The Democratic War on Science (with Update)

One mark of the pervasive media bias of our time is how easily the risible thesis of Chris Mooney’s book The Republican War on Science gained traction with the mainstream media.  It’s become a “goes-without-saying” axiom of political discourse today.  Jonathan Adler had the most sober takedown of Mooney’s moonbattery at Regulation magazine back in 2007 (updated and downloadable from SSRN).  Here’s Jon’s able summary of the problem of the wider “war on science” argument:

First, Mooney has a penchant for characterizing some legitimate science-related policy positions with which he disagrees as “abuses” of science. Second, he exhibits a blind spot to the misuse and politicization of science by those who espouse political agendas with which he agrees. Third and most important, Mooney pays little attention to the larger institutional context that generates political pressures on science. Without consideration of this broader institutional context, Republican War ultimately fails in its diagnosis and prescriptions.

Dan Sarewitz

Okay, why dredge up this old argument about a six-year old book by a partisan liberal hack?  Because it’s one thing if the media buys into this silliness, but quite another thing if the scientific community does, too.  Dan Sarewitz, whom I’ve mentioned on Power Line before, has an important column just out in Nature magazine where he cautions that the scientific community is making a big political mistake to align itself as an adjunct of the Democratic Party:

To prevent science from continuing its worrying slide towards politicization, here’s a New Year’s resolution for scientists, especially in the United States: gain the confidence of people and politicians across the political spectrum by demonstrating that science is bipartisan. . .

For the third presidential election in a row, dozens of Nobel prizewinners in physics, chemistry and medicine signed a letter endorsing the Democratic candidate. . .

If [scientists] are speaking on behalf of science, then science is revealing itself, like the unions, the civil service, environmentalists and tort lawyers, to be a Democratic interest, not a democratic one.

This is dangerous for science and for the nation. The claim that Republicans are anti-science is a staple of Democratic political rhetoric, but bipartisan support among politicians for national investment in science, especially basic research, is still strong. For more than 40 years, US government science spending has commanded a remarkably stable 10% of the annual expenditure for non-defence discretionary programmes. In good economic times, science budgets have gone up; in bad times, they have gone down. There have been more good times than bad, and science has prospered.

In the current period of dire fiscal stress, one way to undermine this stable funding and bipartisan support would be to convince Republicans, who control the House of Representatives, that science is a Democratic special interest. . .  The US scientific community must decide if it wants to be a Democratic interest group or if it wants to reassert its value as an independent national asset.

Sarewitz isn’t the first such prominent voice in the scientific community to make this point.  It’s worth revisiting the similar caution of MIT’s Kerry Emanuel, a climate scientist who largely subscribes to the climate “consensus,” who caused a bit of a stir when he “came out of the closet” as a Republican a couple of years ago:

Scientists are most effective when they provide sound, impartial advice, but their reputation for impartiality is severely compromised by the shocking lack of political diversity among American academics, who suffer from the kind of group-think that develops in cloistered cultures. Until this profound and well-documented intellectual homogeneity changes, scientists will be suspected of constituting a leftist think tank.

UPDATE: I should have checked in with Roger Pielke’s fine science and policy blog before posting this, as Roger gilds the subject nicely:

An approach that critiques the president when he is a Republican and cheer-leads when he is a Democrat lends itself to more than just cynicism — it contributes to the politicization of science policy issues which by their nature can be problematic regardless of who is in office.

I have often marveled on this blog at how issues of scientific integrity — which were so important to scientists and science connoisseurs during the Bush Administration — largely disappeared in social media science policy discussions, and only occasionally appeared in the conventional media.

The issues, however, have not disappeared. A few weeks ago, the Union of Concerned Scientists observed in the case of genetically modified salmon:

Despite what the President might have said about scientific integrity, we’ve seen White House interference on what should be science regulatory decisions.A list of troubling issues under the Obama Administration where science and politics meet is, well, almost Bush-like, and includes issues related to drilling safety, themuzzling of scientists at USDA and at HHS, clothing political decisions in dodgy scientific claims on the morning after pill and Yucca Mountain, the withholding of scientific information for fear of political fallout … and the list goes on.

For those who care about scientific integrity, the selective attention of the scientific community is problematic because it reduces the issue to a matter of electoral politics rather than the nitty-gritty details of actual policy implementation.

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