Stem Cells and that "War on Science"

November 28th, 2005

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Every so often here we’ve taken issue with claims of a Republican “war on science.” Our view is not a defense of Republican policies, far from it. Our view is that the factors which lead to the misuse of science in politics have less to do with political or ideological affiliation than with the basic dynamics of science in decision making. As a result, improving the use of science in decision making won’t occur through mindless partisanship, but by actually paying attention to the dynamics of science in society. The ethical quandaries of he South Korean stem cell research program reported in the New York Times Friday throw another wrench into claim of a Republican “war on scince” and evidence that science abuses routinely span the political spectrum (The American Journal of Bioethics was on top of this and its significance early on, see this post).

Here is an excerpt from the New York Times article,

“The South Korean researcher who won world acclaim as the first scientist to clone a human embryo and extract stem cells from it apologized Thursday for lying over the sources of some human eggs used in his work and stepped down as director of a new research center. After months of denying rumors that swirled around his Seoul laboratory, the researcher, Dr. Hwang Woo Suk, confirmed that in 2002 and 2003, when his work had little public support, two of his junior researchers donated eggs and a hospital director paid about 20 other women for their eggs. On several earlier occasions, he had said that he did not use eggs harvested from subordinates and that no one was paid for egg donations. “Being too focused on scientific development, I may not have seen all the ethical issues related to my research,” Dr. Hwang, a veterinarian by training, told a news conference in Seoul on Thursday.”

Chris Mooney, passionate partisan and ubiquitous champion of the “war on science” argument (and who we’ve debated on this issue before), has claimed that President Bush’s 2001 exaggeration of the number of stem cell lines available to researchers to be “one of the most flagrant purely scientific deceptions ever perpetrated by a U.S. president on an unsuspecting public.”

So if deceiving the public to limit stem cell research is a “war on science” then presumably it is equally improper to deceive the public to advance stem cell research. The alternative is that one adopts an ends-justifies-the-means sort of logic in which the appropriateness of lying is determined to be a function of one’s judgments about the value of the desired end. Of course, this sort of logic is exactly what underlies claims of the “war on science” anyway. Of course it also underlies conservatives calls for “sound science.”

I didn’t like how President Bush justified his stem cell decision in 2001 and I don’t approve of Dr. Hwang Woo Suk’s ethical lapses. But it should be obvious that these sorts of actions won’t be addressed through simply more political partisanship, but through a carefully understanding of the complex factors which shape the use and misuse of science in decision making.

22 Responses to “Stem Cells and that "War on Science"”

  1. Mark Bahner Says:

    “…I don’t approve of Dr. Hwang Woo Suk’s ethical lapses.”

    Suppose he had always readily admitted getting donated eggs from junior researchers and through paying women.

    Would you have a problem with that?

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  3. Roger Pielke Jr. Says:

    Mark- Thanks. To answer your question. No, I personally would not have, but I understand why the rules are in place and think that they should be followed. I am not opposed to stem cell research or the use of public funds to support it. Though recognize that Dr. Hwang Woo Suk’s research probably wouldn’t have been published in those circumstances, and perhaps not even conducted. It is important to note that the ethical lapses in obtaining he eggs were compounded by false statements to Nature about the source of the eggs. Violating ethics rules and lying about ethics rules to publish are two different errors in my judgment.

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  5. Michael Seward Says:


    The extent to which the Republican political machine has institutionalized the abuse of science for political ends has been well documented. To characterize this political strategy as a “war on science” is merely to highlight the unparalleled sophistication and scope this technique has achieved in the current arsenal of Republican political techniques. It’s not to say that ethical lapses are confined to Republicans, or that Republican ideology causes the abuse of science.

    “The basic dynamics of science in decision making” is a worthy subject for discussion, but it doesn’t preclude a conscientious observer from recognizing that the Republicans, in recent years, have made a special effort to advance policy agendas by deceiving the public about a range of issues, including stem cell research, global warming, evolution, and a host of others.

    The misuse of science in politics has a lot to do with political or ideological affiliation in this case, because conservative political interests have organized and promoted a very extensive machinery of think tanks, pseudo-experts, and a revolving door of lobbyists, government officials and industry insiders, to a degree that begs to be called a “war on science”.

