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Not Such Sound Science

For the last decade, industry groups opposed to governmental regulations have often claimed the mantle of “sound science”–implying that those who insist on, say, reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, or restrictions on smoking in restaurants, or bans on dioxin emissions,…
May 10, 2004

For the last decade, industry groups opposed to governmental regulations have often claimed the mantle of “sound science”–implying that those who insist on, say, reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, or restrictions on smoking in restaurants, or bans on dioxin emissions, are wooly-headed quacks who are operating on something other than scientific evidence. That the accumulation of evidence has, time and time again, undermined the arguments of industry apologists seems not to have deterred them from continuing to deploy this piece of rhetoric. And for the last several years, they have had the White House in their corner. Writing in the online magazine The Gadflyer, Chris Mooney examines the origins and implications of what he calls this “conservative term of art.” Mooney, who is writing a book on the politicization of science, says that:

…on issues ranging from mercury pollution to global warming, today’s political conservatives have an extremely peculiar–and decidedly non-mainstream–concept of what science says and how to reach scientific conclusions. Conservatives and the Bush administration claim to be staunch defenders of science, of course; but close attention to the very language they use suggests otherwise.

In one sense, this is a familiar story about seizing on sweeter terminology to represent your side in the argument. One of the best examples, of course, is the abortion debate, where partisans call themselves “pro-life” (who isn’t?) and “pro-choice” (ditto). But there is something particularly unsettling about the corruption of science for nakedly political ends. As Mooney concludes, “When conservatives today call for ‘sound science,’ the evidence suggests that what they really want is to hold a scientific filibuster–and thereby delay political action.”

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