A mild defense of Chris Mooney’s war on science

David Bruggeman recently attacked Chris Mooney yet again for promoting the war on science meme:  the concept is meaningless, incoherent, oversimplified, etc.  Dan Sarewitz echoed many these arguments in his review of Mooney’s book.

I also found Chris Mooney’s thesis irritating and sloppy.  His constant, unadulterated worship of science gets old very quickly.  But it’s important to acknowledge that Mooney has a point.  George W. Bush’s administration did politicize science a lot more than his predecessors.   Since my placement at the EPA started in September, I can’t count how many times I’ve heard complaints about Bush’s interference.   Despite some over-generalizations, Mooney collected a troubling body of evidence.

Complaining only about the former problem implies that abstract concerns–how dare Mooney not discuss social construction!–matter more than real world impact.  Can we honestly say that distorting EPA reports is no worse than believing in value-free science?  Ironically enough, this attitude makes us STS-sympathizers just like those academic scientists we routinely berate.

So yes, everyone does misuse science for their own ends.  And yes, Mooney annoyingly promotes a false purity of science.  In the end Bush’s actions were different only in degree, not kind, from previous administrations.  Agreeing with all this, however, is perfectly compatible with condemning his egregious politicization.  It’s possible to be upset at the exaggerations and distortions of both Chris Mooney and George Bush.  Bruggeman’s and Sarewitz’s worthy attempts to bring nuance to policy debates unfortunately spends too much time on the former and not enough on the latter.


  1. Meant as a serious question:

    How much time should I be spending on describing my displeasure with the exaggerations and distortions of George Bush in the realm of science and science policy? It’s been pretty well beaten about, IMO. And his record deserves nuance about what he’s done positively for science and science policy, which I’ve tried to give. Emphasizing what Bush has done has an unfortunate side effect of downplaying similar conduct by others, so I see no need to add to the chorus.

    I think Mooney’s problems are bigger, not least because he’s still spinning his arguments that are effective for galvanizing political fire, but little else. Mooney is way too science-positivist, and blinded to instances where people of non-conservative political stripes have either done questionable things in science or science policy, or at least give the appearance of doing so. His complete dropping of the ball on the hacked University of East Anglia emails, and his total denial of problems regarding the EPA and Carlin, suggest that Mooney’s politics are more important to him than his analysis or his professed profession.

    There’s also a question whether or not Mooney is still engaged in policy debates (if he ever was) or if he’s shifted to political debates.

    I’m not sure you’re lumping me in with STS-sympathizers and fans of social construction. While I’ve taken classes from both, I’m not sure I’m fully with either tribe. My complaints are usually waged against those who seem to have a bad understanding of how science policy and science politics works (or doesn’t), or try to claim special standing for science and technology in political or public policy settings.

    1. Thanks for your detailed comment. I really appreciate it. It’s late now on the East Coast, and I’m traveling tomorrow. But I’ll respond ASAP.

    2. Thanks again for your comment, and sorry for the slow response. I have been (and still am) sick.

      I honestly have no simple answer to your main question. You’re right that Bush’s distortions have been well covered. I also agree that Bush’s record deserves nuance. But describing his actions as “similar” to others is what Mooney et al. most dispute. They appear to believe that the degree and magnitude of Bush’s distortions warrant special outrage, and I think they have a point. This doesn’t mean that every 10th sentence you write should attack Bush, or that you should attack him at all. To persuade people that Bush’s record isn’t as simplistic as Mooney implies, I’m not sure what’s the best approach. I’ll have to think about it some more.

      I completely agree with your next two paragraphs. Mooney is a political hack, he dropped the ball w.r.t. Carlin and East Anglia, and is not really interested in policy debates. I hope my post didn’t give the opposite impression.

      Sorry for wrongly lumping you with STS-sympathizers and the social construction folks. For what it’s worth, I use that the term “STS-sympathizer” to loosely refer to anyone (myself included) who opposes a simplistic interpretation of science policy and politics. From reading your blog, I had already assumed that you oppose a special role for S&T, which is why I referred to you as a sympathizer.

  2. Hey, your blog, your schedule. I begrudge nobody the time they need for a thoughtful response.

    I took no offense from your characterization, I just wasn’t sure what you meant. When I see references to STS or social construction that are outside that discipline, there tends to be a pejorative tone. Combine that with my sense that neither STS or social construction does a good job with policy, and you can see why I may wish to downplay an association. But I think your description in the last paragraph is spot on.

    Much in the same way I don’t support a special role for S&T in policy, I resist a special role for (insert political party here) distortions/misuse of science and/or technology. Any distortions or misuse deserve attention and understanding. Opposition to the distortions and misuse – I think – ought to be consistent, and with the understanding that science and technology inform (but do not dictate) policy choices. Mooney’s rhetoric and arguments make that much harder, and explains most, if not all, of my irritation with them.

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