This is point of inquiry for Friday, November 3rd, 2006.
Welcome to Point of inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe fee point of inquiries, the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank collaborating with the State University of New York at Buffalo on the new science and the public master’s degree. CFI also has branches in Manhattan, Tampa, Hollywood and Washington, D.C., where our new Office of Public Policy is located. In addition to 11 other cities around the world. Add all of that, that in 19 cities in the United States. We also support what we call Center for Inquiry Communities. These are nascent centers for inquiry. Community groups of science advocates and activists, freethinkers, humanists and skeptics who work together to advance science and reason at the local level. At the grassroots level. Now, about this show, every week we look at some of the most fundamental assumptions of our culture through the scientific outlook. We focused mostly on three research areas. First, pseudoscience and the paranormal. Second, alternative medicine. And third, secularism and belief in religion. We do this by drawing on the Center for Inquires relationship with the leading minds of the day, including Nobel Prize winning scientists, public intellectuals, social critics and thinkers and renowned entertainers. Before we get to this week’s guest Chris Mooney and before we talk about our new Office of Public Policy in Washington, D.C., I want to welcome some new CFI campus groups that are starting up or have started up at University of Guelph, at University of New Orleans, at University of North Texas and at the University of South Carolina upstate. These are new groups since last Friday show, not the Whodini salons, which came out Tuesday. These groups and all the others around the country that we helped support work with us to promote science and reason at their schools. So welcome to these new groups. And if you’d like to work with us to start a group at your college or university, even your high school, you can do that by going to Campus Inquirer dot org. Doing so, filling out a form on the Web site will get you in the mail free organizing, educational and promotional materials so that you can partner with us in your learning community. And now, quickly, if you’re in the Southern California area to morrow, Saturday, November 4th in Los Angeles and Hollywood at our West Coast branch, we call it CFI West. We’re going to be hosting a regional campus and community organizing meeting for leaders of our campus and community groups. And if you want to come, it’s free to come. And you will get to meet Thomas Donelli, the producer of the show, the executive director of CFA West Jim Underdown. Eddie to Bosh, who just gave a big event for one of our campus groups in Indiana. And I’ll also be there. We’d love to have you come and work with us and other students you’ll network with to advance science reason at Southern California colleges and universities. And Thomas tells me that’s all the announcements for now. So on with the show, I’m pleased to have on the phone Tony Van Pelt, who is formerly the executive director of CFS Florida branch.
She’s now the public policy director for the Center for Inquiry in Washington, D.C.. She’s a longtime feminist activist, a secular humanist activist, formerly serving in leadership roles with the National Organization for Women. She joins me on point of inquiry today to talk about the Center for Inquiry’s new Office of Public Policy in Washington, D.C., Tony Van Pelt. Welcome to a point of inquiry, my friend.
Thank you so much, T.J.. I’m really happy to be interviewed.
Tony, we’re going to talk about what we’re doing in Washington, D.C. For months now, I’ve been announcing our presence in D.C., but we’ve not really explored it on point of inquiry. Why are we there?
The Office of Public Policy is here to concentrate on two main issues deejay science and secularism.
So we’re concentrating on those issues, much like we do throughout all the other programs and public education and advocacy here at the Center for Inquiry. What do we hope to accomplish in D.C.? Are we just trying to raise awareness or are we trying to do something more concrete?
Well, as you know, scientific research is constantly being undermined here at the Capitol and a lot of areas. STEM cell research, denial of global warming, advocacy of teaching, of intelligent design in science classes and abstinence and population control policies. And so what we’re doing here is working on influencing our congressional members to exhibit and advance science and reason in public policy.
So you’re not just trying to teach people about our issues. CFI does that already. You’re trying to influence policy makers, decision makers in Washington? That’s correct. I’d like to let our listeners know that you can get more information about the Center for Inquiries, Office of Public Policy at W W W Dot, CFI, D.C. dot org. Tony, does our presence in Washington mean that now CFI is a political lobby?
Well, CFI, by opening up the Office of Public Policy, is establishing itself as an authority on these issues in Washington, as a place for our congressional leaders can come for education and for support.
You’re right on Pennsylvania Avenue. So you’re right in the heart of things.
We’re just six blocks from the Capitol building. We’re very close.
