When Science sleeps with Politics

In a recent blog post Praj upbraided Chris Mooney and Alan Berezow for attempting to rank the pro- or anti-science bona fides of political parties. The tempest in the teapot started with a remark by Alan Berezow in a column in USA Today, where he claimed that there was one anti-science Democrat for every anti-science Republican. Mooney was outraged, claiming that polling data suggest Tea Party supporters overwhelmingly reject climate change and evolution, which implied for him that Republicans were the anti-science party by a wide margin. Not surprisingly, the comments section of Mooney’s blog lit up with cases of anti-science on the left.

Praj pointed out the folly of it all. Ranking parties on the basis of their respect for science is a mug’s game. It’s really political invective and moral stridency dressed up as impartial analysis. I’d go one step further: attempts to assess (what I’ll call) the “scientificality” of parties and partisans on the basis of polling data is absolutely meaningless, since polling data reports nothing but the respondents’ feelings about science.  Let me explain.

1. Why pro-science polling data is meaningless as a measure of “scientificality” of a party

Step back and look at polling data as a measure of scientific literacy in the general population—i.e., how much people know about science.  Suppose a poll result says sixty percent of people believe in evolution and climate change while forty percent do not. Can you now infer that sixty percent of people are knowledgeable about climate change and evolution, while forty percent are not? No, because what anyone does or doesn’t “believe in” is just a measure of how they feel about a scientific statement—like “Do you believe the climate is changing?”—which is irrelevant to the question of how much they know about science.

But wait, you say, doesn’t the fact that sixty percent of people believe in evolution show that sixty percent know something about it? No again, because the poll says nothing about the quality of that knowledge. The believers might have wholly erroneous ideas about climate change and evolution. In fact, my experience suggests that the vast majority of laymen believers in evolution—including most of the haughty pundits who deride those who don’t believe—haven’t much of a grasp of evolution themselves. Most pro-evolution laymen think, for example, that evolution is progressive (i.e., that living forms get ‘better’ over time), which is completely false.

So what does the pro-climate change, pro-evolution sentiment reveal? Nothing beyond the respective successes and failures of the opponents and proponents of climate change and evolution. In my experience, belief in evolution is often worn like a badge of moral and intellectual superiority, not a conclusion reached after careful study; and disbelief like a badge of moral and intellectual independence and anti-establishment sentiment.

2. Why anti-science polling data is meaningless as a measure of the scientificality of a party

Surely, you say, anti-science sentiment does reflect ignorance of science among those who reject this or that scientific theory? Not really. Since the vast majority of non-scientists have a tenuous grasp of any given science, neither party can claim that the other has a monopoly of any consequence on ignorance. In other words, belief or disbelief in this or that scientific theory doesn’t mean much when neither side knows what they’re talking about in the first place.

Now you might still object that expressed disagreement with scientific theory—whether knowledgeable or not—can still amount to anti-scientificality when the theory is beyond dispute. Not believing in evolution, after all, is anti-science because there is no scientifically defensible anti-evolution position.

In response, let me say that it’s the mark of naivety or partisan tunnel vision to conflate what people say with why they say it.  Suppose I asked a Tea Partier the following question, modeled on Darwin’s theoretical formulation in The Origin of Species: “Do you agree that the differentiation of species was caused by descent with modification through natural selection?” His likely response: “Huh?” If I asked the same question in a different way—e.g., “Do you believe in evolution?”—he might well say, “Hell, no!”

The reason for the different answers should be obvious to thoughtful persons. He doesn’t reject evolution out of ignorance or knowledge. To this fellow, evolution means “Human beings came from monkeys,” and, more importantly, that “Human beings are no better than monkeys.” He equates an undesirable moral implication with belief in the scientific theory, so he rejects the latter on the basis of the former—that’s what “believing in evolution” means to him.

Now, before you go calling this fellow an ignoramus, let me urge you to further consider that his inference isn’t exactly irrational. Richard Dawkins and his fellow travelers (not to mention more than a few evolutionary psychologists) have tried to bootstrap the moral and political point about human beings with the scientific one time and again. And if they can say, “We’re no better than apes, evolution proves it,” why is it so unreasonable for someone in no position to understand the science to reject the science along with the moral and political activism that’s been attached to it?

3. And the moral of the story is…    

I think there’s a profound moral to this story that every thinking person should consider.  Science has always been politicized and always will be. Human nature has decreed that some will always try to tie their political crusade and their moral beliefs to the back of scientific research.  In some cases, it will be justified, but in the majority of cases it won’t; and no matter how many times you cite Hume’s is/ought dichotomy to those who should know better—Sam Harris, for example—they’ll refuse to accept it when they think the tide’s flowing in their direction.

Nonetheless, it’s the duty of thinking people to resist it because it can only end in the corruption of science and politics both. What happens, after all, when some scientific theory becomes the justification for political beliefs? Do you think new evidence that contradicts the earlier findings—and by implication the political beliefs that depend on it—will ever see the light of day? Not likely. The politicos will assure that scientific orthodoxy remains untouched; in consequence, real science will cease.

Now, maybe you think it can’t happen—I suggest you think again. The movement is afoot to have Intelligence Design taught in schools.  Why? Is it because irrational religious people don’t want their kids taught that human beings came from apes? No. It’s happening because Dawkins and Dennett (and others) propagated their atheist creed on the back of Darwinian evolution. Wiser men would have known that when science faces off against religion, science always loses. But these two naïve fools thought that parents would just sit idly by while their kids were force-fed atheism by proxy—you could almost hear them sniggering: “And there’s nothing you can do about it!”  But there was. Schools answer to parents and religious parents outnumber irreligious parents by a huge margin; so, ID will be taught in schools and there’s nothing Dawkins and Dennett can do about it—except maybe shutting up.

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5 thoughts on “When Science sleeps with Politics

  1. Thanks for the shout-out! Great response, btw. I also think it’s tricky to read into polling data. What are your thoughts on the polls that show, e.g., only 30% (or something like that!) of people know the Earth rotates around the sun. Is knowledge of basic scientific facts different from attitudes towards politically-hot topics like evolution and climate change?

  2. Thanks Praj. In “A Study in Scarlet” Watson is shocked to learn that someone as intelligent as Sherlock Holmes doesn’t know that the Sun revolves around the Earth. When Watson expresses his dismay, Holmes responds: “What the deuce is it to me? ….You say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.” That’s probably true for most people. Contrary to academic orthodoxy, which says everyone should have a solid knowledge of science, it’s not obvious that it makes a difference to the citizenry’s ability to judge policy or their daily lives. Maybe it’s better for people to be skeptical of any claim than to be, at best, half-wise in the ways of science.

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