Purchased a FORA.tv video on another website? Login here with the temporary account credentials included in your receipt.
Sign up today to receive our weekly newsletter and special announcements.
Tonight of course we welcome Chris Mooney author of the Republican War on Science. You know I never thought that at this point in my life, I'd be living in an age where this would become such an issue: the science versus non science kind of thing, and it never ceases to amaze me. I know that in St. Petersburg, Kentucky they have recently opened a 25 million dollar museum that depict dinosaurs cohabiting with Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden and this is presented as the scientific beginnings of life and of earth. So a few words about Chris: He is the Washington correspondent for SEED magazine and a senior correspondent for the American Prospect focusing on issues of the intersection of science and politics. Chris was born in Mesa, Arizona, grew up in New Orleans and graduated from Yale University. He has contributed to a variety of publications in recent years including Wire, Slate, Mother Jones and Salon. In addition, he writes a column for the American Prospect on-line and each month he writes for the website of Spectacle Inquirer magazine where he serves as a contributing editor. So ladies and gentlemen please welcome Chris Mooney. Chris Mooney: Thank you. Can everyone hear me? We had a problem with that in San Diego. Well it's nice to be here in Mountain View. I was up there just sitting there getting the Google wireless and thinking why do I live in such a primitive place as Washington D.C.? We don't have anything like that, so I was tempted just to stay up there. Its really great to be here and at the opening of my talks I always like to start out by dispelling a couple of possible misconceptions about the book and particularly the cover image. So let me just get that out of the way. You're laughing already. So far as I know, you can see them here, there was no conscious intention on the part of the illustrator to create a visual pun which turns upon my last name and the image of the elephant. And also, no conscious intention on the part of the illustrator to echo a cover image of another popular book which you might be able to pick up here. Ok, so, these are all just coincidences. More seriously, since this is a new edition of the book, I am also going to give you what is a new talk to go along with it and you are not the first guinea pigs, I've tried this once before, but it is still a little bit new so I hope you'll bear with me. What I'd like to do is I'd like to tell you a little bit about my own story and how it unfolded in the course of the year since the Republican War on Science was first published in hardback. And as I go along and I tell you this story, I think you will quickly see why it's relevant. So let's go back to September 2005, Katrina has just hit New Orleans. I'm from New Orleans, my family has fled. I am perfectly safe. In fact, they have come to Washington D.C. to hold up for awhile and they can't even go back to New Orleans and they didn't go back until I think at least three weeks after the storm hit. Uh, my brother, in fact, was living in my little apartment with his wife and their dog as I went out on book tour, which turned out to very convenient because I had somewhere to give them refuge. And so I remember being in Seattle, you know, about to give a talk or something like that and having to call my landlord and try to defend my brother for having a dog in the apartment building which is against the rules. And I thought they're talking donations downstairs for Katrina refugees, but they are also giving ones that have a dog in their building a hard time. So that was the kind of thing that was going on, that's what I was dealing with. It was a hard time, but quickly realized also a crucial time for speaking out about the importance of good scientific information to good policy. Because I now see New Orleans as pretty much the canonical example of what happens when you don't use the best science that you have in order to guide decision making. Some of you may know the history here. In 1965 we had a storm that is now known, not too fondly, as billion dollar Betsy because it was the first hurricane to rack up a billion dollars in damage. Now if they hit land at any strength and they don't rack up 10 billion, it's surprising. But that just shows you how many people have moved to the coast lines. Betsy, you know, flooded New Orleans, people stranded on rooftops, the President, Lyndon Johnson, came down to visit it, it sounds very similar in a lot of ways to Katrina. And the core of engineers then built for what they called a standard project, hurricane, which essentially is equivalent to a fast moving category three hurricane. But just four years after hurricane Betsy we had a storm called Camille, which was one of the only three category five hurricanes to actually make landfall in the United States as a category five at that strength. A hundred and eighty five mile an hour winds, a storm surge over twenty feet, obliterated parts of Mississippi, very, very close to New Orleans, that or perhaps something even worse should have been considered the worst case scenario then, a long time ago. But of course it wasn't, we built for, it wasn't the worse case scenario we ignored the worst case scenario and then we didn't build competently either and then viola, disaster struck. And so I now think about um, New Orleans and what happened to it in the context of my book, although I didn't at the time. People kept asking me to interpret the War on Science in light of Katrina and it was a struggle for me at first, but now it actually, it makes a lot of sense if you think about it, they were a little bit ahead of my own thinking. And then of course amiss the disaster, the president said, "I don't think anyone anticipated the breech of the levees". So that made it a more direct connection. But I didn't originally talk about hurricanes in the book at all except for