PEER Overstates "Faith-based Park" Problem:
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) is "a national non-profit alliance of local, state and federal scientists, law enforcement officers, land managers and other professionals dedicated to upholding environmental laws and values." Among other things, PEER serves as the voice of government employees who object to "anti-environmental" policies and practices within government agencies.
One of PEER's campaigns is challenging "Faith-based Parks." Specifically, PEER is concerned that the Bush Administration has pushed the National Park Service to reject scientific analysis and explanations in an effort to cater to religious fundamentalists. Among other things, PEER claimed that the Bush Administration was pressuring NPS employees to accomodate creationist explanations of the Grand Canyon's history, and tell the public that the canyon in thousands, rather than millions, of years old. PEER claimed in a press release that:
Grand Canyon National Park is not permitted to give an official estimate of the geologic age of its principal feature, due to pressure from Bush administration appointees.
The charge is plausible -- after all, one administration employee sought to edit NASA's website
so as to protect religious sensibilities -- and, if true, quite objectionable. The problem, as the Skeptic Society's Michael Shermer documents
, PEER's central claim does not pan out. It is true that one of the books the NPS offers for sale at the Grand Canyon National Park's bookstore is a creationist account of the Canyon's history. Yet this book is sold in the "inspiration" section of the bookstore, along with Native American creation myths and other spiritual materials. It is not sold or represented as a scientific account, nor have NPS employees ever been instructed to give anything other than a scientific explanation for the Grand Canyon's age and history.
After extensively researching PEER's claims -- and forcing a partial retraction -- Shermer is understandably distraught (in part because he initially cited PEER's charge uncritically). Perhaps the NPS shouldn't sell the offending book in its book stores, but this is hardly proves PEER's initial claims. As Shermer explains, the controversy over selling creationist books "is an old one now, and completely irrelevant to the claim that NPS employees are withholding information about the age of the canyon, and/or are being pressured to do so by Bush administration appointees." PEER's claims to the contrary -- and protracted efforts to defend the charge and deflect Shermer's inquiries -- were an "egregious display of poor judgment and unethical behavior," Shermer concludes. In the end, it seems that PEER's hostility to the Bush Administration caused it to overstate the facts. There are enough examples of political manipulation of scientific claims without the need for PEER or others to invent new ones.
The GOP "War on Science":
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.]
GOP "War on Science" -- Mooney Responds:
Chris Mooney has posted a response to my review of his book, The Republican War on Science over at his blog, The Intersection. While Mooney and I often disagree, I consider his blog (along with Pielke’s Prometheus) to be among the few “must read” blogs on the intersection between science and policy. I also recommend Mooney's recent op-ed with Alan Sokal, even though I think it exhibits some of the same failings as his book (see also here), and look forward to his forthcoming book on hurricanes, Storm World.
With that said let me offer a not-so-brief rejoinder to Mooney’s response. While he and I clearly disagree, I consider this to be an important issue and believe there is value in continuing our exchange. So, with that in mind, go read his response, and then consider my comments below.
On the issue of embryonic stem cells, I think my characterization of Mooney’s discussion is fair. I should note, however, that Mooney is correct that I should have acknowledged he calls out John Edwards and others for exaggerating the promise of embryonic stem cell research. On the larger issue, however, I stand by my claim that Mooney “suggests that the number of cell lines, rather than ideological opposition to the destruction of embryos, drove Bush policy.” For instance, he writes the Bush Administration policy was “based on science fiction” and “a textbook example of how bad scientific information leads, inexorably, to bad policy.” (p. 3). These statements seem pretty clear to me. It is fair to criticize the President’s effort to spin the policy by relying upon questionable scientific claims, as Mooney does, but I believe Mooney also goes farther in an effort to make this episode a centerpiece in his argument.
On the question of whether Mooney confuses legitimate policy disputes with science abuse, his defense is that he acknowledges taking policy stances “against inappropriate legislative interferences with science and to advocate a strengthening of our government's science policy apparatus.” I don’t believe this gives Mooney the out he thinks it does. To claim that requiring a greater level of scientific certainty, peer-review, or critical examination before commencing government regulation constitutes an “inappropriate legislative interference with science” requires a prior policy judgment about whether the government should be more or less aggressive in responding to scientific uncertainty.
I reject Mooney’s argument that the Data Quality Act and proposed Endangered Species Act reforms uniquely “create (or would create) an environment in which further strategic attacks on, and misuses of, science will occur and, indeed, will be facilitated.” Under the ESA, for instance, there have been erroneous species listings, sometimes driven by an ideological desire to invoke the ESA’s regulatory provisions. This is “facilitated” by a more permissive scientific standard. Where as DQA-type rules create opportunities to attack scientific data to prevent policy action, precautionary approaches facilitate policy responses based upon erroneous scientific claims. The difference is not that one produces more science abuse than the other (indeed, Mooney acknowledges on page 31 that the emergence of precautionary regulation “spurred on scientific conflicts”), rather it is that each represents a different policy judgment about whether to err on the side of government action or inaction. Further, many environmental activists do sell the “precautionary principle” as a “science-based” approach to environmental risk. The precautionary principle literature is filled with such claims. (To take one example, that is how this volume edited by two prominent principle proponents is being marketed.) If Mooney is really concerned about how legal rules create a pressure for science abuse, he should have focused more on the institutional context (about which more below).
