Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Volokh Correction #18: The Republican War on Science

When the Volokhs move away from legal analysis and libertarian theory into straight political posts, we often get something like this post by Jonathan Adler (who's one of the better Volokhs): a mix of one part wrong, two parts grossly exaggerated, three parts biased, and one part legitimate point.

Adler is criticizing Chris Mooney's book, The Republican War on Science. I won't critique all of Adler's post, but here are a few arguments:

One of the best examples of the politicization of science by the "left" — and one of the few that Mooney acknowledges — is the treatment of agricultural biotechnology, and the decision to subject such products to more stringent regulatory review than those developed with other methods. This policy has no scientific basis, as the National Academy of Sciences has stated many times.

Hardly a criticism of Mooney when he acknowledges the issue. It's only partly right, anyway. While the left has greatly exaggerated the public health dangers, the danger of contaminating wild relatives of cultivated crops with Frankengenes are real, as are the dangers of creating resistance to the few effective organic insecticides by artificially inserting Bt genes in agricultural plants. And before Adler completely dismisses potential health effects, he should consider the biotech industry position that because it's extensively, legally regulated, it should not be liable to common-law litigation claims in the event something "untoward" happens. If the industry was truly confident it wasn't creating a risk, it would waive that argument.

Another example would be claims by environmentalist groups that pesticide residues on foods pose a significant cancer risk, a claim which the NAS has also rejected.

Talking about alar, maybe? Adler's on shaky ground. Being vague about the subject might help escape specific criticisms, but it doesn't help persuasiveness.

A third would be seeking endangered species listings for the purpose of halting development.

What's unscientific about that? Ulterior motives might give you ground to suspect what a group says, but it doesn't make it unscientific. Pro-life people these days are all interested in the health effects of abortion - there's reason not to trust them or their own studies, but that doesn't by itself make the claim a war on science.

A fourth would be efforts to claim asthma incidence (as opposed to asthma attacks) are related to outdoor air pollution, when there is no data to support such a claim.

The massive increase in asthma, which Adler avoids mentioning outright, is a critical issue in modern public health. I think Adler's outright wrong in saying there's no data, the real issue is definitive proof. Something is going very wrong, and outdoor air pollution, especially the mostly unregulated small particle pollution, is a suspect.

A fifth would be the EPA's second-hand smoke study, which a federal court found was driven to reach a predetermined result.

If anyone cares to bet over whether second-hand smoke causes thousands of deaths annually, I'm open to it. As to whether one particular study on the issue was flawed, who cares. This was an interesting issue for Adler to light on - I've been trying to compare the state of science over global warming to other controversies, and considered second-hand smoke as a decent analogy. My amateur opinion of both fields though, is that we're even more confident about global warming than we are about second-hand smoke.

A sixth would be claims that the "precautionary principle" is a "science-based" approach to risk, when it acutally reflects a normative policy judgment about how to weigh and evaluate risks.

I don't know what he's talking about here - who couldn't figure out that the precautionary principle is a policy method for handling the risks established by science. To establish an abuse of science, Adler must demonstrate lies or deception. He hasn't. Some on the left have articulated a ridiculous version of the precautionary principle that involves proving a negative - but that's just stupid, not a deceptive abuse of science.

A seventh would be the compounded conservatisms that are embedded into many agency risk assessments, such as those conducted for the federal Superfund program.

Funny - sounds like a normative judgment about the appropriate level of risk - how's that an abuse of science?

An eighth would be molding "ecosystem management" to satisfy non-scientific normative preferences about how land should be managed.

Land management typically involves multiple goals. Adler needs to give specifics showing a widespread, leftist policy of using their land management goals in a way that abuses science.

And so on.

One of his better arguments.

In 1993, Princeton University physicist William Happer was fired from the Department of Energy because he disagreed with Vice President Al Gore's views on stratospheric ozone depletion.

Happer was a Bush I political appointee, so Clinton and Gore had every right to get rid of him. I don't recall if Mooney criticized Bush II for firing a political appointee, although maybe I missed that. Anyway, firing an idiot who denies the destruction of the ozone layer is a service to the country. Do I need to offer yet another bet over this issue too?

In 1994, President Bill Clinton rejected the finding from the Embryo Research Panel of the National Institutes of Health which declared that the intentional creation of human embryos for genetic research was ethical. Clinton simply banned any federal funding for such research.

How is a dispute over the ethical approach an abuse of science? Adler needs to get beyond whatever grievances he has and show deception.

Others include the witholding of agency analyses so as to prevent their publication at poltiically inconvenient times and the gross misrepresentation of scientific findings by agency officials in speeches and media appearances.

The first claim is standard practice, and not really a science abuse unless withholding is delayed for months instead of for the Friday media dump cycle. He doesn't substantiate the second claim.

If we are allowed to consider the plaintiffs' bar as a "left" interest — as corporate groups are considered to be on the "right" — then there are many more examples relating to all sorts of "junk science" tort claims, some of which my co-blogger David Bernstein has documented

This would be a legitimate point except that Mooney isn't attacking corporate lying but the Republican and Bush Administration's political support for their lies. Again, Adler needs to point to prominent Democrat and Clinton administration misdeeds to make his point (and before anyone talks about Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and vaccines, I'd note that he isn't even an elected official).

It is certainly possible that the Bush Administration is worse than prior Democratic Administrations, but I don't think Mooney makes his case because he doesn't seriously examine the most serious charges against prior administrations, nor does he consider the broader institutional context.

Adler has not come up with any serious charges. As for institutional context, one point I might agree with is that one should consider overall funding levels as part of the determination of whether the Republicans are at war with science, so I'd disagree with Mooney's decision to exclude that issue from his consideration.

More fundamentally, it is hard to go from the avalanche of science-abusing anecdotes in Mooney's book to a definitive conclusion that the Bush Administration is far worse than previous ones. On the other hand, it's a very impressive avalanche, especially compared to what Adler has just put out. The number of Republicans who are revolted at what Bush has done to science is also indicative. Most persuasive was the one time where Bush and Clinton both took the same position at odds with the science, but Bush lied about the science while Clinton didn't.

So some legitimacy of the attacks on the left, little of which extends to the Clinton Administration, and very little in the way of substantive criticism of Mooney's book.

UPDATE: Welcome, Intersection readers, and thanks for stopping by. My main page is here, and my review of RWOS is here. And just to be a little contrary, I've got an occasionally-updated post linking to right-wing blogs when I think they've got the better argument, and one of them is an Adler post.

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