There have been quite a few accusations against the Bush Administration for politically motivated abuse of science. Many of these accusations have merit, but not all. Some charges have been exaggerated. One recent example is PEER's charge that the National Park Service was altering its account of the Grand Canyon's origins to accomodate creationists. Many attacks have also been quite partisan, stressing the failings of the Bush Administration without comparing its abuses to those of other administations, and there has been relatively little consideration of the broader institutional context in which political science abuse occurs. Such examination would not excuse the Bush Administation for its missteps and abuses, but it would faciliate serious discussion of how to reduce science politicization.
The canonical text for those who assail the Bush Administration's abuse of science is The Republican War on Science by Chris Mooney. Mooney maintains that the political right is primarily responsible for political science abuse, and lays most of the blame at the feet of corporate lobbyists and religious conservatives. While acknowledging, in passing, that environmental activists and Democratic administrations have engaged in political science abuse of their own, he trains his sights on the Right.
Mooney's book was recently released in an expanded and updated paperback edition. I wrote a review of this edition for Regulation, that is now posted on SSRN. The abstract follows:
Chris Mooney's "Republican War on Science" argues that the political right, and in particular the Bush Administration, are guilty of rampant "political science abuse," defined as "any attempt to inappropriately undermine, alter, or otherwise interfere with the scientific process, or scientific conclusions, for political or ideological reasons." Mooney correctly identifies many example of such abuse by conservative organizations and Republican politicians, but some of his charges are overwrought, if not misleading. Overall the book has three central flaws. 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. The politicization of science is a real problem, yet lacking any serious consideration of the broader institutional context in which such politicization occurs, Republican War ultimately fails in its diagnosis and prescriptions.The Bush Administration deserves criticism for politicizing and abusing science in many instances. Yet science abuse is not a partisan phenomenon. There is plenty of blame to go around. Even if the Bush Administration's abuses are quantitatively or qualitatively worse than its predecessors — and I am unconvinced on this score — the solution to the problem of political science abuse lies in institutional reform, rather than partisan politics.
UPDATE: One of the best examples of the politicization of science by the "left" — and one of the few that Mooney acknowledges — is the treatment of agricultural biotechnology, and the decision to subject such products to more stringent regulatory review than those developed with other methods. This policy has no scientific basis, as the National Academy of Sciences has stated many times.
Another example would be claims by environmentalist groups that pesticide residues on foods pose a significant cancer risk, a claim which the NAS has also rejected. A third would be seeking endangered species listings for the purpose of halting development. A fourth would be efforts to claim asthma incidence (as opposed to asthma attacks) are related to outdoor air pollution, when there is no data to support such a claim. A fifth would be the EPA's second-hand smoke study, which a federal court found was driven to reach a predetermined result. A sixth would be claims that the "precautionary principle" is a "science-based" approach to risk, when it acutally reflects a normative policy judgment about how to weigh and evaluate risks. A seventh would be the compounded conservatisms that are embedded into many agency risk assessments, such as those conducted for the federal Superfund program. An eighth would be molding "ecosystem management" to satisfy non-scientific normative preferences about how land should be managed. And so on.
Some of these occurred within the Clinton Administration, others were the result of interest group action and occurred at other times. Overall, however, one can only claim the Clinton Administration never abused science for political reasons if one wasn't paying attention. Examples beyond those mentioned above are easy to come by. Here are two from Ronald Bailey:
In 1993, Princeton University physicist William Happer was fired from the Department of Energy because he disagreed with Vice President Al Gore's views on stratospheric ozone depletion. In 1994, President Bill Clinton rejected the finding from the Embryo Research Panel of the National Institutes of Health which declared that the intentional creation of human embryos for genetic research was ethical. Clinton simply banned any federal funding for such research.Others include the witholding of agency analyses so as to prevent their publication at poltiically inconvenient times and the gross misrepresentation of scientific findings by agency officials in speeches and media appearances.
If we are allowed to consider the plaintiffs' bar as a "left" interest — as corporate groups are considered to be on the "right" — then there are many more examples relating to all sorts of "junk science" tort claims, some of which my co-blogger David Bernstein has documented. Then there is the politicization and denigration of science that occurs within academia, such as Paul Gross and Norman Levitt documented in their book Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science.
It is certainly possible that the Bush Administration is worse than prior Democratic Administrations, but I don't think Mooney makes his case because he doesn't seriously examine the most serious charges against prior administrations, nor does he consider the broader institutional context. This does not excuse the Bush Adminsitration at all, but it is relevant if one seriously seeks to address the underlying problem.
If the Bush Administration is worse than prior administrations, there are potential, non-partisan explanations. For instance, I suspect it makes a difference whether Congress is controlled by the opposing party. When it isn't, an administration may act more irresponsibly. Yet if this is the case, it is not because Republicans are in power, but because there is insufficient legislative oversight, and there is no reason to believe that unified Democratic government would behave any better.
Another possible argument is that politically motivated science abuse by the Right should be a greater concern because the Republican Party has substantial political power, whereas leftist luddite academics can do little more than contaminate the minds of their most gullible students. This argument is plausible, but it is not the claim Mooney makes in his book (though I have heard him make it in a speech). Mooney's argument is not just that the GOP attacks science (it does), and that this is bad (it is), but also that Democrats and the Left are much better. This is where his argument has the greatest problems. Among other things, I find the argument unconvincing because left-leaning science abuse is quite rampant in certain policy areas, such as environmental protection.
[NOTE: I hit publish before I was finished this update, so if it appears to have changed, it did. I added more examples and fixed some typos.]