Distorting Science - Left vs Right?

A debate between Chris Mooney and Ron Bailey
Who is worse about distorting science - the left or the right?

Chris Mooney

He is the author of The Republican War on Science, and he has a long history of being a skeptic, for a 28 year old. But he has a problem with the misuse of the work skeptic.

He believes that the right is worse – but only in the US, and only in the present moment. The Republican party hasn't always been so bad, and it's not so bad in other places around the world.

But how do you define worse? In order to make an argument, you have to selectively use information.

Criterion 1 - consequences of behaviour / cost to society (overlaps with power and influence)

Criterion 2 - extent of behaviour (hard to quantify and perhaps less important overall, but bush admin abuses clearly more extensive than previous administrations)

Criterion 3 - Institutionalization of behaviours (think tank infrastructure)

Criterion 4 - Good Faith vs. bad faith (honest mistakes vs. strategic attempts to undermine inconvenient information; but it's hard to prove motives)

Cites the Discovery Institute “Wedge” Document. Aims to replace materialistic worldview and replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions.

Argues that the right has definitely been worse. He conceeds that the environmentalists have spread some fear over the years, but says that overall, it's probably better to be overly caution than to be blindsided. (Applause)

Think tanks are politically motivated - shows the Exxon-Mobil donations to think tanks in 2004.

“Doubt is our product” - from a 1969 document from cigarette industry. They set out to manufacture uncertainty. This is systematic on the industry side.

The dismissal of evolution is the worst example of the right distorting science.

Cites the Luntz Memo from 2002. “Make the lack of certainty a primary issue in the debate. Be active in recruiting experts sympathetic to your view, and make them a part of your message.”

Finishes by saying that nothing more than the world we live in is at stake.

Ron Bailey

Bailey is the Science Editor at Reason Magazine. Incidentally, he says that both Exxon Secrets and SourceWatch are wrong in what they say about him.

Says that in the 70s there was lots of fear-mongering and he thought we were all going to die. But then we didn't and so he went back to the research, and decided that those people hadn't been talking about science, they had been talking about ideology.

Why do people distort science? Because we live in a liberal secular society and so we all want science on our side, because it's the ultimate arbitrator.

Erlich - made grand predictions about famines and people dying of hunger in vast numbers. He had an agenda - thought the US shouldn't send food aid anymore to places where it wasn't going to help. If we had followed his advice, his predictions would have come true, but instead we invested in biotech and world food supplies grew in the Green Revolution. Total agricultural production per capita also increased.

Bailey dismisses Jarod Diamonds book Collapse - he says that it's full of facts “but the analysis stinks.”

(Bailey's debate technique seems to be to speak very fast and flippantly – it's hard to follow him.)

He says that the left has scare-mongered about toxic chemicals, starting with Rachel Carson in the fifties. Says that though there are more chemicals out there, life expectancy is increasing. So calm down, Worldwatch Institute.

Chris Mooney - Rebuttal

Won't deny that environmentalists have spread fear in the past, but also points out that hindsight is 20/20. Points out that while Erlich's predictions were wrong, we do still need to worry about over population. Also, we didn't follow his advice and so does it really matter? it's only really worrying when the government is actually acting upon misinformation and poor science, which is what is happening now.

Comments that the things Ron talked about aren't good, but there are current issues that are more worrying. Environmentalists have been in power for the most part. Wrong predictions are a dime a dozen but it's when the US government is acting upon them, it's worrying.

Points out that both sides have been known to misuse science. Quotes John Edwards on the campaign trail.

Back to Rob Bailey

He says its wrong to say that Environmentalists don't have power. They created the EPA. He also says that there isn't a cancer epidemic, it's just that people live longer and if you get old, you're likely to get cancer.

Claims that Carl Sagan invented nuclear winter to sow horror to help the peace movement. Says that Sagan was eager to save the world and motivated by ideology. Even anti-nuclear groups now say that the nuclear winter idea was misinformation.

Genetically modified crops - have been rapidly adopted despite the warnings by Greenpeace. He says that no one has gotten sick from eating GE crops and so they're all good.

Cites Vandana Shiva as a scare-mongerer.

He argues that you can be more sorry than safe. He says that the precautionary principle says “never do anything for the first time”, and he doesn't agree with it. He feels like there is lots of disinformation out there, like scaring people away from GE food because it is poisonous.

Economic growth is the solution, he says. We need to help people get rich.

Back to Mooney

He is more worried about the Bush administration than about Greenpeace. Points out that enviros are constantly suing the EPA so clearly they aren't in control of it now.

Precautionary principle isn't about not allowing anything to go forward, it just means taking risks into account.


With regards to the Bush administration: “this too shall pass.”

Concludes by saying that liberal science is the essential complement to capitalism and democracy.