sort of one ominous half sentence about the sea level rise and the vulnerability of New Orleans in Bangladesh, which turns out in retrospect, to read as a little appreciate. But when I was out on tour, as I said, people wanted to hear about Katrina and they wanted to interpret the book in that light and as people started doing that, it occurred to me, eventually dawned on me that the reason that was happening was because this narrative on "the war on science", I've certainly contributed a lot to the fact that this narrative exists. But I'm not the only person. Its bigger than me, its bigger than the contribution of the union of concerned scientists who have done a lot to put this on the map or the contribution of Henry Waxman or the contribution of people defending embryonic stem cell research or people defending evolution or what have you. Its bigger than all of us because this narrative has really taken hold and the reason its taken hold, its caused, it has a place in the national psyche, there is something wrong with Bush and science. Ok, it's a very widespread notion. And that's because it really boils down to the fact that this president and this administration has a real problem with receiving and processing information correctly. And it actually goes beyond purely scientific information at the root of what happened after Katrina when FEMA couldn't respond properly because it couldn't translate what everyone knew into action. If we move over the Iraq war we have the contention that the famous aluminum tubes were intended for centrifuges and therefore a secret nuclear weapons program rather than for conventional rocketry, which is what the International Atomic Energy Agency and all of the Department of Energy centrifuge experts said. If you go on to the stem cell issue, the president delivered the bogus claim on August 19th, 2001 that there had been more than 60 embryonic stem cell lines available for research. Of course this was wrong and if he had bothered to check the information, there is plenty of people who could have told him it was wrong before he said it. He never apologized and then more recently, of course, he vetoed a bill that was more or less an attempt to rectify the failed policy that resulted from him basing his decision on misinformation. If we switch over to the issue of global warming, then we find the administration and people within the administration, political appointees, editing scientific reports, the squelching of free speech on the part of government scientists. The president himself incorrectly and misleadingly claiming that a "fundamental debate exists over whether this is human cause or natural". If we jump over to the reproductive health area, which is one that I've been speaking a lot about lately, then we find the issue of Plan B, emergency contraception, where the administration, in this case the FDA, delayed and delayed and delayed and the basis for delaying, making a decision about whether this drug should be available over the counter, was the bogus claim that we need more data about how younger adolescent women would use the drug. The only problem being that the scientific advisor committee voted 23 to 4 to approve this drug over the counter, that it was safe, that it was effective and they, during those discussions, they said that this age limit thing was not an issue that they could generalize across ages. But nevertheless, the FDA made up this scientific sounding excuse and they have now implemented a policy with age limits in it so you can get it over the counter, but only if you're 18 and older, which more or less writes into the regulatory policy, the bogus argument. And if you check out my book, you'll find out what it came from, it came from one of the religious rights scientists. So what's the gist here? The gist is that the president and his administration just don't really seem to care about what is so memorably referred to as the reality based community. And we care about this and we have bought into this war on science narrative, if you will, because we think that ignoring the reality based community makes you A) incompetent, B) not fit to lead. Its really that simple, right? And especially so at a time when more functions of government than ever before hinge upon the best available information. So after the book came out I found a crucial statistic that I didn't know about before. A political scientist at Princeton named David E. Lewis, he studies this sort of thing, and he informed me that since the end of the Clinton administration there are now, sorry, compared with the end of the Clinton Administration, there are now 350 more political appointees in the various agencies of the Bush administration. And I thought about that and it quickly occurred to me that this helps explain a lot of what were seeing. These people are lording it over government scientists in various parts of the federal bureaucracy, whether it's the environmental protection agency or the FDA, NASA, what have you. And what are they doing? Well they're political appointees, so they're trained, they're very good at one thing and that is knowing what the Republican based wants and likes. Um, and they know how to reflect what the base knows and likes. They are responsive to it. The base has many components, but as I argue, the central components for our interest are on the one hand, when it comes to the war on science, are the religious conservatives on one hand, and industry or corporate interests on the other. And they all have their pet scientific issues and their pet scientific arguments that they make on these issues, so industry is debunking global warming, debunking the risks of mercury pollution, for example, fighting over endangered species protections because they want to build on a plot of land, they want to cut down trees on a plot of land, whatever it is, and then the religious conservatives, they're driven more by moral objectives and they want to undermine evolution, they want to undermine embryonic stem cell research, they want to undermine, you know, various