So we’re serving kind of as a clearinghouse for information on these issues. Were advocating a certain point of view with our elected officials. But does this mean that now we’re all a sudden kind of partizan? I thought CFI was a nonpartisan, nonpolitical science advocacy organization.
We are nonpartisan. That’s that is for sure. But we are working on issues with like minded group. And one of the things that we’re doing is. During congressional bills, the federal budget, executive orders.
And then we’re going to call upon our membership and folks out there that care about our issues to contact their congressional leaders and to influence them, to advance our causes here on the Hill.
So you’re talking about grassroots organizing?
Yes, we’re talking about e-mail campaigns. We’re talking about writing letters to Congress. And the really exciting thing that the FBI is going to institute is civic days at the Capitol. Well, we’ll call upon folks to come up for a weekend for two or three days. And to be educated on the current issues in front of the Congress and to actually go up on the Hill and lobby their members.
You’re talking about CFI supporters and people who believe in the values were advancing, going to D.C., being trained by our staff to go see their elected officials to push for our agenda. That’s exactly correct. So to finish up, Tony. How can listeners, if if they’re not in D.C. right now, but they care about what CFI is advancing, they’re persuaded by what you’re saying about the need to organize at the grassroots level, land in D.C. What can they do to help our Washington, D.C. efforts?
Well, first of all, they can become a member of the CFI.
So you’re seeing becoming a friend of the center supports our initiatives in Washington, D.C. out of CeaseFire’s Office of Public Policy.
Correct. That would be really important because numbers really matter up here on the Hill.
I’d like to let our listeners know that you can become a friend of the center, the supporter category, the membership category of the Center for Inquiry through our Web site point of inquiry dot org.
Secondly, if they’re in Washington, D.C., they can stop by or at 621 Pennsylvania Avenue Southeast. And we’re having our opening on November 14th from four thirty to eight p.m. and we’d love to have anybody that’s in town to come by. Or if you want to come from out of town, you’ll be welcome.
This is a big open house. A lot of the people we talk about and who are affiliated with the Center for Inquiry will be there for that event. That’s correct. Tony, it’s good to finally have you in Port Macquarie. Thanks for joining me.
Thank you so much for having me, T.J.. It was my pleasure.
The world is under assault today by religious extremists to invoke their particular notion of God to try and control what others think can do. One magazine is dedicated to keeping you up to date with analysis that cuts through the noise and the surprising courage to appear politically incorrect. That magazine is Free Inquiry, the world’s leading journal of secular humanist opinion and commentary. Regular contributors include Richard Dawkins, Wendy Kaminer, Christopher Hitchens, Peter Singer and Sam Harris. Their views are reasoned, thought provoking and to some, unpardonable, infuriating. Subscribe to free inquiry today. One year, six controversial issues for 1995. Call one 800 four five eight one three six six or visit us on the web at Secular Humanism, Dawg.
It is a real pleasure for me to have back on the show. An old friend of mine, Chris Mooney. I got to know Chris in the 90s when we both came to the Center for Inquiry one summer to work with its campus outreach program, what we now call Center for Inquiry on campus. Since then, Chris has catapulted himself in the area of science policy since his influential writing focuses on issues at the intersection of science and politics. He’s been widely acclaimed for his writing on these issues. He’s been in Wired New Scientist Free Inquiry, Skeptical Inquiry, Slate, Mother Jones, The Washington Post, L.A. Times, Boston Globe and on and on. It’s been widely and other media Daily Show with Jon Stewart, NPR’s Science Friday, Fresh Air with Terry Gross. His blog, called Intersection, was a recipient of Scientific American’s 2005 Science and Technology Web Award, which noted that science is lucky to have such a staunch ally in acclaimed journalist Chris Mooney. His book, Republican War on Science, is newly out in paperback. It’s revised new information in it. It was hailed as a landmark in contemporary political reporting by Salon dot com and a well researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing’s assault on science and scientists by Scientific American. Welcome to Point of Inquiry again, Chris.
It’s great to be back. I hear that the show is only that vigorous, has left, then moves on. So I want to commend you for that.