    You don’t have to be a raging partisan to recognize and acknowledge that Republicans have taken the technique of manipulating public opinion and misrepresenting the science to an alarming extreme. It deserves to be called a “war on science”.

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  7. Roger Pielke Jr. Says:


    Thanks for your comment.

    My view is that the following three factors help to explain much of the “war on science” perspective:

    1. A long-term trend of the politicization of science on policy issues with a scientific element

    2. 25 years of (mostly) divided government (Executive and Legislative branches held by different parties)

    3. Recent unified Republican control of government

    My view is that the politicization of science is an equal opportunity activity.

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  9. Paul Dougherty Says:


    #2 and #3 in your comments above are an apparent contradiction. Would you explain your meaning?

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  11. Paul Dougherty Says:


    #2 and #3 in your comments above are an apparent contradiction. Would you explain your meaning?

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  13. Roger Pielke Jr. Says:


    Thanks. According to this article at the WWW site of the American Political Science Association,

    “For 28 of the last 36 years, different parties have held the presidency and at least one house of Congress.”

    This means that for many people, the 5 years of the Bush Administration are an aberration from much of their experience. The behavior or Republicans today is quite different I’d assert than that of either party under divided government. Google “divided government” and you’ll find a big political science literature that seeks to explain this.

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  15. Andrew Dessler Says:

    I think that comparing the Bush Administration and Dr. Suk is problematic.

    1) the Bush Administration is using (or misusing) science to advocate a policy decision

    2) Dr. Suk is breaking ethical restrictions in order to conduct research that might not be able to be undertaken otherwise.

    To somehow compare these, particularly to make the argument that Dr. Suk is somehow the flip side of the Bush Administration, makes no logical sense to me.

    The idea that all political advocates misuse science to some extent is clear to me, but Dr. Suk’s adventures do not provide any additional evidence to support that.


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  17. Andrew Herr Says:

    Comparing Dr. Suk and the Bush Administration does not mean that Dr. Suk is the “flip side of the Bush Administration.” It only means that the same accusations that have been leveled against the Bush Administration and politicians can be leveled against scientists as well. Both politicians and scientists make policy choices, even if scientists’ choices are not always as explicit.

    Science and research carry their own rules, whether dictated by restrictions put on research funding or by codes of conduct. When conducting research outside these rules, a scientist is making a policy choice. In the case of research funding, this is due to the fact that (most) research money comes from federal or local government budgets – from taxpayers in a country. In a democracy, only elected officials are empowered to make spending decisions. When scientists disregard restrictions on research money (restrictions put on the research by an elected government), they, the scientists, are making a decision about how taxpayer money is to be spent – that is, they are making policy decisions themselves. The same is true for those scientists who break ethical codes. When they work in a laboratory or submit to a journal with ethical standards, they accede to those standards. Scientists can not expect to enjoy the benefits of a system without bearing any of the costs, even if they think that their breaking the rules is for the good of science. They are working under others’ policies, and breaking these policies constitutes taking the policymaking process into their own hands.

    Undoubtedly, those in the Bush administration that are criticized also believe that they are acting for the greater good in formulating their policies. It is not fair to criticize one and not the other just because you do not agree with one point of view. While having politicians or non-scientists control some aspects of science may not be ideal, I submit that it is better than having no rules at all. Clearly our system is not perfect, but it is still important to recognize that, as Winston Churchill said, democracy is the worst form of government, except for everything else. We can and should still expect that politicians be honest in all their dealings, including with science, but if they are not, then we must condider that at least we have some say in the process. We just need to try and make sure that better choices are made in the future.

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  19. Roger Pielke Jr. Says:

    Andrew Dessler- Thanks, I think Andrew Herr’s response is exactly on target and very well stated.

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  21. Roger Pielke Jr. Says:

    David Dickson offers a thughtful perspective on this issue here:

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  23. Michael Seward Says:


    Sure, “politicization of science is an equal opportunity activity”. But do you believe it is practiced to an equal extent by both sides? Isn’t it fair to point out that the scope and the magnitude of the politicization of science have taken on unprecedented proportions in the current administration?