forms of contraceptives and so forth and so on. And so we get the fight in both these areas and the political appointees that have power over the government scientists are enforcing what the interest groups want upon those scientists and that's why these fights keep erupting and these mini scandals over science keep erupting from the Bush administration. I really think that helps explain a lot of the dynamic that is going on. But then there becomes an interesting question, where do the political appointees or the interest groups for that matter get their "science", because they don't go into these debates saying, you know, we hate science, ignore science, although you could argue that's really what's in the back of their minds somewhere. But what they say is no, their science is wrong, our science is right; we have our own, listen to our own. That's the way the argument is structured and to understand how that came about, I think you have to recognize that there is now an entire infrastructure that supports and augments the political abuse of science and this infrastructure allows for and run around universities, scientific journals and all over the traditional scientific gate keepers. Instead, what today's political right does is it turns to think tanks to advocacy groups and in many cases to a small number of outlier scientists and all of these sources of information are making scientific sounding arguments, but they are frequently well outside of the mainstream of understanding and not only that, they are frequently, conveniently couched in such a way that they advance a particular political objective and they're linked to the special interests. These think tank based arguments that I am talking about may not, probably will not, ever prevail within the scientific community, but you have to understand that that is not the goal here. The goal is to influence the media, through the media to influence the public and of course the policy makers and in so called media debates over matters of science, winning does not require having a preponderance of the evidence on your side, unlike it does within a debate that's taking place in a scientific journal. Rather, for those who are setting out strategically to attack a particular morsel of information that they don't like for some reason, winning often means little more than creating the semblance of a controversy or a debate or even a notion that there are actually two legitimate sides of the issue because then they have generated doubt and they've slowed the process down. And they have effectively undermined what is generally a very robust body of knowledge. And in this effort, the conservative think tanks as well as the journalists, the publishers, the media, they're all more or less on the same page and I'd like to tell you a little bit of a story about how this works. Recently, well it was 2005, the Heritage Foundation held an event, the Heritage Foundation, in case you don't know, its one of the most august think tanks in the political right, one of the first ones to be founded and very much a model for some of the other ones. So it is well known and you know today, very well funded in Washington D.C. They held an event to promote a book by a guy named Tom Bethel. I don't know if anyone's heard of Bethel. He's sort of he anti-Mooney and I am the anti-Bethel. And on this occasion, Heritage was having an event to promote Bethel's new book and it is called The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science, I have it here. I have all these notes, because I debated him on NPR and people said I did ok. And it's published by Regnery. Regnery put out a lot of anti-Clinton books during the 1990's. I think its fair to call them a conservative press. Let me tell you though a little bit more about this book that Heritage was having an event about. Now if you were to pick this book up in a book store like this one, which I don't recommend that you do, but if you were to do so, you would read this top cover line; it says, "Liberals have high jacked science for long enough, its time to set the record straight." Ok, fair enough, you know, not a sentiment I agree with, but you can understand why someone who's buying this book is gonna be into that. But if you were to go onto Amazon.com before the book was out and look at the cover image there, I actually saved it to my computer you actually would have read a different line. It used to say, "Liberals have high jacked science for long enough, now it's our turn." You can't make this up. And this book, High Jacked Science, denies evolution, denies any human role in global warming, which is even a stronger position than the Bush administration. And its really just getting warmed up because there's also a chapter in there called The Political Epidemic, which is about African AIDS. And he doesn't say there isn't any AIDS, he just says its been born out of proportion for political reasons and so forth. But this is a guy that has recently promoted ideas of those who deny that HIV causes AIDS. And were still warming up, right, because he also had an article in which he cited the views of "dissident physicists" in order to question Einstein's theory of relativity. Although, let's be fair, he has since made a concession on this point. He may now admit Einstein was onto something. So I watched the Heritage Foundation event, it was on CSPAN. It was paired up with a talk by me for balance. And you know, here's a book full of very serious misrepresentations of the state of knowledge. Its author is lauded and celebrated at the Heritage Foundation and not asked hard questions by the audience. And this is one of the political right's leading think tanks. This is the situation that we're dealing with. What were looking at and why the problem has gotten so bad, I think, is that there is this, this is not a phrase that's gonna catch on right, but I think it does describe it: an institutionalization of misinformation. So when the book came out a year ago in hardback I went on tour as I told you and I got asked repeatedly