Mooney Talks Past Marburger

January 26th, 2009

Posted by: admin

I’ve never been a fan of the “War on Science” construct.  As developed and articulated, its main function has been to rouse people to political action.  To agitate and organize is not a bad thing, depending on how it is done.  The problem comes in that same development and articulation of the “War on Science,” which paints a picture that is far more aggressive, comprehensive, and subversive than facts on the ground can demonstrably prove.  In short, it’s effective politics, but fails to reflect reality or suggest effective policy solutions.  It makes for bad policy, trying to correct problems that aren’t there at the expense of those that are.  So if one party latches onto this idea (or one party is pilloried by the execution of that idea), the more likely outcome is a change in power rather than a substantive change in how science policy is handled.  The notion that any particular entity in power would not use (or ignore) scientific or technical knowledge to its political benefit (an underlying evil in this rhetoric), is laughable and unrealistic.  This helps explain why the rhetoric never caught on outside of science advocacy circles.  The concept will not lead to any substantive change in how science policy is done because the “War on Science” was never used in a way to support it.  It was negative – do not do what __________ did.  There was nothing suggested as a new thing to do, or a new way of doing business.  It was a corrective only, assuming that the status quo ante was good enough.  The inaugural language to “restore science to its rightful place” suggests as much.

I was glad to see the chief proponent of the “War on Science.” Chris Mooney, unilaterally declare it over in a Slate column.  This made my disappointment all the stronger when I read his hatchet job in Science Progress on former Presidential science adviser John Marburger’s exit interview in SEED magazine.

This clumsy attempt to imitate Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans is effective only in expressing Mooney’s misplaced anger and frustration.  It talks past the basic assumptions and perspective of a Presidential science adviser and expresses outrage that the adviser fails to understand, address, or possess their point of view.  It demonstrates the limited effectiveness of the “War on Science” rhetorical cudgel – it can only speak to politics in a simplistic way that is easy to hijack or set aside.  There’s enough material to work through here that I will spread this over two posts.  New people are in power, but there is nothing to prevent the old problems from taking place or to encourage new ways of thinking.

Watch Mooney this evening on The Colbert Report.  Apparently he’s going to somehow use the “War on Science” as a springboard for a public awareness campaign.  I suspect I’ll have something to say about that square peg-round hole exercise later this week.  Colbert chews up most science-oriented guests, so credit to Mooney for at least showing up.

It’s important to note that Marburger’s points are at least as valid as Mooney’s.  Neither one engages with  underlying questions – what do we mean by science policy, what makes for good science policy, what is the job of the president’s science adviser, what does it mean to be good for science, and whose responsibility is it to determine that adviser’s job description.  There are other fundamental questions to science and technology policy, but the ones mentioned above seem most connected to Mooney’s rant.  The “War on Science” makes presumptions about those answers, and it’s answers sometimes conflict with how science and technology policy has been done.  In any event, the differences in presumptions – without addressing those presumptions – makes the changing of minds through this nearly impossible.  Ironically enough, Mooney and Marburger are talking in different frames – a recipe for talking past each other.

I’ve gone on enough for today.  More tomorrow on the specific issues raised in the hatchet job and the inadequacy of the “War on Science” for anything more than a political rallying cry.

2 Responses to “Mooney Talks Past Marburger”

  1. PrajK Says:

    Hi David.

    Great post, and I look forward to your follow up. But there are a couple issues.

    While I agree that the “war on” metaphor is incoherent, I think you’ve misrepresented Mooney’s argument when you state:
    “The notion that any particular entity in power would not use (or ignore) scientific or technical knowledge to its political benefit (an underlying evil in this rhetoric), is laughable and unrealistic.”

    I think Mooney’s argument is that while everyone uses science to advance their own goals, Republicans starting in 2000 did it to such a large degree that their actions warrant special condemnation.

    And what you identify as a weakness of Mooney’s thesis (that the status quo ante was good enough), Mooney probably identifies as a strength. That is, Mooney believes (incorrectly) in the purity of science that only gets corrupted by dirty politicians and especially Republicans. I suspect that, unlike you or me, Mooney was very happy with science policy from 1992 – 2000.

    I agree with you that the simplistic notions of science policy that Mooney promotes should be attacked…but we need to represent his beliefs correctly.


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  3. David Bruggeman Says:

    You’re right, the quote should not be considered as something that Mooney necessarily believes, but it’s an argument often found by those who are supportive of there being a “War on Science.” It’s gotten bigger than what Mooney originally articulated, and I think he buys into this growth in parts of his hatchet job.

    Your characterization of Mooney’s perspective seems fine, certainly the second half of it. The problem comes when the implementation of the first part runs into what some consider interference. That such interference never happened prior to Bush (or never crossed a line of outrage) is part of this whole thing I’ve had trouble with, but wasn’t directly connected to Mooney’s hatchet job.