    Ideology matters. Science stands in the way of core conservative principles. On issues ranging from stem cells to global warming, access to “plan B” to teaching ID in science class rooms, environmental protection to sex ed, well-established science from qualified scientific bodies is an impediment to policy objectives. This is not true to the same degree for the minority party: there is no inherent conflict between the science and most of the policy objectives of the opposing party. Conservative political interests have found that misrepresenting the science is a helpful political strategy, and they have developed that strategy to a stunning degree.

    Republicans have shown a preference for misrepresenting the science because scientific results are often inconvenient roadblocks to the agenda of conservative political interests. If pointing this out makes one a raging partisan, so be it, but the statement stands or falls on it’s resemblance to reality. Is it your contention that the politicization of science is practiced to an equal extent by both sides of the political spectrum?

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  25. Roger Pielke Jr. Says:

    Michael- Thanks for your comments. A quick response:

    1. You ask “But do you believe it is practiced to an equal extent by both sides?”

    My reply: I don’t know. Perhaps Republicans are worse offenders. Even if we accept this to be the case, it is inescapable that both sides engage in the misuse of science, so it seems to me that addressing root causes is more mprtant than focusing only on the worst offender.

    2. You ask “Isn’t it fair to point out that the scope and the magnitude of the politicization of science have taken on unprecedented proportions in the current administration?”

    My reply: Sure, go ahead. Where does that get you? Can’t you simply make the case that this administration has made some pretty egregiously bad decisions? Or are you arguing that by replacing this administration will solve the problems associated with the misuse of science? If the latter, I’d disagree.

    3. You write, “On issues ranging from stem cells to global warming, access to “plan B” to teaching ID in science class rooms, environmental protection to sex ed, well-established science from qualified scientific bodies is an impediment to policy objectives.”

    My reply: These are all debates about values. Science is not an obstacle to any of them. It is just as much a misuse of science to say that science compels a decision one way or the other on any of these issues. Each issue is grounded in values, een though both sides dress up their values commitments in science.

    4. You write: “Conservative political interests have found that misrepresenting the science is a helpful political strategy, and they have developed that strategy to a stunning degree.”

    There is a long history of the misuse of science and information more generally by politicians. We see Republican successes in politicizing science today because they hold unified political power in the federal government. Much of the complaints about “politicization of science” are simply concerns about Republican policies hidden behind concern about the fidelity of science. You can prove this last assertion wrong by pointing me to a few prominent people who agree with specific Republican polcies but who have expressed concern about their misuse of science in those cases. I can’t imagine that there are many, if any.

    Thanks again for the exchange.

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  27. Andrew Dessler Says:

    Andrew Herr and Roger Pielke-

    I appreciate your argument, but am not convinced. What the Bush Administration does, cherry picking science to support their policy position, is what all advocates do. This is certainly not illegal and one can argue about whether it is taken to an unethical extent. What Dr. Suk did was break the rules and then lie about it. That’s both illegal and unethical. These two activities are not comparable at all.

    Mr. Herr refers to Dr. Suk as making a “policy choice.” I disagree with this characterization. First, his decision is a personal choice that does not have (direct) impact on society, while the Bush arguments do have a direct impact because Bush sets the policy. Second, this argument strikes me as a way to reduce science to just another political debate. I completely reject this. Science and politics are (in my experience and opinion) completely different and separable. I suspect the STS community and I will never agree on that point.


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  29. Roger Pielke Jr. Says:

    Andrew D.-

    Thanks again for your comments. You write, “Science and politics are (in my experience and opinion) completely different and separable. I suspect the STS community and I will never agree on that point.”

    So let me go a bit (but not completely) tongue-in-cheek here and ask the following: So you think that everyone should accept the consensus perspective of experts on climate in the area of their expertise, but you feel perfectly free to completely reject the consensus views of experts on science and politics in their area of expertise?

    Is this irony or are you cleverly illustrating sympathy for climate skeptics who claim that humans can never affect the climate system no matter what the experts say? ;-)


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  31. Michael Seward Says:


    Thanks for your reply.

    It’s not enough to argue that this administration has made some egregiously bad decisions, because bad decisions are not the root of the problem. The systematic misuse of science is a root cause of the bad decisions. Promoting pseudo-experts, media campaigns to deceive the public, think tank efforts to misrepresent the science, placing industry lobbyists in positions of policy authority, catering to religious fundamentalist attacks on science for political gain, these are all root causes of the bad decisions that are being made in Washington. It’s the systematic abuse of science for political gain that is wrong here, not being Republican. It just so happens that in America today, it’s the Republicans who have given us an endless supply of examples of these tactics.

