Trust Us, We're Experts

Chris Mooney

September 28, 2005

Chris Mooney is Washington correspondent for Seed magazine and author of the newly released book, The Republican War on Science (www.waronscience.com).

There has been much talk, of late, about how the Bush administration has reached a new low when it comes to the misuse of science to appease its political base. That base, of course, centrally comprises two key interest groups—industry and the Christian right—that want the science to go their way on issues ranging from global warming (of keen interest to fossil fuel companies) to evolution (of keen interest to religious conservatives). Under the current administration, these groups are clearly getting what they want. But does this alone explain why so many political fights over science are erupting right now?

The answer is, not quite. There's another crucial factor: The two constituencies have themselves changed, over the last several decades, in ways that have made them more inclined to misuse and abuse science than before. One key enabling factor is that both of these phalanxes of the right have been involved in generating their own sources of alternative (and sympathetic) expertise—often set up in opposition to more traditional university-based sources. In a pinch, political actors in the White House, the administration or Congress can then draw upon these founts of sympathetic "knowledge," distorting science in the process.

Creating such expertise has been a very conscious effort on the right, one that can be traced at least back to the 1970s, when conservative thinkers like Irving Kristol explicitly counseled corporations to fund their own think tanks and other outlets that would reflect a pro-business philosophy. "Corporate philanthropy should not be, and cannot be, disinterested," Kristol wrote at the time.

The past several decades have witnessed the stunning growth of political think tanks in Washington, D.C., and across the country. Many of these groups are situated on the political right and receive considerable funding from industry. And beyond simply making pro-business economic arguments, some also dabble in scientific expertise. For instance, ExxonMobil has specialized in funding conservative think tanks and policy groups that express skepticism about the human role in global warming, the severity of the problem and whether we ought to do anything about it. Such arguments have, in turn, been taken up with gusto by Republican politicians like Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee

Indeed, we have considerable evidence demonstrating that some industry groups, going back at least to the tobacco industry and probably farther, have explicitly laid out public relations strategies for undermining mainstream scientific understanding in key areas. The technique, which has been dubbed "manufacturing uncertainty," finds perhaps its best articulation in this oft-quoted passage from a circa 1969 Brown and Williamson document: "Doubt is our product, since it is the best means of competing with the 'body of fact' that exists in the mind of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy."

We don't have the same access to internal documents for other industries that we do for tobacco. But there's at least some evidence that this is a far broader strategy. For example, in an internal memo revealed by The New York Times in 1998, the American Petroleum Institute described a plan to "recruit and train" scientists who would help highlight uncertainties on global warming, and engage in media outreach. It was, once again, a plan to "manufacture uncertainty."

All of this is of a piece with a broader trend in the way industry has increasingly found itself engaged in scientific battles to prevent regulatory action, a strategy that has been dubbed "paralysis by analysis." The trend traces all the way back to the early 1970s, with the birth of a wide range of environmental and public health and safety regulations and agencies to implement them: EPA, OSHA and so forth. Burdened by all of these new regulations, industry started trying to find ways to battle back against regulatory action. First, the idea was to set up a process in the White House to second-guess the agencies, and industry achieved that with Ronald Reagan's Executive Order 12291, which set up a regulatory review process at the Office of Management and Budget.

But that wasn’t enough. Industry would push for more ways to attack the regulatory process, increasingly clamoring for a way to challenge the scientific studies that can set regulation rolling to begin with. This became clear with the Gingrich-era push for "regulatory reform," in which one aspect of the legislation included stiff new rules for how agencies were supposed to conduct scientific analyses, new peer review panels to vet those analyses, and the possibility of court challenges to the studies themselves. That bill didn't pass, but below-the-radar attempts to achieve the same goal have had more success: These include the 1998 Shelby Amendment, the 2001 Data Quality Act, and most recently, the Bush administration's "peer review" plan for regulatory science. The broad goal has been to use science itself as a tool to thwart government regulatory action, and the strategies for engaging in this technique have grown increasingly sophisticated.

And although so far I have focused on industry, this science-appropriating trend isn't limited to corporate groups. Believe it or not, it also occurs on the religious right. The anti-evolutionist Discovery Institute, for instance, has produced a strategic plan, known as the "Wedge Document," outlining an agenda to undermine evolution and replace it with a science "consonant with Christian and theistic convictions." Indeed, the growing attempt to appropriate scientific expertise has been a steady theme throughout the history of creationism in America—even dating back to before the Scopes Trial in 1925—but reaching its zenith in the modern day "intelligent design" movement.

Moreover, we find the same basic strategy across an array of other "moral" issues where religious conservatives have pitted their own friendly experts against the mainstream—embryonic stem cell research versus "adult" stem cell research, the alleged health risks of abortion, sex education and contraception, gay parenting, and so forth. In effect, then, you might say that today's Christian conservatives have repudiated the respected approach of Reagan Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, a pro-life Christian who nevertheless became well-respected by Democrats for not letting his convictions get in the way of his medical expertise on issues like AIDS or the study of abortion's alleged health risks.

In contrast to Koop, we now encounter characters like W. David Hager, a pro-life obstetrician gynecologist who was a lightning rod when he was named to the FDA's Reproductive Health Drugs Advisory Committee, and who, sure enough, appears to have played a central role in providing the agency with a dubious scientific rationale for blocking wider access to Plan B emergency contraception (the argument is that younger adolescent women might use the drug differently than older ones). As Hager himself put it last year when speaking at a Christian college, "You don't have to wave your Bible to have an effect as a Christian in the public arena. We serve the greatest Scientist. We serve the Author of all Truth. All we're required to do is proclaim that Truth." Apparently that includes situations in which such "Truth" stands in contradiction to mainstream scientific understanding.

So, in short, both industry and religious conservatives have been very busy over the past several decades generating their own alternative sources of scientific expertise, at think tanks and elsewhere, and in strategically deploying "scientific" arguments to achieve political goals. This development represents a crucial ingredient in the science politicization mix, and serves as a precondition for actual "abuse" of science by political actors. Without alternative expertise to rely on, however questionable it may be, Republican politicians and political appointees wouldn't have any way of empowering themselves to challenge mainstream scientific conclusions on issues like global warming or evolution. In effect, the political right has created its own shadow scientific community—and this is a central reason why the politicization of science has now reached the point of crisis.