The Republican War on Science


Chris Mooney is trying to kill me.

It’s true. He sent me this book, The Republican War on Science(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll) (now available in a new paperback edition!), that he knew would send my blood pressure skyrocketing, give me apoplexy, and cause me to stroke out and die, gasping, clawing in futile spasms at the floor. Fortunately, I’ve been inoculating myself for the past few years by reading his weblog (now also in a new edition!), so I managed to survive, although there were a few chest-clutching moments and one or two life-flashing-past-my-eyes experiences, which will be handy if I ever write a memoir.

If you enjoy the thrill of flirting with danger, there is a website promoting the book, and you can also read a substantial excerpt to get a taste. Or just take the plunge and buy it when it becomes available in September—trust me, it’s good, and it probably won’t be quite as traumatic to most people as it is to me. It’s always disturbing to see the president, the house, the senate, and the entire danged Republican party targeting one’s own occupation for destruction.

And that’s really what the book documents: a pattern (and so far, a frighteningly successful pattern) of corrupting the science establishment in America by the Republican party. This is not to say that the Democrats are entirely innocent (NCCAM comes to mind), or that individual Republicans cannot be conscientiously pro-science, but the convergence of the conservative/religious social interests and the well-monied Big Business interests that has driven Republican electoral success is also a perfect formula for driving attacks on the integrity of science and science policy.

Good science needs to be independent of and unfiltered by desired outcomes; it aims to describe the world as it is, not how we wish it would be. This often conflicts with short term economic interests, who want that drug they’ve spent a billion dollars developing to be effective and who want that rare species living on their proposed factory site to be gone and who want those lawsuits charging them with unsafe practices or marketing dangerous products to go away. Much of Mooney’s book describes how business gets its way. They found “think-tanks” that flood a topic with pseudo-science, confusing the issues. They dump money on hired gun lobbyists and our representatives, cleverly gutting the legislation that would allow us to act on scientific recommendations. They work to discredit principled scientists who oppose them.

Religious conservatives have a dogmatic vision of how the world must be, a vision based on ‘revealed knowledge’ and antique sources that often contradicts empirically determined reality and reason in the grossest way. It’s not at all surprising that they directly attack science; what’s truly weird, though, is how often they also don the trappings of science, attempting to assume the mantle of scientific authority, in confused efforts to “prove” religious beliefs. That’s a pernicious strategy that is also undermining science; when creatures like George Gilder or Bruce Chapman declare their version of creationism a science, they are poisoning minds with false ideas of how science actually works.

Mooney does a phenomenal job of documenting the sins of the corporate opportunists, the incompetent hacks, and the sanctimonious culture warriors who are perpetrating this assault on science. He also explains what it is costing us: the sacrifice of international competitiveness, the blown opportunities to invest in the future, the squandering of our resources and the wasteful poisoning of our environment. This is stuff we need to act on now, if it is not already too late.

I have to give away the ending of the book. Forgive me, but really, this is the kind of book where the journey is the reward anyway, and long before it gets there you know how it is going to wind up. Mooney concludes with suggestions about what we need to do—encourage the non-nutball wing of the Republican party, shore up legislation to create safeguards for objective science advising, and get scientists out in the streets with local activism for science (we really suck at that, I know). He also forcefully damns the far Right extremists who dominate the Republican party.

In this context, and considering its track record, we have no choice but to politically oppose the antiscience right wing of the Republican Party. This does not necessarily entail an outright partisan agenda. Encouraging the electoral success of Republican moderates with good credentials on science [oh, rara avis!—pzm] could potentially have just as constructive an effect as backing Democrats.

But if we care about science and believe that it should play a crucial role in decisions about our future, we must steadfastly oppose further political gains by the modern Right. This political movement has patently demonstrated that it will not defend the integrity of science in any case in which science runs afoul of its core political constituencies. In so doing, it has ceded any right to govern a technologically advanced and sophisticated nation. Our future relies on our intelligence, but today’s Right—failing to grasp this fact in virtually every political situation in which it really matters, and nourishing disturbing anti-intellectual tendencies—cannot deliver us there successfully or safely. If it will not come to its senses, we must cast it aside.

I think there is still a reservoir of respect for science in the US, and we need to capitalize on it before it is corrupted further. Republicans belong to the anti-science party; Inhofe and Coburn and Frist and yes, George W. Bush have made ignorance the party line. It’s long past due that we call them on it. And of course, we also have to police the Democratic Party, and make sure they don’t also slide into this garbage in their rush to emulate the Republicans.


  1. Russell says

    I’ll say it again: today, anyone who is pro-science, not religious, or for civil liberty, who votes Republican, is pretty much like the chicken who votes for Colonel Sanders.

  2. Alex says


    So what you’re saying is that Darwinists hate chickens? Or do they hate white older men with beards who live in the south and wear black bow-ties?

    Which is it now? Come-on!! Sounds like something Hitler would say. Or Darwin.