    I’m not arguing for replacing the Republicans with Democrats. I’m arguing for replacing the misuse of science with honesty and integrity in government. When and if the Democrats get back in power, and if they resort to these tactics to promote their agenda, I hope that respected commentators like you will condemn their actions as well.

    You say: “These are all debates about values. Science is not an obstacle to any of them.”
    Science is an obstacle to teaching Intelligent Design in high school biology classes. Scientific assessments are an obstacle to industrial development of critical habitats. Efforts to address global warming are stymied by misrepresenting the science. Values are implicit in all of these debates, but the misuse of science is a tool that corrupts a healthy and honest debate about values. “Dressing up values commitments in science” is one thing, but the systematic abuse of science for political gain is something else entirely.

    The reason for acknowledging the scope and magnitude of the problem is to encourage candidates with an honest and ethical relationship with the science to succeed at the polls. This is why public opinion matters. If people understand the importance of this issue, this is potentially what it gets you: honesty and integrity in government.

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  33. Andrew Dessler Says:



    As always, you make an excellent point. So let me ask you a quesiton. Do you claim that all social scientists (not just STS-ers, let’s include all who study politics and science) agree with the claims of the STS crowd? The IPCC TAR WGI should be believed because the vast, vast majority of scientists would agree with what’s in it. If the same is true about separating science and politics — that all academics working on the problem agree that they cannot be separated — then I’ll have to re-think my position. But if the STS crowd is a subset of academics working on this problem, and there is a legitimate “other side”, then I think I can avoid being hoisted on my own petard.


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  35. Roger Pielke Jr. Says:

    Andrew D.-

    Thanks. I think that the consensus among STS scholars about the fundamental inter-relationship of science and politics is as strong as anything you find in IPCC WG1, perhaps a bit like consensus on tise in CO2.

    Here is some literature to back up this claim:

    1. A pseudo-IPCC like approach to summarizing literature in the social sciences relevant to climate change: Human Choice and Climate Change, S. Rayner and E. Malone (editors), Battelle Press, 2000.

    2. A pan-STS summary of literature edited by Sheila Jasanoff, The Handbook of STS:

    Have a look!

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  37. Roger Pielke Jr. Says:


    Thanks for your additional comments. You write, “The systematic misuse of science is a root cause of the bad decisions.” I’d agree that this is a common view — frequently called the “linear model” of science and deicison making. The solution based on such a view, as you suggest, is to secure agreement on science which will then lead to improved decisions. Unfortunately there is precious little support for such a perspective. I would encourage you to have a look at these papers in a special issue that I guest edited last year for a different perspective. Pay particular attention to the Sarewitz paper:


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  39. Andrew Dessler Says:


    I don’t think you answered my question. I am not contesting the fact that, among STS’ers, there is consensus on this. My question is whether there are equally qualified academics studying science and tech. policy who are not part of the STS community and whose peer-reviewed publications disagree with the STS’ers on this point. If so, what would be my basis (as a non-expert) in rejecting this 2nd group’s peer-reviewed views and adopting the views of the STS’ers.


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  41. Roger Pielke Jr. Says:

    Andrew D.-

    Thanks. You comment illustrates very well Sarewitz’s “excess of objectivity” argument. The presence of a diversity of perspectives within an area of science allows people who have already come to their conclusions to simply search out an expert (or a peer-reviewed study) whose views fit their preconceived notions. This is the very essence of “cherry picking.”

    But to answer your question, the consensus on the inter-relationship of science and politics among all relevant experts is as string as any consensus you will find in WG1. Are there skeptics in climate science? Sure Are there skeptics among relevant experts on the relationship of science/politics? Probably. I’d be surprised if there were not. But I don’t know of any ;-)

    PS. Please note that all social scientists are not experts in the same matters. People who study STS are where you will find most of the expertise on science/politics.

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  43. Michael Seward Says:


    Thanks for your response. I have read the papers that you have recommended, and I think I know what the problem is.

