Chris Mooney.

Photo: Perseus Books.

For some five years, Chris Mooney has been writing about the delicate overlap of science and public policy. As a correspondent for The American Prospect and Seed, a blogger, and a freelance journalist, he’s carved out what you might think would be a modest, out-of-the-way niche of political punditry.

Turns out, Mooney’s metier has placed him at the eye of a kind of political perfect storm: This past year, he’s become something of a pundit rock star. He’s even ascended the Mount Olympus of hip relevance: The Daily Show.

Why? The Bush administration has come under increasing fire for its mangling and disregard of science. Subjects about which Mooney has developed expertise — global warming, stem-cell research, evolution — have burst into the headlines with a vengeance. In May of this year, he wrote an article in the Prospect warning that a Category 4 or 5 hurricane could devastate New Orleans (ouch). And just this month, he released The Republican War on Science, an unapologetic broadside against an administration he says is unprecedented in its hostility toward the very foundations of objective knowledge. He chatted by email with Grist‘s David Roberts about partisanship, climate science, and more.

Are Republicans really that much worse than Democrats when it comes to distorting science? How do you respond to critics who say that politicization of science is simply a political phenomenon, not the exclusive province of the right? What’s different about this particular administration?

Everyone, every interest group, politicizes or abuses science to some extent. Everyone cherry-picks information, from time to time, to help bolster a particular agenda.

However, there’s something that’s quite different about this administration, when it comes to the extent of the abuses. Hardly a week goes by but we have some new outrage at the science-and-politics interface. So the problem is systemic, not just occasional.

My thesis is that this is a political phenomenon that is unique to Republican rule in the United States, and which is epitomized by the Bush administration. This administration is constantly doing favors for its big-business and religious-right constituents. That prejudice drives distortions of science on issues ranging from global warming to sex education.

What social trends have laid the groundwork for a “war against science”? Poor science education? A surge in fundamentalist religions?

Poor science education doesn’t help matters, but I wouldn’t link it directly to the kinds of abuses we’re seeing. The role of fundamentalist religiosity — and particularly, politically conservative Christianity — is, I think, more significant.

On evolution, on embryonic stem cell research, on alleged health risks from abortion, and much else, religious conservatives have their own spin on the science, and even their own “experts.” For instance, they deny evolution and have come up with a scientific-sounding alternative, “intelligent design.” Because of this phenomenon of science appropriation, Republican politicians sympathetic to the religious right can easily cite their own favored experts, in the process distorting mainstream scientific understanding. This sets in motion a wide array of abuses.

You say the current right is an unholy alliance of religious conservatives and industry, which together push science distortion. But on climate change, those two constituencies may be parting ways, as more religious organizations take global warming seriously.

Not so fast. There are plenty of Christian right organizations, like Focus on the Family, that are in denial about climate change. It really depends on where the group stands politically — and how much it is a part of the Republican political machine.

Has the Bush administration been especially adept at exploiting conventional journalistic weaknesses, or are reporters lazier or more credulous these days in covering scientific disputes?

The press doesn’t generally help these matters. This is an argument I have made twice now in Columbia Journalism Review. Through their instinctive tendency to create a “balance” between two sides, journalists repeatedly allow science abusers to create phony “controversies,” even though the scientific merits of the issue may exclusively be with one side.

Here’s my real fear when it comes to the press. Suppose there’s some mainstream scientific view that you want to set up a think tank to challenge — to undermine, to controversialize. Suppose further that you have a lot of money, as well as an interested and politically influential constituency on board with your agenda. In this situation, it seems to me that as long as you are clever enough, you should be able to set your political machine in motion and then sit back and watch the national media do the rest of your work for you. The press will help you create precisely the controversy that lies at the heart of your political and public relations strategy — and not only that. It will do a far better job than the best PR firm, and its services will be entirely free of charge.

I think we have actually seen this happen repeatedly. A good example is the issue of evolution.

So the right has, in effect, funded its own science, through a series of think tanks and policy institutes. Should the left pump more money into doing the same?

I think the left should, in general, continue to put its stock in government-funded, university-based science published in leading journals. This work should be further vetted through major scientific assessment reports, and delivered to policy makers in the form of consensus conclusions. On matters of science, the left needs to stand up for rigor and quality analysis.

