted Office of Technology Assessment, and encouraging greater activism by scientists don’t address the institutional context in which science abuse occurs. As I wrote in the original review:

Existing institutions and legal structures create hydraulic pressure to politicize science for political ends. Under many statutes, particular scientific findings automatically trigger given nondiscretionary regulatory responses. Under the Endangered Species Act, for example, the discovery of endangered species habitat can bar certain activities on federal land, even if other measures would be more effective at conserving the species. Such provisions, which exist in numerous environmental laws, create a tremendous incentive to influence scientific research and dictate outcomes, as the science is the primary determinant of the resulting policies.
Indeed, such legal rules also create pressure for the sorts of science policy reforms that Mooney assails. Yet both Mooney and those he criticizes fail to get to the heart of the issue.

Given the harshness of my initial review’s conclusion, let me end on a more positive note. Mooney has certainly performed a valuable service insofar as he has chronicled the extent to which science can be corrupted within the political process. His research was extensive, his writing is clear, and the larger problem is real. In all my comments on the book I have tried not to diminish the importance of science abuse, nor to excuse the Bush Administration where it truly deserves blame. If political abuse of science is to be controlled, however, one has to get beyond the fantasy that "our guys" are better than "their guys" (whichever side one is on) and recognize that broader institutional arrangements and a political culture that likes to pretend scientific research answers normative policy questions are the headwaters from which these problems spring. I believe Mooney is more sensitive to this concern than when he first wrote his book, and I look forward to the day he revisits the issue in greater depth – and an opportunity to spar with him again.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. GOP "War on Science" -- Mooney Responds:
  2. The GOP "War on Science":
  3. PEER Overstates "Faith-based Park" Problem: