Climate Change

Author Chris Mooney points to political meddling on climate science

Chris Mooney, author of the new book "The Republican War on Science" and the Washington correspondent for Seed magazine, says there is clear evidence of a GOP attempt to distort scientific findings on global warming and other issues. Mooney explains the reasons for the increasing intersection between politics and science, and why the trend is so problematic. Plus, he discusses how free-market think tanks, Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and author Michael Crichton have influenced the climate debate.


Darren Samuelsohn: Welcome to OnPoint. I'm Darren Samuelsohn. Joining us today in the E&ETV studios in Washington is Chris Mooney, correspondent for Seed magazine and also the author of the new book "The Republican War on Science." Chris thanks so much for being here.

Chris Mooney: Thanks for having me.

Darren Samuelsohn: Good timing to have you on. Your book is about the politicalization of science and right now we are all gearing up for this hearing in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee where the chairman, Jim Inhofe, is bringing in the author of "State of Fear," Michael Crichton, to testify about the politicalization of science. You've taken issue with Chris in your writings, I'm sorry, with Michael in your writings. Give me a sense of why.

Chris Mooney: And Inhofe.

Darren Samuelsohn: And Inhofe too.

Chris Mooney: Especially Inhofe.

Darren Samuelsohn: We'll get to that in a second. Why Michael Crichton? What's been your problems with him?

Chris Mooney: Well, I mean a novelist can create a world in which global warming is not a matter of concern. And if I were to write a novel I could create a world in which tobacco doesn't cause lung cancer, but it's not really a very helpful way of contributing to what is a real world problem widely agreed upon by scientists to exist and to be caused by humans.

Darren Samuelsohn: Inhofe has been holding up this book and he's been recommending it to reporters.

Chris Mooney: Inhofe likes this novel, yes.

Darren Samuelsohn: Why does he like this novel?

Chris Mooney: Well, I think that it is one of the most prominent today that, ways of putting out the contrary position on global warming, which is that either, if it is happening, it's not that big a deal and not something to worry about. So this is something he can hold up and Crichton is a celebrity.

Darren Samuelsohn: And he's testifying before the Senate, do you think that that's a proper role a novelist, to be testifying?

Chris Mooney: Well, you know, it's up to Inhofe. It's his committee and Crichton is a novelist. He claims to have done a lot of research. I think that if you talk to scientists I don't think that they will really say that Crichton has reflected the state of scientific understanding in his book.

Darren Samuelsohn: OK. Let's see, I mean couldn't you just, I guess, ignore the naysayers, the people who question the science?

Chris Mooney: Well you could try, but they're actually very politically significant. That's the problem. There's nothing wrong with having dissent in science, like on global warming. There's nothing wrong with a couple of people having their own views. They may have Ph.D.s. You know, that's fine. They can believe what they want. But what's wrong is when a politician appoints him or herself to say, "I know which scientists are the right ones and which ones are the wrong ones." Politicians shouldn't be doing that. They're not scientists. We need scientific assessment processes to determine what the mainstream view is.

Darren Samuelsohn: OK, now I want to back up for a second and ask you a question. You're not a scientist. You're a journalist, is that correct?

Chris Mooney: Yeah, I'm a journalist.

Darren Samuelsohn: A science journalist?

Chris Mooney: I would say and a political journalist as well, that's right, yeah.

Darren Samuelsohn: I mean you're making opinions and you're stating your thoughts about science and you're doing it as a journalist.

Chris Mooney: That's right.

Darren Samuelsohn: I would say it makes probably some journalists feel uncomfortable to be stating their opinions. What's your take on ...

Chris Mooney: Well opinion journalism, there's political opinion journalism. There's straight news journalism. There's science journalism. They all kind of, you know, you can't really draw firm lines between them. And I think I clearly define that my journalism is opinionated and it is also about science. And when I talk about science I base it upon interviews with experts, but I also give political opinions. And I think that there's a long tradition of doing that, from Op-Ed columnists to, you know, a wide range of different kinds of, it all blends together I think in journalism. And I think that what I'm doing is maybe merging two different pursuits, political writing and science writing, but not particularly unprecedented or out of the norm.

Darren Samuelsohn: By venturing into the politics, though, do you concern yourself, I guess, that you might be pushing yourself out there to a point where people will just sort of push you aside and say, oh, well, you know, he's a liberal or he's a Democrat and he's just trying to get his point of view across?

Chris Mooney: Well, you know that's going to happen any time with some people, but I think if they read the book I think it's quite carefully argued and I'm very pleased with the way that it turned out. And I think that it goes through all of the philosophical issues involved in the role, in the philosophy of science, in the role of science and policymaking and also the modern politics and the scientific issues. It actually has a lot in there. If someone wants to read it carefully I think they'll appreciate it.

Darren Samuelsohn: And let's talk about your, you use the word contrarians quite a bit ...

Chris Mooney: Right.

Darren Samuelsohn: ... when you're talking about global warming.

Chris Mooney: Right.

Darren Samuelsohn: People who question the science.

Chris Mooney: Right.

Darren Samuelsohn: Why use the word contrarian as opposed to a global warming skeptic or a global warming critic?

Chris Mooney: Well because I think skepticism is sometimes abused or misused, and I don't want to give them the title skeptic because I think skeptic is generally something that we, you know, it's a good thing in science to have skepticism applied to mainstream conclusions. That's very productive, but I think at some point skepticism does transform into being contrary. And when you have a strongly established mainstream opinion, it's been checked, skepticism has already been applied to it very extensively. And then at some point it just becomes contrary. So that's what I'm trying to get at there.

Darren Samuelsohn: You're kind of writing quite a bit about the history, I guess, of the skepticism industry, if there is such a thing as that here in Washington. Can you go into a little bit? What are you talking about when you're talking about the history I guess of the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute?

Chris Mooney: Well the big picture here that I think is very important to why science is so politicized today, is that, I talk about the modern right and how it feeds into the Republican Party. And how part of what's happened is that the right has generated its own sources of scientific expertise, "expertise." And that has been largely at think tanks which are financed by, in part industry. So you have a wide variety of think tanks out there that now provide convenient scientific spins on issues, and that's frequently contrary to the university based spin. So that's true of evolution. It's also true of global warming, where essentially Republicans today have their own scientists that they go to. And the abuse of course is that it's selected by a couple people rather than accepting what the scientific community has come to.

Darren Samuelsohn: And you also forge in the media here, which has a typical tendency to give journalists the objectivity to things and run 50/50, you know, the naysayers versus the people who are saying the positive.

Chris Mooney: Right.

Darren Samuelsohn: Al Gore got into a little bit of trouble when he talked about this in journalism school right after he graduated, I'm sorry, not after he graduated, but right after he lost the 2000 election. He was warning journalists to keep the naysayers to a minimum.

Chris Mooney: Yeah. Well, you know again, there are some scientific issues where there's a real debate and it should be covered in a point/counterpoint fashion. There are others were there's not much debate and covering it in that fashion actually lends credence to the people who are actually misusing science by claiming a phony controversy when it doesn't exist. Journalists have to be able to know which case they're dealing with when they're filing a story. So I would say evolution, climate change, there's not really much scientific controversy. So if you do your story that way you are actually misrepresenting the science itself.

Darren Samuelsohn: Let's talk about the global warming science again.

Chris Mooney: Sure.

Darren Samuelsohn: We've got a big report coming out in the next two years, the intergovernmental panel ...

Chris Mooney: Yeah, coming soon, yeah.

Darren Samuelsohn: What do you think that the science here will say and how is important is that to debate?

Chris Mooney: Extraordinarily important. This is the gold standard of climate science, the IPCC. And I don't think anyone expects anything other than that they're going to continue to say that global warming, the evidence is stronger. It's under way. We are causing it. We know more and probably a stronger emphasis on impacts. What it's actually doing to the world, because the evidence on that is continually rolling in.

Darren Samuelsohn: Bringing it back to Inhofe and I guess one of the reasons why this hearing is happening this week is because of the hurricanes that have been hitting the Gulf Coast, your hometown, Louisiana, New Orleans. I mean this is an issue where every year whenever the hurricanes start to hit people start to wonder is this global warming. It happened last year with the hurricanes in Florida.

Chris Mooney: Sure.

Darren Samuelsohn: What's your sense when the celebrities start to talk about this? When Barbara Streisand starts to come out and ...

Chris Mooney: What has she said? I'm not sure.

Darren Samuelsohn: Well, she has come out and also linked it to global warming. She did that on the Diane Sawyer show. I mean it's starting to happen from the scientists to the politicians, now to the celebrities.

Chris Mooney: You've got to be cautious here and that's what I would advise people to do. We don't have any ability of linking global warming to a specific storm or occurrence. The science can't let you do that. You can have a discussion about whether global warming in general may be increasing the power of storms and that would probably seem to fit the theory, since after all hurricanes draw their power from the heat of the water. And obviously oceans are going to warm in a global warming scenario. So that's a perfectly legitimate discussion to have and scientists are having it and they are now debating whether we can detect the role of global warming in the intensity of storms. That's very much on the table, but we have to describe what the issues are carefully.

Darren Samuelsohn: Does Inhofe get a point here though, politically? I mean any time that anybody starts to say Katrina or Rita's responsible, you know, global warming has caused it. Inhofe gets a platform to talk about his issue.

Chris Mooney: Sure, but Inhofe, he might be able to score points on that, but this is the same guy who suggested that global warming itself might be a hoax in a Senate floor speech in 2003. That's really quite outrageous and so I'm not sure that he has much of a high ground to stand on.

Darren Samuelsohn: Reading your book, let's talk about the politics I guess and the book. "The Republican War on Science," as I was reading the book I couldn't help but wonder why did you call it the Republican war on science as opposed to the conservative war on science or the right's war on science?

Chris Mooney: Well because I'm critiquing a party institution, a party infrastructure and a party's way of doing business. The GOP, you know there are moderate Republicans who I don't think deserved to be part of the critique and I say that in the book. Moderates like John McCain, very good on climate science for example, but nevertheless they are not running the party. And I think that the misuses of science that we're seeing are a function of the way the party actually operates, so it caters to industry. It's industry based and it's religious conservative based and they both want the science to go their way on key issues: industry, something like global warming; religious conservatives, evolution and stem cells. And if you cater to both of them then you get comprehensive misuses of science across the government, which is of course what we've seen and what the scientific community has complained about. So I think the title is most accurate way of describing what I'm talking about.

Darren Samuelsohn: OK. Do you think that obviously in the 2006 and 2008 elections that the issue of science is going to percolate in a way that it didn't in 2004?

Chris Mooney: I don't know. It depends on who the candidates are. Clearly the stem cell issue is one that really can, apparently, do damage to candidates, especially because the politics of disease is so powerful. And people want cures to their conditions and this will make people change political perspectives. If the Republicans go against Republicans, so that you're playing with fire on the stem cell issue and that has a lot of potency. John Kerry tried to tap into that and I'm sure other politicians will.

Darren Samuelsohn: Senator Frist has changed his position and he advocates federal funding, so I mean he's moved away from the Republican Party.

Chris Mooney: He has, yeah, but then two weeks later he went on to endorse the teaching of intelligent design alongside evolution. So he got out of the good graces of the scientific community almost as quickly as he got back into them.

Darren Samuelsohn: Rank climate change for me, you touch on so many things in the book, not just climate change. You talk about, help me out for a second here. You talk about sex education ...

Chris Mooney: Sex Ed, stem cells, evolution, endangered species protections, I mean it's really a wide array of issues, but what they all have in common is either it's something that industry cares a lot about, regulated industry, or it's something that religious conservatives care about. And both groups are very adept at using science itself, or their own "science," to get what they want politically and in the process misusing and distorting science. So that's why we have such a sweeping problem, yeah.

Darren Samuelsohn: You call global warming though the most important, or one of the most important ...

Chris Mooney: Sure, well the biggies are global warming, stem cells, evolution. You can't go very long before one of them pops back onto the front page of the newspaper and that's for obvious reasons. Global warming, the whole planet is at stake. And of course now we have the hurricane issue so the global warming/hurricane discussion is going forward. So that puts it again on the table, but it's never off the table for long, either because the G8, the rest of the world wants to talk about it or because we get another outrageous report of someone in the White House editing a climate document, which also puts it right square in the news as it should be.