by members of the audience, and let me preface it by saying, the reason I was getting asked this was because I gave a diatribe speech about all the things that are wrong, all the outrages and then I ended. And members of the audience said, "can you tell us some things we can do?" And pretty soon I realized that my instinctual answer to this question, you know, buy my book, is not necessarily, not sufficient. So, something, I needed to look for a better answer to this question, a better way of addressing this question. And that's really, I think the central thing that the paperbacks about that the hardback was not sufficiently about. So I started thinking about this, started writing about, pretty quickly realized, first of all, sort of a daunting task trying to figure out how to deal with this problem. A kind of misinformation that I'm talking about is inherently difficult to fight back against. And that's because there is sort of an imbalance here. Its easier to sow misinformation than it is to really seriously inform and educate. It is much easier to spin the media and get them to print something wrong or misleading than it is to correct the errors once they've been widely disseminated. In fact, you can almost- sometimes you can never take it back. And its much easier to simply make stuff up than it is to design or conduct a rigorous experiment to test a proposition. So this is what we're dealing with, but there are still some things we can do. And let me take you through the solutions because there isn't just one of them. The first is the most limited. And this is scientific integrity legislation, different bills have been proposed, they have different features, but the idea is to ban and outlaw some of the more egregious things that have happened under this administration in this government. So you know, make sure scientists have freedom of speech, make sure scientists have whistle blower protections, make sure political people can't change the content of reports pretty basic stuff, right? The only thing noteworthy about this proposal is a) its partisan, so it can't get passed and b) its horrible that we even have to think of legislating this stuff, because it should be obvious, but apparently it's not obvious. So maybe, maybe that's a first step. But if were gonna set out to protect the integrity of the science and government, at the same time I think we need to strengthen scientific advice to government. So this is solution number two and this is also I think, has to be at a policy level. So the great example here is that in 1995, Newt Gingrich Republicans came in and they were gonna downsize government. What's one of the first things they cut? Does anybody know? The Office of Technology Assessment, which was their world renowned scientific advisory body. And it's never come back since then. They've the errors of the Gingrich republicans are still in power of Congress, they've never not been. If Democrats came into power, I think that one of the things they would do, it wouldn't be number one, but they would start looking at this. So, clearly Congress needs and institutionalized source of science advice and the OTA did a great job. There weren't very many complaints about its products. Without something like that, without a really incredible body for Congress, what do you have? You have this misinformation problem where members of Congress, they go to the think tanks, they go to the advocacy groups, they go to lobbyists and that's where they get their information from. And so again, its their science and our science, even if theirs is only supported by one or two people who are outliers and ours are, you know, the national academies, or whatever it is. Nevertheless, it's gonna be this battle over the information. And that's a very fruitless battle to have. It just goes on and on and on, never reaching any common ground. So we've gotta improve science advise, this is not just for Congress, we have to look at all the different braches of the Federal government and the judiciary for that matter. There are some issues about science and the judiciary, but of course there are also issues when it comes to science advice to the President. As I'm sure you can imagine, its not that Bush's science advisor, John Marburger, is incompetent to do his job. I think that's not the case at all. He's a well respected physicist. No one challenged his credentials to be the president's science advisor. There are other issues with Marburger's defenses of the administration that I talk about in the book, but I'm sure he's competent to tell the president the state of knowledge. But my question is, is that where Bush is getting his information. And we have at least some evidence that it isn't. We know that he met with Michael Crichton, the global warming contrary and novelist to discuss this subject. And we know from this, well we know from journalist Fred Barnes account of Bush's presidency. I tend to believe it. And this conversation, according to Barnes, reaffirmed Bush's "central views on global warming", so that sounds like where he's getting his science advice. And I found this just a little outrageous. You may recall that in 2001 the president explicitly asked the national academies to undertake a report on global warming and there were two things that were noteworthy about this. First of all, there we're supposed to turn it around in the space of a month, which is really fast for them. Secondly, they were supposed to look over in a month, what the intergovernmental panel on climate change, which is the gold standard, had spent five years working on and the national academy's gonna have about 12 scientists, and the ICC has got like a thousand. So it sort of seemed like an odd thing to do to begin with, but ok fine, they're the national academy's, we trust them. So they put out a report and they said its happening, were causing it, you know, sea levels are rising, temperatures are rising, its gonna get worst, no end in sight if you don't do anything. On science I merely limit myself to the modest position