  3. Alex says

    In all seriousness,

    Kudos and thanks to Mr. Mooney for his activism. We need more accredited, well spoken, respectable individuals calling out the bullshit. I don’t envy the man, in fact, by reading the posts of some of the wack-jobs out there, I would be a little fearful.

    Thanks to Chris, and thanks to PZ for the post.

    PS PZ, you better not stroke out. There is much work to be done.

  4. jim says

    If you want something more heart warming read “Collapse,How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed”. Excellent and insightful work. While it won’t mend your take on the anti-scientests :-( it will show that there are highly talented people out there who see what is going on. I was most impressed with his depth of research and breadth of integrating different scientific disiplines. Impressive.

  5. Mena says

    But if being stupid and proud of it go out of vogue where will they get their base? They have a vested interest in ignorance. I agree with my husband on this: just think of how dumb the average person is. Fifty percent of the population is dumber than that.

  6. says

    “Republicans belong to the anti-science party; Inhofe and Coburn and Frist and yes, George W. Bush have made ignorance the party line.”

    I am from OK home of two of those listed here, Inhofe and Coburn. I try to do my part in helping people here understand science by writting a column for a free newspaper called NonZine.

  7. Karl says

    Re: Mena’s statement.
    I am the only one, as far as I know, who has offered that statement in the Science Blogs comments sections, and I always attribute it to George Carlin. He used to say it on college campuses back in the 60’s(?). I know that she’s not my wife. So, is she Mrs. Carlin?

  8. says

    Or just take the plunge and buy it when it becomes available in September …

    Or just spend the extra couple of bucks and buy the hardback now.[1]
    I have it. It’s worth every nickel, believe me.

    [1] Why, one wonders, does the hardback become unavailable when the paperback is imminent? To prevent sales cannibalization? Anyway, if you want Chris Mooney to get the royalties from first sale, pre-order the paperback. Powell’s will even let you pre-order a signed copy at the same price.

  9. 601 says

    …just think of how dumb the average person is. Fifty percent of the population is dumber than that.

    By convincing 51% that a politician thinks “the same way as I do” gets them elected.

  10. mndarwinist says

    Off topic: Referring to jim’s comment about “Collapse”. It’s a book by Jared Diamond. You’re right, the book is marvelous and fantastic, like his prior work, “Guns, Germs and Steel”. Incidentally, Dr. Diamond is an evolutionary biologist by profession-even though these book are mostly on history and sociology.

  11. says

    I second all the praise for Mooney’s book. I also recommend Sex, Drugs and DNA: Science’s Taboos Confronted by Michael Stebbins. Stebbins is mad as hell and he’s not going to take it any more, consequently, he eschewed the heavily-documented approach of Mooney’s work. There’s even a blog.

    [jre, traditionally paperbacks come out one year after the hardcover, but if the hardcover’s sales remain brisk, the paperback is delayed until…for examples, see The DaVinci Code and A Brief History of Time. The hardcover does not immediately become “unavailable” although it is far less likely to get shelf space in a crowded bookstore]

  12. says

    Unfortunately being mad as Hell alone won’t cut it any more.

    This is serious business, countering the TheoCons. Why? Because if we don’t stop them, sooner or later it will be the Inquisition for that fraction of the 50% smarter than the average person, but that prefers facts to fancy and eschews manipulation of the lower 50% for personal gain.

  13. Ichthyic says

    sooner or later it will be the Inquisition for that fraction of the 50% smarter than the average person, but that prefers facts to fancy and eschews manipulation of the lower 50% for personal gain.

    …or that prefer Richard Dawkins to Paris Hilton.

    …or that prefer “Good Night, and Good Luck” to “Snakes on a Plane”

    …or that prefer the writing of Mooney to that of Coulter.

    etc, etc.

    oh wait, I think we already lost this battle based on sales figures.


    too bad we can’t hire the “Where’s the Beef” woman to advertise for reality.

  14. Student of History says

    Well, there is a Republican war on science, but what about the Science of WAR?

    That concerns me more; why do so many scientists work on WMDS.

    After all, religious fanatics like to take about the end times, but scientists make it a real possibility.

    As Oppenheimer said, the scientists have blood on their hands.

  15. Goldsteins ally says

    It doesn’t matter if a scientist is acutually elected to run an agressive country.

    Scientists will provide all the wmds any power mad dictator needs if the price is right.

    From Hitler to Mao, the scientists were alway there. (Hitlers Scientists, by John Cornwell)

  16. robert says

    When’s that last time a scientist was elected president or was the leader of an agressive country?

    Does Margaret Thatcher qualify as a scientist, and the UK as an aggressive country? Thatcher studied chemistry at Oxford (where she was tutored by Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, who had a rather limited insight into this student’s abilities) and worked for a while as an industrial chemist. Perhaps things went badly wrong when she re-trained as a lawyer.

    Yuval Ne’eman rocked when it came to science; his politics and parallel career history were downright scary. Had he become President the Middle East could well have been a smoking hole in the ground by now, rather than the festering sore that it is at present.