Taking the spin out of science

[Published in some editions under the title "Can Washington get smart about science?"]

By Chris Mooney and Alan Sokal

Op-ed published in the Los Angeles Times, February 4, 2007.

By beginning to investigate the Bush administration's interference with government scientists' work on global warming, the Democratic Congress has embarked on a key task: restoring respect for science -- and more generally, for evidence and reason -- in the federal government.

That we need such reform, and from Democrats, is a historic irony, because it's the Republicans who have often tried to paint themselves as defenders of "sound science" against ideologically motivated attacks.

In the 1990s, conservatives such as Dinesh D'Souza, Gertrude Himmelfarb and Roger Kimball wrote best-selling jeremiads attacking postmodernist academics who, they insisted, were taking over American universities and subverting the standards of scholarship. Although much exaggerated, this contained a grain of truth. Some self-described leftist academics did seem determined to reduce the real world to mere "discourse." No worldview, they insisted, could be considered objectively more valid or factual than any other. Even the findings of science were described as reflecting societal conditions and struggles for power and dominance rather than something true about the nature of the world.

One of us -- Sokal -- was sufficiently disturbed by these trends to try an unorthodox experiment: write a parody of postmodern science criticism to see whether a trendy academic journal would accept it as a serious scholarly article. Asserting up front that "physical 'reality' [note the scare quotes] ... is at bottom a social and linguistic construct," Sokal averred that the latest conceptions of quantum gravity support deconstructive literary theory, Lacanian psychoanalysis, "postmodernist epistemology" and, of course, progressive politics. The cultural-studies journal Social Text ate it up.

After Sokal revealed his hoax in the magazine Lingua Franca, a debate exploded about the nature of science and rationality, popularly known as the "science wars." It pitted scientists and their staunch defenders within and outside of the academic community -- spanning the political spectrum from left to right -- against a band of intellectuals from the humanities, virtually all of them situated on the left.

Sokal took on his postmodernist colleagues because he feared that the rejection of a rigorous, evidence-based standard for assessing claims of purported fact would disarm us not only in the face of quack medical remedies or alleged paranormal occurrences, but also when confronted by distortions of scientific information having major public-policy implications. A classic example is the tobacco industry's well-documented campaign to sow doubts about the health risks of smoking. Another is the interminable push by religious fundamentalists to undermine the teaching of evolution in American schools.

As these cases suggest, attacks on science by ideologues and special interests have a long history in this country. A stance of postmodernist relativism -- or, on the part of the media, of giving "equal time" to unequally substantiated viewpoints -- weakens us in the face of such strategic campaigns to undercut well-established knowledge.

But the abuse of science has lately materialized in an even more disturbing form, this time within the corridors of our own government. Driven by the Bush administration and its congressional allies, the new American "science wars" have reached an alarming stage.

How and why did the science wars move out of academia and reemerge in Washington, with political poles reversed? During the Clinton years, many of the worst science abusers -- such as anti-evolution fundamentalists -- remained politically out in the cold, at least at the federal level. That began to change in 1994, as the Gingrich Republicans, highly sympathetic to the party's emerging socially conservative "base" and to the interests of private industry, laid claim to Congress.

They proceeded to attack evidence demonstrating a human role in climate change and in the depletion of the ozone layer, all as part of a sweeping attempt to undermine environmental regulation. Simultaneously, they dismantled Congress' world-renowned scientific advisory body, the Office of Technology Assessment, which had provided our elected representatives with reliable scientific counsel for more than two decades.

Meanwhile, the focus on the academic left's undermining of science following the Sokal hoax was generating worthwhile debates and even real soul-searching. For instance, the prominent French sociologist of science, Bruno Latour, has wondered whether his earlier work questioning the objectivity of scientific knowledge went too far: "Was I wrong to participate in the invention of this field known as science studies? Is it enough to say that we did not really mean what we meant?"

In truth, there was nothing wrong with inventing science studies; the error was to leap from the valid observation that science arises in a social context to the extreme conclusion that it is nothing more than politics in disguise.

Such introspection on the academic left has been a heartening sign, and the pronouncements of extreme relativism have subsided significantly in recent years. This frees up defenders of science to combat the enemy on our other flank: an unholy (and uneasy) alliance of economically driven attacks on science (on issues such as global climate change, mercury pollution and what constitutes a good diet) and theologically impelled ones (in areas such as evolution, reproductive health and embryonic stem cell research).

The potency of this combination has become apparent during the six years of the Bush administration, as many if not most scientific agencies of our government have become embroiled in scandals involving the misrepresentation or suppression of scientific information, gag orders on scientist employees, or other interferences with the processes by which science feeds into decision-making. Tracing these intrusions back to their source, we almost always uncover the same pattern: It concerns an issue in which one of the two principal constituencies of the current administration -- religious conservatives or big corporations -- has a vested interest.

Perhaps they wish to disrupt the path of Plan B emergency contraception (the "morning-after" pill) through the Food and Drug Administration on its way to over-the-counter availability. Or perhaps they don't like the way global warming has been discussed in government documents.

That's at the core of a case recently investigated by the new Congress: A lawyer who had formerly worked for the American Petroleum Institute and had moved to the Bush White House's Council on Environmental Quality was accused in 2005 of editing government climate science reports in such a way as to raise doubts about global warming and to downplay the strong consensus of mainstream scientists. Following the initial scandal, the lawyer went to work for Exxon Mobil Corp.

In these and countless other cases, members of the Bush administration appear to have efficiently channeled their constituents' grudges, leading to a distortion of the scientific evidence and a steady stream of scandals.

To address this new crisis over the relationship between science and politics, we propose a combination of political activism and institutional reform. Congress needs to establish safeguards to protect the integrity of scientific information in Washington -- strong whistle-blower protections for scientists who work in government agencies would be a good start.

We also need a strengthening of the government scientific advisory apparatus, starting with the revival of the Office of Technology Assessment. And we need congressional committees to continue with their investigations of cases of science abuse within the Bush administration, in order to learn what other reforms are necessary.

At the same time, journalists and citizens must renounce a lazy "on the one hand, on the other hand" approach and start analyzing critically the quality of the evidence. For, in the end, all of us -- conservative or liberal, believer or atheist -- must share the same real world. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria do not spare deniers of evolution, and global climate change will not spare any of us. As physicist Richard Feynman wrote in connection with the space shuttle Challenger disaster, "nature cannot be fooled."

To avoid nature's punishment, we must take steps now to restore reality-based government.

Chris Mooney is the Washington correspondent for Seed magazine and the author of The Republican War on Science. Alan Sokal is a professor of physics at New York University and a co-author (with Jean Bricmont) of Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science.