Well, thanks for saying that. Your book treats all these big issues, global warming, stem cell research, abortion, evolution versus intelligent design, and these big debates in society that are being waged around these issues. These big debates, these culture wars. But these culture wars are nothing new. Is something different now about these issues than, say, 30 years ago? Is something going on now that compelled you to write the book in the first place? That wasn’t always around.
That depends on which issue we’re talking about. Some of them weren’t really on the map 30 years ago. So global warming has really only come on since about the mid to late 1980s as an issue that really concerned people.
What’s the big difference? Right. Is that the Republican Party is running the entire government right now.
And the party is so constituted that when you put it in charge of the government, you’re going to suddenly have all sorts of interferences of the scientific information, because Republicans today have to cater to their political base and their political base wants them to interfere with scientific information. And here I’m talking about big business. On the one hand, religious conservatives on the other. And so big business cares about things like a warming. Religious conservatives care about things like stem cell research. And pretty soon you’ve got a big science problem on your hands.
So the powers that be in the Republican Party are just coddling to their base rather than having an agenda of their own.
Yeah, I mean, I think it is not a new Republican who wakes up in the morning and says, you know, I’m going to wreck some science today. It’s just the fact that they have constituencies and they’re sympathetic to those constituencies and they have to be and they’ve found a winning strategy to get into power. So then when they control the government, they start with people who listen to their constituencies. And then those people start changing the language of scientific documents and telling scientists they can’t speak to the media and all this stuff. And you get all this suppression and scandal.
Can you give me a couple quick examples of that kind of suppression? Sure.
Well, first, we’ll talk about altering documents. We’ve seen that, for example, on global warming. We’ve seen it at the Environmental Protection Agency. We’ve seen it at the Government Climate Change Science Program, which is operated out of Noah. Whistleblowers have showed the before and after versions of these global warming reports. And you see how they’re marked up by political people in the administration in order to exaggerate uncertainty and make it sound like science, more doubtful that it actually is obscure the mainstream conclusions and so forth. So that’s happened pretty regularly within the administration. And then we also have appeared complaints from scientists focusing on climate change, that there’s been interference with their ability to speak to the media. And this is usually coming from the public affairs of various government agencies, which are staffed with politically trained people.
What’s new in the paperback version of your book, which I’d like to let our listeners know is available through our website Point of inquiry dot org. What I’m asking, Chris, is you’ve added new content to the book. Tell me about that.
Sure. Most people in the real books in paperback, it’s more or less the same thing. Mine is actually quite. First of all, I went through and I added updates to all of the main body chapters, so in other words, the issues continue to move and I sort of brought them up to date. A thousand words in length for each of those chapters. But what I think is most important is I wrote a long essay at the beginning, about 3000 words long, about how my thinking had evolved over the course of a year of watching this book come out, watching it become bigger than I had ever quite imagined.
And of course, this led to a lot of experiences that were new to me, going around, speaking across the country, finding out how audiences actually reacted to what I was saying. And then that that changed my thinking in turn in a number of ways. And the most important way is that it made me think much more about solutions to the problem, because what my book did, at least in its first edition, it really just got people angry. Steam coming out of their ears. They want to punch a wall at all the outrages that are being committed. And I think that’s an appropriate reaction. But we have to get beyond that. We have to start thinking about what we can actually do to fight back.
So even if you got the book in hardback, this is an edition that you’ll want to get again because of this new content. Let’s backtrack a bit. Chris, you write about the Republican War on science, titled your book Republican War. Are Republicans really that much more anti science than Democrats? Have the Republicans gotten worse since you first wrote about this? Have the Democrats gotten better?
Well, the Democrats have started denouncing the Republicans for this, which I’m in favor of, because I do think that the Republican Party, again, as currently constituted in the United States, does have a systematic science problem and the Democrats don’t. Now, that could change. And it’s not that the Democrats don’t have incidental occasional science problem. But what’s going on is, again, is this fundamental political dynamic. Today’s Republican Party going back to Reagan even a little earlier, they realized that the way to win elections was to pull together a certain political brew, if you will, a certain group of constituents that helped them get the majority that they need to remain in power because those constituents contain individuals and interest groups that really want to attack science in certain areas. The Republicans have to become the kind of party that attacked science and the Democrats don’t have the same dynamic going on. So that’s really the difference. But the Republican Party could change, could become a more moderate party, could become a party more like it was in the 70s, the party of Eisenhower. I think then there wouldn’t be the same problem. But that’s not the party that it is right now.