    You are supporting your argument with appeal to academic technicalities and intellectualized abstractions like “excess of objectivity” and “linear model of science”. In contrast, the “war on science” metaphor is built on a mountain of concrete examples from the real world. You claim that ideological affiliation has little to do with the abuse of science. And yet the examples of connections between the misuse of science and a right wing political agenda could fill a book!

    You make a valid case for systemic causes of the politicization of science. But you go too far when you claim that these are the only important causes of the problem. Your insistence that there is no distinction between one political philosophy and another in regards to the abuse of science appears partisan in it’s own way.

    Conservative political advocates have taken traditional techniques of misusing science to an unprecedented level. Not a week goes by without another egregious example of tactics including misinterpreting information, ignoring scientific evidence, muzzling government scientists, censoring government studies, removing independent experts from federal advisory panels or stacking those panels with industry consultants. Both side are not engaging in these tactics to an equal extent, and this matters.

    Conservative political ideology includes a distrust of government scientific assessments, a distrust of mainstream scientific conclusions, distaste for government solutions to social and environmental problems, and a preference for fringe theories that have the compelling virtue of supporting the political interests of conservative constituents.

    This is not an honest and open debate featuring competing interpretations of measured facts. This is a dishonest betrayal of integrity and honesty in government. This is why the misuse of science is a root cause of bad decisions. It preempts an honest and open debate about values and policy options, and it closes off beneficial policy opportunities. The misuse of science obstructs approaches to decision-making that facilitates consensus and action.

    The “war on science” doesn’t argue that science compels certain political outcomes. It illustrates that misusing science compels political outcomes, and conservative political interests a have perfected these tactics to an alarming degree. To deny the abundant evidence of this in today’s news is not convincing.

    You argue against “the use of science by scientists as a means of negotiating for desired political outcomes”, and yet when it comes to the catalogue of misuses of science by right wing political advocates, you say “so what, who cares, so what if they have their facts wrong?” That strikes me as itself a partisan denial.

    You say, “When scientists reinforce the ‘linear model’ it has potential to create pathologies in decision making”. But can you deny that misusing science has the potential to create pathologies in decision making?

    You may be right that science cannot compel specific political outcomes. But you are wrong that misrepresenting facts, promoting unqualified “experts”, eliminating inconvenient science, and having political appointees with industry ties edit scientific assessments is equally exercised by both sides of the political divide. These techniques are in the news every day. Republicans are disproportionately exercising these tactics, and the source of these tactics is found in the heart of conservative political ideology. The evidence is overwhelming.

    For example, this story from the Washington Post, November 30, 2005:
    “In a surgical strike from Capitol Hill, Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho) has eliminated a little-known agency that counts endangered fish in the Columbia River. The Fish Passage Center… has been killed because it did not count fish in a way that suited Craig…. (Craig said) “False science leads people to false choices.”
    The Fish Passage Center has documented, in excruciating statistical detail, how the Columbia-Snake hydroelectric system kills salmon. Its analyses of fish survival data also suggest that one way to increase salmon survival is to spill more water over dams, rather than feed it through electrical turbines. This suggestion, though, is anathema to utilities — and to Craig — because water poured over dams means millions of dollars in lost electricity generation.
    Last summer, a federal judge in Portland, using data and analysis from the Fish Passage Center, infuriated the utilities. He ordered that water be spilled over federal dams in the Snake River to increase salmon survival. Shortly after Judge James A. Redden issued his order, Craig began pushing to cut all funding for the Fish Passage Center.”

    Science doesn’t compel saving the salmon. But solutions to the destruction of salmon are based on scientific analysis. In the context of the debate over competing interests in this debate, this misuse of science benefits Rep. Craig’s campaign contributors at the expense of the salmon, fisherman, Indian tribes, and others who benefit from the continued well being of the salmon. The scientific body eliminated by Craig clearly supports action that benefits the salmon.

    This misuse of science simply masks the conflict of competing values and interests behind the denial of science, to the detriment of both science and policy. In his last election campaign in 2002, Craig received more money from electric utilities than from any other industry, and was named “legislator of the year” by the National Hydropower Association. Here is one more example of the nexus between the abuse of science and the pro-industry, anti-environmental conservative political agenda. By itself, it proves little. In the context of the past 5 years of conservative political attacks against science, it says it all.