The Sciences

How to Make the "Democrat War on Science" Argument (Supposing You Want To)

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyJun 9, 2011 5:51 PM


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From, a climate "skeptic" site, I find this very interesting piece entitled the "Democrat War on Science," by William Yeatman. It attempts to us some of my own themes from The Republican War on Science and flip them so that they cut against the Obama administration--e.g., it released reports that violated peer review standards, it suppressed agency scientist dissent, it put out bad information. Based on three alleged examples, one from each category, the piece concludes:

If there’s a “Republican war on science,” then there is also a “Democrat war on science.” In fact, science is politicized and manipulated by both political parties. It’s what politicians do in order to achieve political ends. To put it another way, if you think that American elected officials give priority to the purity of science over political ideology, and not vice-versa, then I’d like to introduce you to a wealthy Nigerian friend who needs help moving millions of dollars from his homeland and who promises a hefty percentage of his fortune for assisting him.

Honestly, it's a noble attempt. However, to really make the argument stick, you would need the following: 1) more fully documented case studies; 2) more clearly valid case studies; 3) crassness--e.g., the administration is doing this stuff blatantly and not apologizing; 4) a strong explanatory framework--e.g., what is the ideology driving this? I think that with the Obama administration, you will certainly find mistakes and things that probably shouldn't have happened, but I seriously doubt you will satisfy all of these criteria. Take the three examples used by Yeatman. There's the old business about the Interior Department wrongly claiming, in a report, that a panel of peer reviewers had supported the controversial moratorium on gulf drilling. They didn't. Details here. My conclusion about this incident: "while a mistake was certainly made (and critics of the drilling moratorium were quick to cry foul), the mistake does not appear to have been intentional, or particularly devious in nature. What’s more, as soon as it was exposed, the responsible parties owned up and apologized profusely." So it's not nothing, but it's not a "Democrat War on Science," either. Yeatman's third example--the EPA allegedly vetoing a Clean Water Act permit based on "shoddy science" is not something I know anything about, so I won't comment. However, his second example doesn't really work either. This is the story of Alan Carlin, a climate "skeptic" and economist who prepared a report that challenged the scientific basis for the agency's greenhouse gas endangerment finding. New York Times story here--which shows why I am skeptical of this case:

It is true that Dr. Carlin’s supervisor refused to accept his comments on a proposed E.P.A. finding, since adopted, that greenhouse gases endangered health and the environment, and that he did so in a dismissive way. But the newly obtained documents show that Dr. Carlin’s highly skeptical views on global warming, which have been known for more than a decade within the small unit where he works, have been repeatedly challenged by scientists inside and outside the E.P.A.; that he holds a doctorate in economics, not in atmospheric science or climatology; that he has never been assigned to work on climate change; and that his comments on the endangerment finding were a product of rushed and at times shoddy scholarship, as he acknowledged Thursday in an interview. Dr. Carlin remains on the job and free to talk to the news media, and since the furor his comments on the finding have been posted on the E.P.A.’s Web site. Further, his supervisor, Al McGartland, also a career employee of the agency, received a reprimand in July for the way he had handled Dr. Carlin.

I do not mean to exonerate the Obama administration of all wrongdoing. It has been inexplicably slow in generating scientific integrity guidelines and getting the government agencies to adopt them, and there are certainly cases of things that have gone wrong. See here for a Union of Concerned Scientists' report on some of this. Still, the whole "Obama War on Science" narrative really doesn't fly. The president is obviously very pro-science, as is his administration--in very large part as a reaction to the last one. Moreover, I don't really see a clear thread of ideological motive here. If you want to know why Democrats and liberals (and environmentalists!) might sometimes distort science, the best answer is implied by Dan Kahan's work--they will be most likely do so in cases where science conflicts with either their "egalitarian" or their "communitarian" values. I think this definitely does occur--but I don't think it is sweeping, or mainstream in the party, for a diversity of reasons that include the fact that Democrats are generally very pro-science these days, which gives a countervailing motive. One could generate a much larger discussion on this last point--but for now, I'll just say to Yeatman: Nice try, but you really have your work cut out for you.

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