Tuesday, May 30, 2006

BookBlogging #9: The Republican War On Science (or How to Blunt Your Point By Choosing an Overly Polemical Title)

"The Republican War On Science" by Chris Mooney is a searing indictment of the attacks upon the naturalist scientific method perpetrated by Big Business and Religious Conservatives over the past two decades. It is exhaustively sourced and seems very soundly researched. Yet it is almost certainly preaching to the choir, for the simple reason of the inclusion of "Republican" in the title. I don't think much would have been lost by simply entitling the work "The War On Science" with perhaps a subheading of sorts.

In much the same way that Ramesh Ponnuru's "Party of Death" has largely been dismissed by left-of-center-types as a partisan attack piece, "RWOS," merely through it's title, forestalls serious, two-sided discussion. Easy enough for me to say "great book - look at what those bastards did now..." But, I'm singing in the choir as far as that goes. But for someone to my right, who might be suprised by some of the incidents documented, it can easily be viewed as a slightly more urbane attempt to describe conservative as backwards, theocratic rednecks - what intelligent person could possibly be anti-science?

And, to a degree, the title is something of a misnomer - it most cases, it is not Republicans qua Republicans who are fighting 'science,' it is certain distinct constituencies within the GOP that are battling against the scientific consensus on many issues. A perfect example of this can be seen in the furor over the Al Gore global warming film. While certainly Republicans are sniping this seems to be on the political front (despite evidence that Gore is probably not running in '08 Too bad, I think.) Those attacking the substance of the film seem to be more of Big Industry variety.

Incidentally, this makes perfect sense from an 'interest' standpoint - once a technology is 'discovered' those who control it's use have a vested interest in A) not letting it be supplanted; and B) not being exposed to additional costs. Thus, there is a clear incentive to muddy certain waters. When something is first invented there really isn't much known about empirical 'side-effects', which often take the form of negative externalities. Naturally, any good supplier doesn't want to be forced to internalize these outputs, because then they would just be "costs" which result in lower "profits" and one less Bentley in the CEO's garage, and perhaps having to settle for Jermaine Dupri over 50 Cent at your kid's Sweet 16. Further, a characteristic of a market with negative externalities is societally inefficient overproduction - also good for the producer, less good for consumers and/or everyone else. If costs rise, quantity and margins are likely reduced. Once again, no Bentley, and we're probably down to Kris Kross or Funkdoobiest - for which your son resolves to hate you, drops out, moves to Seattle to work at Starbucks and protest the WTO, giving you ulcers and huge bills from Dr. Melfi's office. Not good times.

So, naturally, Mr. CEO wants none of this to come to pass, so he has to beat back the scientific consensus. Funny how studies tend to produce outcome favorable to the funders...And here's the neat trick - you talk to your business-friendly Congressman, (who probably doesn't know science from a hole in the ground) and you show him your study, and suddenly
global warming [is] “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people”
Interest politics are less clear in the other constituency at issue, the Religious Right - certainly the economic incentive is not there for 'Intelligent Design' as it is for the global warming skeptics. Rather, it is a clash of outlooks, perhaps based on a misperception. Science doesn't claim to have the answers - it seeks to determine the observable process.

Such empricism may have some inherent tension with faith, but it certainly isn't required until God is posited as the reason for all that is unobservable. Naturally, as the universe of knowledge increases, God's role 'decreases' - which was heresy for Galileo, and apparently not much has changed for some.

Identifying the 'real' culprits does not obsolve those (like Inhofe or Frist or Gingrich) who sign on to these efforts of culpability, but I think the book would have had more universal appeal had it focused more on the former than the latter - the underlying problem is the politicization of science, and calling out the GOP for doing so isn't likely to help.

Pooh's View: Another one to get my liberal (as well as 'economist' dander up) - suffers a little from Mooney's (understandable, considering the evidence) polemicism. For further reading, the motley crew of academics at Crooked Timber recently conducted a fascinating 'seminar' on RWOS. The author participated, as did Steve Fuller, a noted skeptic/techonological optimist. Good stuff.

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