I want to talk about the war on science. Can you just explain why it’s a Republican war on science right now? But isn’t it really a religious war on science? It’s not just the political operatives, as you mentioned earlier. They don’t have an an anti science agenda just because they’re anti science, but because it’s useful to them. And the largest constituency that they’re organizing are the religious ideologues. So isn’t this really just a religious war on science?
I would argue that that’s about half of it. That is an important part of the Republican base, the religious conservatives. And so you get Republican politicians who get Republican political appointees denigrating evolution, misstating the information about embryonic stem cell research and misrepresenting widely scientific information about reproductive health. All of these areas are areas that the religious conservatives are fired up about because they want to advance their anti contraception, anti abortion agenda. OK, but that’s only half of the ledger, if you will, because there’s also the industry side of things. It’s largely non overlapping, but there are a lot of corporate moneyed interests that have a key stake in the role that science plays in the government, regulatory and decision making process. And here they’re fighting more over environmental public health issues like global warming, mercury pollution. And it’s often not driven in any obvious way by religious interests. It’s driven more by the bottom line and attempts to preserve the status quo under which certain industries are thriving.
Chris, one of the implications of your book, I think, is that science is necessarily political. We can’t go along thinking anymore that science is a political and it’s just done in the academy. Science has real political implications. Here’s the question. Is there anything wrong with using politics to advance one’s view on scientific questions? This is a democracy. Don’t we have a right to organize around points of view, even if that point of view is what you would call a. science?
Well, yeah, you have you have a right to speak, you know, freedom of speech. And you certainly have a right to take a position if you want to take one. I don’t think that politics should be the means by which we advance scientific knowledge. I’m not sure if that’s what you’re implying. I mean, scientific knowledge should still be advanced by the traditional norms of scientific publication, peer review, critical scrutiny and so forth. But yes, science, because it is policy relevant, increasingly policy relevant, because so many issues today depend, at least in part upon the scientific basis for the decision, then that information is inexorably going to be pulled into a political combat kind of situation. And what we’ve got to do is we’ve got to set up the game of government, set up the game of political debates so that people do not abuse the information as much as they currently do right now. But there’s going to be a temptation to do that just because the science is so relevant and for the same reason scientists themselves cannot pretend. Oh, you know, I’m just an objective fact machine. I hide out in the academy and I do my research, but my research has no policy implications. And, you know, I don’t even want to speak before Congress and so forth. No. I mean, the the reason their information is under attack is because the information so important. And that’s precisely why they have to learn how to defend it.
Let’s talk about global warming quickly. Is there still an attack against climate change science? It hasn’t the tide turned? Or is it still a serious issue that merits your readers attention, our listeners attention? Is there still a Republican war on climate science?
Oh, yes, definitely. I mean, this is not going to stop until we have an actual policy going forward to address how we deal with this. And then everyone will start adapting to the new policy framework. But we don’t have anything like that. So there’s going to be continual fights over the science. Then there’s been a shift in the sense that the science has gotten much more concrete in terms of just the basic question of whether humans are causing global warming.
I mean, just in this last year, the science has gotten well, there’s more consensus in it.
That’s been it’s been building over 10, 15 years. The consensus is built steadily over this last year. Something has changed more in the media realm than in the scientific realm.
But that said, you know, it’s really hard at this point to be an out and out denier of any human role in global warming. And you’ll see a lot of the people who once perhaps did do that kind of denial backing away from it. But they’re still fighting over the science. So they attack the computer models or they attack, you know, the science pointing to what the impacts might be. Or they say, oh, you know, it’s going to be global warming. There’s going to be rather small. I mean, they’re still using the same fundamental strategy of scientific argumentation. It’s just that they’ve shifted away from an argument that hurts them, you know, kind of like tobacco. At some point, they shifted away from arguing that, oh, smoking. You know, if you smoke yourself, that’s going to hurt. You know, they accepted that. But then they started saying secondhand smoke won’t hurt you.
What are some other specific examples of the Republican war on science? You mentioned global warming isn’t idee creationism. Isn’t that movement kind of kaput after Dover? And let’s talk about some other examples after that.
