Are Farm State Dems Waging a War on Science?!

At the WPost today, Dan Morgan contributes an excellent analysis of what he calls the "agracrats," Democratic members of Congress from traditional farm states such as Iowa or Minnesota. As Morgan notes, these representatives have been an influential force in first opposing and then fundamentally altering climate change legislation, fearing as Morgan describes that "the cap and trade measures would increase fuel and fertilizer costs for farmers, hurt coal-burning rural electric utilities and leave the Midwest's thriving biofuels industry vulnerable to regulatory restrictions by the Environmental Protection Agency."

The case of Agracrats is another example of why it's wrong to reduce science-related policy debates down to a matter of anti-science versus pro-science, champions versus deniers. If these members of Congress were Republicans, there's little doubt that liberal bloggers would be waving the bloody shirt of a "war on science." Yet as this case shows, it's rare that any policy decision is a simple matter of following the science. Instead the options considered and the decisions eventually made are almost always a matter of values and trade-offs.

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I missed the part where they are denying or twisting data about global warming.

Opposing a policy because it gores one's own financial interest may be selfish, short-sighted, or narrow-minded. But it does not constitute denial or any kind of conflict with science.

I have to agree that this pushback, at least as described in the article, does not fit conventional conceptions of a "war on science." It looks like a traditional case of a special interest fighting against regulation that would affect it in a way it sees as negative.

If there's distortion of scientific evidence, or even the fuzzy optics of the Carlin, situation, then debating this as a "war on science" has some merit.

I think Chris Mooney occasionally falls into a trap of presuming his favored policies to be obvious based on the science. I don't even see that kind of reasoning here.

Ditto what Russell said. Arguing against actions that might be taken to ameliorate climate change is not the same as denying the existence of climate change.

Also, I think you're arguing against a strawman when you say "it's wrong to reduce science-related policy debates down to a matter of anti-science versus pro-science." Even the most outspoken critics of the "War on Science" don't generally claim that policy decisions are a simple matter of following the science. Only that we should consider (and not deny) the existing science when we determine policy.

Let me add that there are quite reasonable conservative arguments against cap-and-trade legislation, e.g., that the economic cost doesn't justify the the uncertain benefit. Policy decisions are rarely cut and dried. Regardless of how much credence one gives that argument, it is does not, in itself, reflect any opposition to science. That is a different thing altogether, for example, when George Wills cherry picks 1998 as a base year to argue that we are now experiencing global cooling.

Based on how the "war on science" frame device has been used in the past to rally an ideological base, it's likely that if these same members of Congress were Republicans, their actions would be labeled as further evidence of the "anti-science" position of the GOP.

The war on science label, for example, was applied to the Bush administration and Republicans on stem cell research. Yet stem cell policy--first by Bush and now by Obama--is based not on science, but rather on the application of specific values, both personal and those of key constituent groups. Similarly, with farm state Dems, their climate policy preferences are based on the interests of key constituents and stakeholders.

For more on this topic, see the latest Issues in Science & Technology, where Daniel Sarewitz has an excellent discussion.

[Hat tip to T. Hunt for catching the spelling error. Corrected.]

It's true that nothing in the story mentions the denial of science. Maybe this is a previously unidentified frame, let's call it: "screw the science."

A politician taking this position would need to be really careful to stay on message. I don't think you can just say -- 'who cares about the science, it'll hurt my constituents.' They'd need to just say, 'it'll hurt my constituents' and leave it at that or risk looking too narrow.

One of the reasons proponents of deliberative democracy give for deliberation is that it's supposed to encourage people to justify things in terms of the common good. On the other, one of laments about current political life is that communication technology and travel make it impossible for politicians to do anything but to react to short-term parochial interests.

That being said, it'd be interesting to go and look further into the statements of this group of politicians and see if any 'war on science' denials are there. I'd think it'd be hard for them not to give some non-parochial justification for policies that have the potential to hurt the common good.

Using sharp demarcation, the Agracrats aren't opposed to the science (evaluation of claims about how reality works). They're opposed to the design choices underlying the engineering (selection of choices based on evaluation of scientifically probable consequences).

That said, some of their goal choices appear dangerously short-sighted.

I don't think the stem cell analogy works as well here. In opposing stem cell research it was easy for "war on science" acolytes to claim that research was being thwarted, so science is at risk. In the opposition to the climate change legislation, the rhetoric is not explicitly anti-science in the same way rhetoric from Senator Inhofe or his fellow travelers is seen as anti-science. Do these Agracrats think climate change isn't happening? If they do, and that's the basis for their opposition, I think the "war on science" arguments would be used more, and stick more.

Let's look at the hypothesis from another angle. Are "Agricans"- however many there may be - targeted with the "war on science" theme? I don't know. But if they are, I think Matt's hypothesis would have some merit.