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Science and politics: a dangerous mix

'Twisted science' may endanger America's future, one journalist warns

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The Republican War on Science lives up to its incendiary title. The book will undoubtedly raise hackles among conservatives and spawn sharp-tongued counterattacks. But the real test of its efficacy may be whether or not it persuades independents and moderate Republicans that without a new approach toward science America is headed for what the author calls "economic, ecological, and social calamity."

As a good polemicist, Chris Mooney, a journalist who specializes in writing about science and politics, knows to protect his argument by first making two concessions.

First, not all Republicans have been antiscience. Teddy Roosevelt was a great early conservationist. Dwight Eisenhower was the first president to recognize that the White House needed a science adviser. Ronald Reagan's surgeon general, C. Everett Koop, weighed scientific evidence "dispassionately" on subjects like AIDS and the health effects of abortion and declared, "I am the nation's surgeon general, not the nation's chaplain."

Even the first President Bush was largely regarded by scientists as "a friend," Mr. Mooney says. And today, a few GOP mavericks like Sen. John McCain speak the truth on issues like global warming.

Secondly, Mooney wisely - albeit briefly - acknowledges that liberals have also sometimes twisted science for their own political ends. Some of the alarm over genetically modified foods has exceeded what science shows; animal rights activists have argued that animal testing isn't necessary when most scientists disagree; and some Democratic politicians have overstated the likelihood that stemcell research will produce quick cures.

But these transgressions, Mooney says, pale in comparison with the breathtaking audacity of Mr. Bush's "New Right" in its cynical manipulation of science. In a kind of Orwellian newspeak, they label conventional science as "junk science" and seek to replace it with what they call "sound science" - in other words, questionable, fringe science that conveniently props up the interests of big industry and conservative Christians.

All sides might agree that science should inform policy, not make it. Other considerations may trump it. But what irks Mooney is when, in his eyes, science is distorted to defend a policy.


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