Well, I don’t know about Kaputt. I mean, I think the Dover evolution decision in that courtroom really might have been the end for intelligent design as a legal strategy.
In other words, it might be that because of that decision and because of how that decision will influence later courts, they simply cannot get the teaching of intelligent design into public school classrooms. But that doesn’t mean anti evolution ism is over. They’ll find other ways. What we know about anti evolutionists is that they constantly evolve and they try different different tactics. And so I think they’re already doing that. They’re already regrouping from Dover. I mean, they spent a lot of time attacking the judge and questioning the judge’s integrity and all that sort of thing. But they’re regrouping from Dover. And you’re going to see a strategy that doesn’t mention intelligent design as much because intelligent design is pretty easy to show why that’s fundamentally religious in nature. Instead, you’ll see something that’s much more negative, a strategy that attacks evolution but doesn’t propose any alternative.
What are some other examples of this Republican war on science?
Well, we’ve gone over global warming evolution. I mean, the embryonic stem cell research area is constantly politically fraught, Jim Underdown.
And it’s an issue that’s deciding some key congressional races right now.
So I’m reading and I was just reading about that today, and I’m a little behind on tracking the races myself, but apparently there’s a big win in Missouri where this is playing a role. I think there’s a number of congressional races where not for the Senate, but for the House, where candidates have defined themselves in part as being a defender of embryonic stem cell research. And it really is getting to be a loser for the Republicans because the country’s kind of shifted on the issue in 2004. But nevertheless, the mainstream of the Republican Party is still supportive of the Bush policy, which not only restricts research, but it’s based upon fundamental misinformation about how many stem cell lines there are.
And you expose that in your book?
Oh, yeah, definitely. Yeah. Bush misled the country in his first big speech about stem cell research and about science and just gave us wrong data that really undermines the policy itself. And, of course, you know, never apologize, never retracted when it was exposed that that data was wrong. So this is just, you know, sort of exemplifies disregard for science on the part of the president. So there’s stem cell arena and there’s all sorts of science games that go on within the broad rubric of embryonic stem cell research. There is the reproductive health arena where, again, religious conservatives are trying to advance their, quote, pro abstinence agenda. And in the process, they’re trying to undermine various forms of contraception and sex education that actually teaches kids about contraception. And so within that, there’s all sorts of misuse and abuse of science as well. And then you go through the issues that industry cares about. You know, whenever there’s some sort of pollution, endangered species kind of thing, there’s going to be a science fight, too.
I’d like to let our listeners know that Chris Mooney is book this important and critically acclaimed new release of the Republican War on Science is available at a discount at point of inquiry dot org. So we’ve touched briefly on sexual education, contraception, intelligent design, global warming. Making stem cell research. I’m interested to hear some of your thoughts now about what to do. It’s all well and good and you’ve done a masterful job at making this critique. But now what our listeners what are your readers supposed to do in response? As you know, the Center for Inquiry is just opened up our new Office of Public Policy in Washington, D.C. And you sit on the advisory board. But aside from grassroots activism or just getting people riled up about how horrible this Republican war on science is. And aside from maybe merely writing elected officials, what are some concrete things that readers of your book can do to enter this war on the side of science and reason? I mean, have we lost too much to even make a difference at this point?
No, no, no. The tide may be turning. I mean, the outrage is mounting over this issue. Now is the time to try to turn things around. And there’s no one thing to do. Okay, so for an individual, it can range from supporting the organizations that are themselves fighting back on this. And those include groups like CFI, but also union concerned scientists, the defenders evolution, the National Center for Science Education.
A lot of groups are now working on this issue, which can include voting for a political candidate. This is very important, a political candidate who is now defining his or herself as a defender of science, as many, many of them are.
So is this election Tuesday really an election about this war on science and where you stand on science?
No, I mean, the election is not going to be decided, I think, by science. There’s many, many issues that draw much more public attention. Obviously, the Iraq war dwarfing everything else. And there’s no doubt that most people who go to the polls are going to have sort of these big war or pocketbook things on their mind, which is what American voters always do. But without a doubt, there’s going to be some races where this war on science set of issues are going to play a role, perhaps decisive role. We’ll have to wait and see. I am hoping that there will be some races where we can actually say, you know, this candidate lost and this candidate lost in part because of the stances they were taking that were deemed to be anti science by voters in that area. We’ll see. We’ll see if we actually get a, quote, scalp for science in the election. As I’ve been putting it, I’m not positive. Certainly, scientists are pretty fired up and science is playing out in a number of races, most prominently the stem cell issue. So voting for a pro-life candidate is another important thing you can do. And a lot of other important things.
