Political Science: Is the GOP the elephant in the laboratory?

The Weekly Standard, October 31, 2005

By Sally Satel

The Republican War on Science
by Chris Mooney
Basic Books, 342 pp., $24.95

FIVE YEARS AGO, President Bush announced his stem cell policy in a prime time television address to the nation. Federal funding would be available to researchers who wished to study any of 60 genetically diverse stem cell lines.

Eventually it became clear that only about one-third of those lines were viable, maybe fewer. The limits on the number of lines posed an insurmountable obstacle to a meaningful federal stem cell program. Nonetheless, it is perfectly reasonable to conclude that the miscount was an honest error on the White House’s part. But not according to Chris Mooney, who condemns it as “one of the most flagrant purely scientific deceptions ever perpetrated by a U.S. president on an unsuspecting public.”

That scalding statement appears on the opening page of The Republican War on Science, and the accusations keep coming. Mooney makes a strong case that science policy is often shaped by partisan expedience and ideology, that there often is a “war” on science–or at least an unhealthy disregard for it. But his case that this is a one-sided war, a Republican war, is much less convincing. A former editor at the American Prospect, Mooney has written excellent articles debunking alternative medicine, exposing paranormal belief, and championing the primacy of evolution in the science classroom. In this book, he offers stirring descriptions of the scientific method with its ethos of skepticism, neutrality, and truth-seeking. The chapter on intelligent design devastates its proponents, and is a proper tribute to Charles Darwin.

Mooney believes that preserving the interests of the religious right and big business–twin goals of the Republican Party, in his view–are a threat to scientific integrity. And at times, these imperatives do put a thumb on the scale of objectivity. For example, vested interests have led to a stubborn emphasis on the virtues of adult stem cells, and the reluctance of politicians to acknowledge the human role in global warming.

But whether George W. Bush’s administration is more guilty than the left ever was (as Mooney charges) is surely debatable. After all, with its ties to environmentalists, trial lawyers, and feminists, the left has surely perpetrated its share of junk science, health scares, and overly stringent environmental regulations. To name a few, these have involved: genetically modified food hysteria; fear that thimerosal in vaccines causes autism; the brutal smear campaign against Danish statistician Bjorn “Skeptical Environmentalist” Lomborg; the banning of silicone breast implants; and fear-mongering over tiny, safe levels of arsenic in drinking water.

Some of Mooney’s accusations seem to be slam-dunks. If, as he persuasively argues, the National Cancer Institute website was changed to say that women who undergo abortions have a meaningful chance of developing breast cancer, then medical reality was indeed distorted. And if the Centers for Disease Control removed accurate details regarding condom use in preventing HIV, and replaced them with information about the virtues of abstinence, this was a wrongheaded purging of health information.

But often the issues are not so blatant. Take mercury contamination of fish. Mooney approvingly cites the EPA claim that “630,000 newborn children in the United States had dangerous blood mercury levels in 1999-2000,” and then goes on to accuse conservative “allies of the electric power industry” of highlighting data showing that mercury exposure does not cause risk to developing human fetuses.

In truth, the levels of mercury to which Americans are exposed are extremely low when compared with levels associated with health effects in more highly exposed populations. Even among children exposed to many times the mercury levels found in Americans, the effects, if any, are so subtle as to be difficult to detect–even when hundreds of children are given a battery of cognitive tests. As far as studies of fish-eating populations are concerned, there are merits to emphasizing one (the Seychelles study) over others (the Faroe Islands and New Zealand studies) because the former population is more representative of American eating habits and ethnic variation.

In any case, none of these studies found any mercury health effects at even the highest exposures found in American children. Not surprisingly, this is a complicated debate waged with imperfect data. But, in calling efforts to relax regulations on power plants a “classic case of conservative science abuse,” it is Mooney himself who is being selective about the evidence.

He calls for transparency about conflicts of interest, barring ideological “litmus” tests for technical advisers, and resurrecting analytic entities like the Office of Technology Assessment. And he makes much of reliance upon scientific “consensus.” That seems like a good idea until you recognize that the bodies determining “consensus” can themselves be tilted. So, whom to trust?

Michael Crichton, the author-physician-anthropologist, has a good idea. He argues that the key to protecting the advisory process from being hijacked by consensus is to separate the generation of findings from their verification. Having discrete teams of scientists who check each other–one to decide how to gather the data, another to actually gather them, and yet another to analyze them–would provide built-in opportunities for self-correction.

It is common knowledge that academic experts in behavioral and public health and the environmental sciences are, on average, left-leaning. So the opportunities for conflict between a conservative administration and left-of-center academics are greater than under liberal political leadership. But that doesn’t mean science is any more politicized now than before; it is just that more researchers disagree with the decisions made.

In the world of science policy, it is not a matter of truth on one side and distortion on the other. Each side exploits ambiguities and uncertainties to suit its needs. Does the Bush administration have a monopoly on bias? Is it worse than the Democrats ever were, as Mooney says? This book doesn’t give us a definitive answer.

Sally Satel, a psychiatrist and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is coauthor of One Nation Under Therapy.