that the president should listen to the national academies rather than novelists who don't publish in scientific journals. So we've gotta work on science advice to government and then we have to look at the third area where there are problems. And here I am talking about the media, because the media exacerbates some of this stuff. Let me tell you how. There are norms of journalism that can be misapplied. And one of the norms that I am thinking about, I would describe as 50/50 balance between opposing views no matter the issue. Um, the notion of balance is a good one. But you have to, you can't apply it uncritically and that's what's been done and when its applied uncritically, it basically allows journalists to be exploited by those who are misusing, misrepresenting, abusing science. So my tip for journalists, no matter what, the other side says there is no scientific controversy over evolution, so don't structure your story that way. Ditto global warming; there is no scientific controversy over the basic question of whether humans, of whether you have to evoke human causes to explain the temperature rise that we're seeing, so don't structure your story that way. And there is a number of other issues where the same same thing could be said. I'm not saying that journalists must censor the dissenters, the few remaining dissenters on these subjects, but what I am saying is that if they are going to quote these people, it's their responsibility to contextualize the viewpoints so that they are actually explaining the public effectively. That these are outliers within the context of the scientific community, and again that they are often connected to special interest. So as I like to say, its time for reporters to stop the he said, she said, we're clueless coverage and instead realize that their responsibility is to help the public understand what's known and what isn't. So that's the press. Ok, so now we've gone through three things that need to be done. But there is still much more and this is where I've been. And this fourth area is where I've been doing the most work and thinking, I would say. Now, its time to talk about the role of scientists because they are not without blame here and its not that they are behind the attacks, not that they are sowing the misinformation, but they're not countering it very well either and I expect more of them. The problem is that scientists are very poor communicators when it comes to, they are great at talking to each other, but they can not communicate their knowledge very effectively, there are exceptions, but the rule is scientists do not communicate their knowledge very effectively to non-scientists. This point was brought home to me I think very forcefully when I saw this documentary called "Flock of Dodos", has anybody seen that, anybody out there? Too few hands go up when I say that in these speeches, so you've got to check out "Flock of Dodos". It's a movie made by an evolution defender and he's from Kansas and he goes to Kansas and he does sort of the documentarian thing, you know how it is. Um, but, and he ends up with a really funny, humane and sort of spot depiction of the debate, but also he focuses as others have not upon the blind spots of the scientist, his own allies, and how bad they are at figuring out what to do with this intelligent design thing, which they don't understand, they don't know how to talk about it, they're suffering from Ivory Tower syndrome, the other side has got its public relations campaign and its message and they're pleasant people to talk to and they shake your hand and they smile and they're down home when you want to have lunch with them, you know and you want to hang out at their country house and drive around the farm on the tractor. That's what its like, and then the evolutionists are angry and their, you know their banging their hands on the table saying who are these idiots. It doesn't go over very well. So we need to correct that problem. Scientists need to learn how to become better advocates. And its not that they need to become advocates for democrats, but rather its that they need to become advocates for scientific integrity and effective defenders of the knowledge that they have brought into the world and there is no way that they are going to do that if they don't learn or at least point some key messengers whose job it is to learn to speak to the public in a language that it understands and unless the scientific community learns to value those communicators within their rank so that the only metric of success in the scientific community, is no longer how many papers you publish. Maybe there are multiple routes to success and maybe we have a division of labor so that some people publish lots of great stuff and we leave them relatively untroubled in their ivory towers and some people have the public engagement role and that's what they really excel at and that's what we respect them for. But its clear to me that one thing scientists have gotta stop doing when they get into these battles and they're not going to be able to avoid them, because that's the nature of the political situation. Once they're in them, stop fighting with one hand tied behind your back. Ok, the other side, is in a word, strategic. They know how the media works, they know how to communicate their issues, they know how to frame their argument, all of these things they've got working for them. They don't have the facts working for them, ok, they don't have the information working for them, but everything else is well, well honed. We have the information, but we can't explain it and so they end up winning. We need to figure out how to package that information so that it has a real impact and things are not going to change here over night, ok, they are going to change very slowly. If we take evolution as an example, and you poll people, those numbers haven't moved in a long time, ok, there is a large percentage of the public that does not accept evolution, a large percent of the public that believes in a young earth. But change is gonna