How to Debate Science Policy

Article excerpt

Last fall, Chris Mooney, author of The Republican War on Science and Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle over Global Warming, came to The Hastings Center to discuss science policy, how science policy is debated, and what can be done to improve that debate. Mooney contends that conservatives have waged an "indefensible attack on mainstream science" on a range of topics, from evolution to global warming, stem cell research, and "anything having anything to do with sex."

By my lights, this exaggerates the Republican blame. Very possibly, much of the "war on science" will end with the current administration, no matter which party wins the presidency this year. And inevitably, the misrepresentation of science will not end, no matter which party wins. As Mooney himself noted during his visit, liberals have also misused stem cell research: he quoted John Edwards as suggesting, during the 2004 presidential election, that a Kerry/Edwards administration's support for stem cell research would have Christopher Reeve and others with spinal cord damage "up and walking again"--a promise that is not grounded in reality. But however we identify the combatants, Mooney is surely right that science is regularly under attack in the public sphere, and that's reason enough to wonder how the debate over science policy might be improved.

Mooney's recommendation is that those defending good science do a better job of "framing" scientific issues. That is, they must try to describe scientific issues in ways that pare down their complexity, make them seem more personally relevant, and resonate with widely held values. The tobacco industry employed clever "framing" strategies when it asserted that antismoking measures require scientific certainty that smoking causes cancer (and then produced "experts" who denied the emerging consensus). …