Soundbite: Unscientific Methods


In The Republican War on Science (Basic Books), Chris Mooney, Seed's Washington correspondent, examines what happens when the scientific search for truth collides with politics–especially GOP politics. From stem cells to missile defense to evolution, the book chronicles the manipulation of research for partisan ends. Assistant Editor Julian Sanchez spoke with Mooney in October.

Q: Why not just write about the political war on science?

A: I do talk about some abuses of science on the left, and I could have talked about more. However, Republicans are running everything right now. I also think there's something inherent in the Republican Party that makes it more prone to this sort of thing: It has constituencies–the religious right, the fossil fuel industry–that demand statements on science that are out of whack with what we know. Democrats have no constituency that compels them to deny something as fundamental as evolution, and while there are misuses among, say, extreme environmental groups, the Democratic Party tends to cater to more mainline groups where I don't think the abuses are as serious.

Q: Is it fair to lump people who raise questions about global warming in with creationists?

A: Well, they're different issues, but I've linked them together for a number of reasons. The most central is that the strategy for attacking the science and getting Republican politicians to go along is very similar. In both cases you have a scientific position that's been rigorously investigated and broadly accepted, and you have a war against that position that's coming not generally from the mainstream scientific community but from think tanks set up outside of it. So I see them as closely parallel in terms of the method by which special interests are attacking science they don't like.

The question of how bad global warming is going to be is definitely a real debate. The question of whether global warming is happening and is caused by humans–not a real debate.

Q: What's the latest outrage?

A: Right around when the book came out, we had a whistle-blower actually leave the Food and Drug Administration over Plan B emergency contraception. The FDA had two advisory committees that voted 23 to 4 that Plan B, the "morning after pill," should be approved for over-the-counter availability. The FDA's expert staff agreed. What did the agency do? Not listen to its scientific advisers, but rather cherry-pick a dubious rationale for why more data were allegedly needed for one specific age group. It really calls into question whether we can trust the FDA to make decisions based on safety and efficacy.