Chris Mooney ’99 was inspired to put a picture of an elephant’s rear end on the cover of his New York Times bestselling book, “The Republican War on Science,” when he saw a children’s book called “The Gas We Pass” with a similar image on its cover.
Mooney — who has written for The Washington Post, The American Prospect and The Boston Globe — discussed reasons for his belief that the Bush administration is deliberately distorting science to its own advantage with about 30 audience members at a Silliman College Master’s Tea Wednesday afternoon. In his whistle-blowing first book, he said he seeks to reveal how politicians take scientific evidence and misrepresent it to the American people.
“The administration is repeatedly caught by scientists and journalists, but it hasn’t been hurt in the eyes of the public,” Mooney said.
Mooney said he had not originally intended to write a book denouncing practices of the Republican party, but found through his research that partisan control over scientific information has become a serious problem for the public.
Mooney said he thinks Republicans are guided by the two main constituencies — big business and the religious right. He said he became aware of the hold these groups have on American politics in 2003, when a growing number of scientists began to leave their government positions.
The underlying reason for this exodus, Mooney said, seemed to be a dissatisfaction with the way scientific research, in areas including environmental and reproductive science, was ignored or warped. He said examples of this misleading activity included the editing of Environmental Protection Agency documents to downplay pollution threats.
“There is currently total distrust between the administration and scientists, which is not a good situation for the nation,” Mooney said.
Mooney also investigated the formation of central government committees such as the Food and Drug Administration and others that create public sexual education policies. He said he found committee members were being chosen not by how familiar they were with the scientific issues at hand, but rather by their political affiliations. When an FDA committee voted 23 to 4 that Plan B contraception — the “morning-after” pill — was safe and effective, one of the dissenting votes was cast by a well-known anti-abortion pundit who had little scientific background, he said.
Because the knowledge and safety of all citizens is at stake, Mooney said, committee members making important decisions about any public issue should be well informed. He also said there ought to be more rigorous criteria for selecting government advisory committee members and stronger protections for scientists who blow the whistle on manipulated research.
Mooney said he also takes issue with the Bush administration’s stance on public school education about evolution.
“The theory of intelligent design is not a scientific viewpoint,” Mooney said.
The theory is instead an outgrowth of the religious belief in creationism with its basis in the book of Genesis, he said. Mooney said he has no objection to the study of intelligent design in religion or civics courses, but it has no place in science courses. He said that the basis of scientific research is to never postulate what one cannot test, which is what intelligent design attempts to do.
“Science relies on natural causes. This has a supernatural agent,” Mooney said.
Some students at the tea said they disagreed with Mooney’s contention that religion has no place in scientific scholarship.
“Even as a conservative, it’s disappointing to have the religious right using issues like stem cells to political advantage,” Stephen Kappa ’07 said. “At the same time, I do challenge people who focus solely on a secular approach to academia.”
Other students said while Mooney had strong views, he provided strong support for his arguments.
“The talk really reassured me of how impartial the book is,” John Coggin ’06 said. “It turned out very partisan, but it’s cautious and doesn’t rush to judgment.”
Kostya Lantsman ’07 said Mooney showed how intertwining disciplines play a role in public policy.
“He really clarified the distinctions and relations between science, ethics, and politics,” Lantsman said.