On whether “everybody does it,” I remain unconvinced that there is something “uniquely worrisome” about the Bush Administration or that conservatives “outdistance any competition” (p. 196) in science abuse. I think I’ve addressed the scientific abuses of liberals and prior administrations before, so I won’t do so here. Instead, let me note that there is evidence of science abuse by the Bush Administration in part because left-leaning activist groups, like the Union of Concerned Scientists and PEER, have sought to document these examples (and, as I noted here, have padded the list with bad examples). The question is not whether this administration has abused science – it has – but whether there is something “unique” here. For instance, if Mooney is to criticize the Bush Administration for rejecting a science advisory policy’s conclusion, as he does with Plan B, he should at least acknowledge that the Clinton Administration did the same (on creating embryos for research). Instead, he says there is not “much of a rap sheet for the Clinton Administration” (p. 254), and makes the astounding claim that environmental activist groups are a pro-science constituency. One cannot claim this is because liberal science abuse does not have policy consequences because it does, as it has in the context of genetically modified foods – something Mooney omits from his discussion of the subject.
Since I wrote my review, UCS has released a survey of government scientists that, more than anything else to date, might substantiate Mooney’s ultimate claim. It appears to demonstrate that a large number of government scientists have witnessed science abuse from during administration. I hope to engage the survey more fully at a later date because I think it bears further examination. Some on the Right have sought to dismiss it due to the low response rate, alleging some sort of selection bias, yet Mooney has correctly noted that the number of positive responses is itself significant (even if we don’t have a baseline against which the results can be compared). If the survey has a problem – and I have not yet examined it closely enough to say whether it does – it is because it classifies some policy disagreements and budgetary matters as “abuse" (as Roger Pielke Jr. notes here). If this accounts for a large proportion of the positive responses, then the survey would do less to substantiate Mooney’s claims.
As for whether Mooney’s solutions are adequate, I think my review’s conclusions stands. Mooney has made an effort to identify non-artisan solutions, but I do not find them very compelling. Recreating another source of official government science, in the form of a reconstituted Office of Technology Assessment, and encouraging greater activism by scientists don’t address the institutional context in which science abuse occurs. As I wrote in the original review:
Existing institutions and legal structures create hydraulic pressure to politicize science for political ends. Under many statutes, particular scientific findings automatically trigger given nondiscretionary regulatory responses. Under the Endangered Species Act, for example, the discovery of endangered species habitat can bar certain activities on federal land, even if other measures would be more effective at conserving the species. Such provisions, which exist in numerous environmental laws, create a tremendous incentive to influence scientific research and dictate outcomes, as the science is the primary determinant of the resulting policies.
Indeed, such legal rules also create pressure for the sorts of science policy reforms that Mooney assails. Yet both Mooney and those he criticizes fail to get to the heart of the issue.
Given the harshness of my initial review’s conclusion, let me end on a more positive note. Mooney has certainly performed a valuable service insofar as he has chronicled the extent to which science can be corrupted within the political process. His research was extensive, his writing is clear, and the larger problem is real. In all my comments on the book I have tried not to diminish the importance of science abuse, nor to excuse the Bush Administration where it truly deserves blame. If political abuse of science is to be controlled, however, one has to get beyond the fantasy that "our guys" are better than "their guys" (whichever side one is on) and recognize that broader institutional arrangements and a political culture that likes to pretend scientific research answers normative policy questions are the headwaters from which these problems spring. I believe Mooney is more sensitive to this concern than when he first wrote his book, and I look forward to the day he revisits the issue in greater depth – and an opportunity to spar with him again.
Chilling Climate Dissent:
Roger Pielke Jr. suggests comparing allegations against the Bush Administration made by James Hansen and other cliamte scientists who work in the Bush Administration with moves by state governors to oust state climatologists for expressing heterodox views on climate change.
UPDATE: The above link discusses the controversy in Orgeon. For information on the brewing controversy in Delaware, see here and here.
Adler v. Mooney -- One Last Time:
Continuing the discussion over the alleged GOP "War on Science," Chris Mooney offers a surreply to my reply here. As I think we've both said most of what we have to say, I will only make a three quick, final points.
First, if Mooney's ultimate claim about the Bush Administration and embryonic stem cells is nothing more than Administration officials spun the science in their talking poitns to support the decision, then I don't see the big deal. Indeed, it reduces the difference between Bush abuses and those of others on this issue (e.g. John Edwards) to be little more than who was in power at the time. And on this count, it's very difficult to argue the Clinton Adminsitration was not just as guilty (as were prior Administrations). Carol Browner, for instance, used to exaggerate scientific claims related to the asthma-air pollution connection (and other things) all the time as EPA Administrator. I (and others who have reviewed the book) took Mooney to be making a stronger claim about the nature of the Bush Administration's actions in his book. If I was mistaken, I think the example loses much of its force.
Second, on the DQA, I agree that it creates opportunities for industry groups and others to challenge the scientific basis for government regulations. My point is that More precautionary alternatives make it easier for activist groups (and industry, which often seeks regulation as an anti-competitive measure), to spur government regulation when a sound scientific predicate is lacking. The ESA is a good example here. I believe the Act's use of the "best available" science is the right standard, but it certainly allows for the listing of species based upon preliminary evidence that may be subsequently shown to be erroneous.
Third, on whether precautionary principle adovcates seek to don the mantle of science, the first blurb promoting the book I cited proclaims the principle is "a rational, practical, fair-minded, powerful, science-based approach for making the world a safer, more livable place." The quote is from ecologist Sandra Steingraber, who has her own book advocating the precuationary principle. Other examples in the literature are equally easy to come by.