That’s not to say the left shouldn’t be creating think tanks to do work in other areas — including to combat the right’s think tanks. But as far as science goes, we already have very good sources of information much of the time. The problem is that that information is being distorted, denied, attacked, or ignored. That’s what we need to combat.

The Republican War on
Science

by Chris Mooney, Basic
Books, 336 pgs., 2005.

You say in your book that bad science leads directly to bad policy. Do you think Bush administration-assisted efforts to retain the image of uncertainty around climate science is responsible for weak U.S. policy?

When forced into a corner, the Bush administration will at least kowtow to the mainstream scientific position on global warming, and fall back on economic arguments for political inaction.

But the administration also plays a good cop, bad cop game. Even as it officially acknowledges that global warming is a problem, it has used distortion and suppression of scientific information in order to subtly bolster the case for inaction. The fear seems to be that if the government regularly releases scientific reports that demonstrate the gravity of the climate situation, there would be much more impetus for it to take strong action. To prevent such pressure, the White House tries to suppress and distort this information.

Do you think environmentalists are misusing science to push their view of global warming, or their other agendas? Do groups like Greenpeace oversimplify in order to get attention, and, if so, do they deserve criticism as well?

Environmentalists are not innocent of abuses. For example, some have tried recently to argue that global warming caused Hurricane Katrina. Well, scientists say you can’t link global warming to any particular event. Therefore, you shouldn’t say you can.

In the book I cite some other examples. I do single out Greenpeace for claiming that there are unique, inherent human health risks from genetically modified foods. I think the evidence there is really shoddy. I also talk about the issue of mercury pollution. Even as industry wants to ignore the human sources of mercury, enviros have not always been straight up enough about the nonhuman sources.

Do you see the recent Joe Barton shenanigans as some kind of turning point in the science politicization fight? Have they gone too far, or is this just a sign of things to come?

[Rep.] Barton [R-Texas] has definitely gone too far, and in the process has accomplished several things that I think are significant. First, he has roused the scientific community in a big way. Pretty much every scientific society with expertise relevant to climate change has come out in defense of the scientists Barton is targeting with his inquiry.

Barton has also roused, at least to some extent, the university community and moderate Republicans. Sen. [John] McCain [R-Ariz.] and House Science Committee Chair Sherwood Boehlert [R-N.Y.] have denounced his little investigation. This is extremely heartening. We have to drive a wedge between moderate Republicans and conservative ones on matters of science, because only the moderates can rescue their party from its current, destructive addiction to abusing and distorting scientific information.

What’s the proper line between science and policy? Should there be a wall between them, with scientists expected to speak purely on empirical conclusions and then pass the baton over the wall? Or is it inevitable that scientists and science organizations will have policy preferences?

I don’t believe in a firm wall of separation between science and politics. Rather, I believe in a productive interaction between the two spheres.

A slogan that you hear a lot is, “on tap, not on top.” The basic idea is that scientists should be there to provide politicians with the best information when they need it. But the scientists don’t make the final decisions — politicians do. It’s a lot like the role of the CIA when it comes to informing foreign policy. Politicians should listen to the experts in the intelligence community, but then they have to make the final decision about what to do.

But what politicians should never do is handpick the experts, or distort the information, to justify prior political commitments. And that’s exactly what’s been happening from the political right and the Republican Party.

As far as scientists lobbying goes, scientists have always been involved in politicking when it comes to seeking research funding. And if they feel the need to stand up for the integrity of science, that’s also a legitimate area in which to take a political stand.

What environmental story covered in your book do you think most deserves wider public attention?

The story of how the Bush administration has undermined Pacific Northwestern salmon protections by presuming to count hatchery fish along with wild ones for Endangered Species Act purposes. It’s a little-known story, and the technical minutiae are complicated — but that’s how these science fights often work. They’re complex and below the radar, and that makes what’s happening all the more insidious.

Do you expect reaction to the book to fall along predictable partisan lines? Any worries you’ll just be preaching to the choir?

I have a book endorsement from a prominent Republican, former EPA administrator Russell Train. I expect thoughtful conservatives to approach the book thoughtfully, even as others approach it in more of a knee-jerk way. That’s inevitable, but even if you ultimately disagree with the book, I’m confident there’s enough in there to get you really thinking.