Those bastards, we’ve got to cut them back

Daniel S. Greenberg

  • The Republican War on Science by Chris Mooney
    Basic Books, 288 pp, £14.99, October 2005, ISBN 0 465 04675 4

Little is required to ensure political quiet in the American scientific community. A bit of annual growth in government outlays for research, presidential medal-pinning ceremonies in the Rose Garden for revered elders of the profession, and expressions of respect for science produce a wonderful tranquillising effect on the endless frontier. With rare exceptions, this combination has prevailed for most of the collaboration between science and government that began during World War Two.

Now it’s different. George W. Bush and his ideological helpers have introduced acrimony into this once congenial coupling, even though his administration has been generous with money and honours for science. The story of how they achieved this feat of estrangement is told in detail by Chris Mooney, a Washington journalist, in The Republican War on Science, his first book. Mooney has examined both open and concealed records and conducted interviews far and wide. The result is a valuable chronicle of Bush’s persistent efforts to undermine the authority of science in the interests of his anti-regulatory and anti-abortion agendas. In the process, the president has done his best to cast doubt on the theory of evolution with his respectful nods to the crackpot concept of ‘intelligent design’, a pseudo-scientific fabrication more marketable than its crude kin, creationism. Bush asserts that ‘both sides ought to be properly taught,’ thus creating the illusion of a legitimate scientific controversy. We don’t know whether the president harbours merely instinctive or educated doubts about evolution, or whether he personally cares about it at all. What is certain is that he reaffirms the support of his fundamentalist Christian base when he attacks enemies of the Lord on ideological-theological grounds. In this struggle, evolution is seen as the fortress protecting relativism, liberalism and atheism. Take it down, and they will wilt.

The president’s base demands unwavering fealty to the anti-abortion movement, and the Bush camp has obliged, even to the extent of fabricating an association between abortion and breast cancer. An online fact sheet from the National Cancer Institute that discounted such a link was removed in June 2002 to mollify anti-abortionists in Congress. In its place, the NCI posted a report which said that ‘some studies have reported statistically significant evidence of an increased risk of breast cancer in women who have had abortions, while others have merely suggested an increased risk.’ Retaining some measure of integrity, the institute acknowledged that other studies had found no risk of breast cancer related to abortion. The fearmongering portions of the report evoked protests from Congress and from scientific groups which were beginning to recognise that the Bush administration was willing to invade professional territory previously considered out of bounds for political purposes. The NCI convened a meeting of experts, who concluded that ‘induced abortion is not associated with an increase in breast cancer risk.’

The administration then turned its attention to condoms, which are an affront to the evangelical preference for abstinence. Mooney notes that both the Centers for Disease Control and the State Department’s Agency for International Development ‘have altered informational materials on condoms to downplay their effectiveness’. A fact sheet from the CDC, he reports, was edited to remove ‘a discussion of research showing that education about condoms does not increase sexual activity, as well as removing information about how to use condoms properly.’

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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