Darren Samuelsohn: Liberals are just as guilty, and in some respects environmentalists, of distorting science.

Chris Mooney: Well there's a lot of misuses of science from the left. I talk about some in the book and we can talk about those.

Darren Samuelsohn: Sure.

Chris Mooney: I don't think, well, for example, I talk about environmentalists and some of the GM food, anti-GM food advocacy, I think that's gone too far. The animal rights people attacking scientists, actually destroying labs, clearly this is troubling stuff. They're not running the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party is not actually catering to these elements, which are actually sort of fringe to the Democratic Party. So it's just a different, the political dynamic is different, not that it doesn't happen, but it's not so central to the way the Democrats operate.

Darren Samuelsohn: Let's shove economics into this debate though for a second, because you know, say President Bush, it seems like you're criticizing President Bush, but if he were to come clean, you're saying, on the science ...

Chris Mooney: Yes.

Darren Samuelsohn: ... and acknowledge that global warming is happening and it's because of humans, then you would be perfectly OK if he were to then come out and say, well, I agree with the science, but economically it would do damage to United States.

Chris Mooney: Right. That would be his prerogative as a policymaker and to some extent he's moved pretty close to doing that. The reason I don't give him full credit for doing that is because even as he acknowledges, at least in some cases, that humans, that there's a problem here or that humans might be causing it. At the same time we get these reports of people in the White House editing climate change documents at the EPA or other agencies. So it's kind of a good cop/bad cop game. And that's not fully accepting the science if you're actually playing with the language of scientific reports. So I don't give him, I don't acknowledge yet that he is fully accepting the science. If he did then we would have, if we disagree with him, it would be our job to vote him out of office. We couldn't accuse him of misleading us anymore.

Darren Samuelsohn: Well that's my next question for you. Has this trickled down to the public? Do you think that Republicans, are you arguing that Republicans have successfully muddied the water and distrust scientists?

Chris Mooney: Well, I think that probably not every Republican does, but there's a lot of things going on in the Republican Party today that make them, bring them into conflict with science. So first there is appealing to the industry base, appealing to the religious conservative base. There is also a strong anti-government tendency in some parts of the modern conservative movement. Well a lot of science takes place at government agencies or is funded by the government, so that plays in, something of an anti-university bias, that we can trace to the modern conservative movement. Distrust of the Eastern elites and the liberal establishment and so forth. Again, science is coming out of the universities. So there's all these things that are going into the mix I think and it's also sort of exploded now under George W. Bush.

Darren Samuelsohn: Some of the things that you called for here at the end of the book are returning the Office of Technology Assessment, an old Congress office that looked at science.

Chris Mooney: Yeah, yeah.

Darren Samuelsohn: You also called for political dynamics to be taken out of interviewing people for scientific bodies. What else do you see as possibilities and why those two going forward?

Chris Mooney: Well, the first one is, actually both of those are all about strengthening the role of scientific advice to the government because I believe that one reason science is so politicized today is how easy it is for a member of Congress or some other political actor to say I'm going to go to a lobbyist or a think tank or an interest group and get my spin on the science that fits my political point of view. Well if Congress had its own scientific advisory office, DOTA, which it had, very respected, world respected and the reports came out with congressional endorsement, it would be a lot harder to do that because you would be going against Congress's own official voice. So I think, and this was very reliable information. The same thing with advisory committees, we need to make sure they're not politicized. So it won't entirely solve the problem, but I think it will help.

Darren Samuelsohn: Chris, this is your first book. What's next for you after this?

Chris Mooney: Very, very good question and one that I am thinking hard about right now, but I'm not going to go on the record quite about that yet.

Darren Samuelsohn: Sure. Your blog appears consistently on a ...

Chris Mooney: It's, yeah. There are other Chris Mooney's.

Darren Samuelsohn: OK. Chris thanks much for coming into the show.

Chris Mooney: Yeah, it's been fun.

Darren Samuelsohn: Until next time this is Darren Samuelsohn for another edition of OnPoint.

[End of Audio]



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