Give me a couple of us here. Sure. Definitely. Well, you know, I mean, I target a bunch of different groups that need to change the way they act on these issues. And one of them is the media. You know, I’ve been really critical of the media for helping the science abusers advance their cause by helping the science abusers create phony controversy that don’t actually exist with a world of science. Here I’m talking about the norm, a 50/50 balance in journalistic coverage, which has its place but can be misused on an issue where there’s no real controversy. But you pretend that there is like evolution or global warming or something like that.
And that’s precisely what the science abuses want you to do when journalists do that. And they’re pretty much misleading their readers. And we got it. We got to fight back against that by writing letters to journalists, criticizing them in public forums, saying, why did you cover a story like this, really making them know that people are outraged about this kind of coverage? That’s again, that’s also starting to happen.
So expecting more of the media that a science reporter or a science journalist actually know the subject of science and be steeped in the sciences and not give half coverage to the anti science point of view in a science journalism piece?
Oh, absolutely. Yeah.
And, you know, in criticizing the big media organizations who are cutting back on some of the most substantive journalistic coverage, which is one reason that science gets squeezed and you don’t get good enough coverage to begin with talking to journalism schools about how they got to beef up their science coverage and how they need to teach this kind of thinking journalists is that there’s multiple advocacy aspects just within the media area alone. In one of those important advocacy aspects is the fire up scientist, you know, to get them out there defending the knowledge that they’ve brought into the world in the first place, rather than just saying, oh, well, publish a study and they will retreat back into the ivory tower. And, you know, we’ll watch the right wing think tanks just destroy our work.
Have you found that your book kind of radicalizes scientists in a way that they haven’t been activated before?
Yeah, I mean, I don’t want them radicalized. I want them activated. And I think that they are getting activated. And right now what they’re doing is they’re going through a very important process of saying, OK, we obviously haven’t done enough. We need to do more. We need to be more engaged.
What is the best way of doing that? And this is an important time to get the answers right, to think about what exactly it is we’re going to do, because we’ll set in motion things that can have a big impact 10 or 20 years down the line, maybe new institutions, maybe new strategies for engaging the public. And so that needs to be done in a very carefully thought out manner based upon, you know, what you’re talking about, how you’re going to fund evolution, need to figure out what the message is in the polling is you focus group and you figure out why we’ve been losing this issue for so long and how we can turn the public around. I think that it’s a time for constructive thinking in the scientific community is ready to engage in that because they realize it’s something they’ve been doing, just hasn’t been working. Well, who wouldn’t be in this situation?
Last question, I want to talk about strategy, E.O. Wilson’s new book on environmentalism. He talks about building bridges and reaching out to people whom some secular pro science people might consider cultural competitors, people who are on the other side of the fence on the big questions, God’s existence. Some of the culture war issues, he says, reach out to them because we could all agree on this question about the environment. Scientists and humanists and atheists and agnostics and religious people can all come together. Do you see that kind of strategy working with some of these other questions as well in waging the war against the Republican advance on science?
Sure. I think I would apply a similar kind of logic. We can all agree to defend science even if we can’t necessarily agree upon the ultimate reality. And, you know, again, it’s not that I’m criticizing someone who’s an atheist. It’s perfectly fine to be one. I am one myself personally. But I’m saying let’s put that aside, because in this country, we really have to come to terms with people who don’t agree with the country’s just way, way, way too diverse to take hard, uncompromising stands or something like that. So we have to work together with a lot of people who care a lot about science or about the environment, but don’t necessarily take an atheist viewpoint. And so I would I would agree I’m generally into coalition building at this point in time, rather than taking these really strong stands on principle.
Chris, thanks for joining me again on point of inquiry, OK? Thanks.
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Contributors to today’s show include Sarah Jordan and Debbie Goddard. I’m your host DJ Grothe.