Republicans and science
by Rob Tiller
Last week Paul Krugman departed from his usual subject matter (the economy) to present the case that Republicans are becoming the anti-science party. His argument included a quote from a Republican official accusing a conspiracy of scientists of fabricating global warming data to promote their own careers.
It would be nice if such lunacy could be dismissed as a fringe phenomenon. But the speaker was the current governor of Texas and a leading candidate for President. And according to Krugman only 21% of Iowa Republican voters believe in global warming, and only 35% of them believe in evolution. Holy Toledo!
Is it possible that we could elect as President a person who opposes factual analysis and critical thought generally? As unbelievable as it sounds, the answer, apparently, is yes. At any rate, none of the current Republican candidates is prepared to stand up for rational thought over patent nonsense when their potential supporters prefer the nonsense.
I’ve never considered it particularly heroic to acknowledge factual reality or base action on the best available data. I thought this was what people ordinarily did. There have always been people who were disconnected from reality, but traditionally we either feared or pitied them. No sane person would consider taking their views seriously. So how is it possible that the anti-science Republicans (surely, or at least I hope, still a minority among Republicans) have developed into a political force? This is crazy!
Now, I have nothing against people who prefer their fantasies to hard reality. It’s OK if they want to believe, for example, that it’s possible to have public services without paying taxes, or that climate change is nothing to worry about. But it would be folly to let such people have serious responsibility for anything. Just as we don’t let young children drive cars, we don’t want the anti-science people making important decisions. As opponents of science, they just don’t have the tools necessary for good decision-making. Why would we even consider trusting them?
I certainly wouldn’t.
It’s Paul Krugman, not Jack.
The natural state of human thought is not scientific thought. People are much more prone to believing the plainly visible, the anecdotal, and dictates from authority. Science and its methods must be learned, which takes some time, effort, and interest, so true scientific thought is rarely practiced, let alone understood. The masses of both sides of the political spectrum are essentially scientifically illiterate. They just take their belief cues from different sources. The right is wary of government authority, and so prefers views that affirm old tradition. The left wants to move away from old tradition, and so prefers the views of the new authority. Neither form their opinions using actual scientific thought.
The theories of evolution and climate change always seem to be lumped together in debates about science and belief. But they are so different from one another that it is surely a mistake to treat them the same. Evolution is a theory that attempts to describe the workings of an observed, unchanging history of life, all of which has taken place in the distant past. Climate change is a theory that attempts to predict the future state of a highly chaotic system by extrapolating current trends into the future. There is just no comparison.
Interesting. I was using science in sort of a loose sense — empiricism might have been more apt. Speaking more particularly of the scientific method, it’s far from a perfect or universally applicable method for understanding the world, but still, I hope we can agree, it’s a very useful method. And sure, it isn’t widely practiced. Not everyone is a scientist. In practice, for complicated and highly specialized problems, we can’t possibly figure out everything from scratch (even if we’re scientists), so we need to figure out trusted sources to rely on. Scientific training and methodology is a valuable indicator of trustworthiness. I agree that evolution and climate change are quite different areas of study, and wouldn’t want to compare them in terms of their content.
Oh dear, that’s a bad bloop. Thanks for the correction.
My anecdotal (and non-scientific!) observation about non-empirical thinking is that it tends to be more pronounced at the political extremes, both left and right. For example, on the far right you have the Intelligent Designers and Birthers, while on the far left you find most of the Truthers and Holocaust Deniers. I have also noticed that the propensity for unsubstantiated belief does not correlate with intelligence, or lack thereof.
I hadn’t though of Holocaust deniers or Truthers as left wing, but I’m happy to say I don’t actually know any of either group. As for correlations with intelligence, maybe it depends on what you mean by intelligence. If you have mental agility and reasoning power but do your reasoning without reference to evidence, are you intelligent? Perhaps in way, but as likely as not, the products of your mental efforts are indistinguishable from nonsense.
The lack of correlation was a huge source of confusion for me until I studied up on it. If you are interested in the subject, I recommend the writings of Michael Shermer, the founder of the Skeptic’s Society. His books Why People Believe Weird Things, How We Believe, and The Believing Brain do a good job of explaining the science behind belief.
while on the far left you find most of the Truthers and Holocaust Deniers.
You might be right about the Truthers (there are a lot of unanswered questions about 9/11), but by far, it’s right-wingers who are the Holocaust deniers. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is one who comes to mind. Holocaust deniers are generally antisemitic, and they tend to be right-wingers.
Ben, I do see your point, especially when looking at it globally. I admit I was thinking more of the USA, where the right wing is very sympathetic to the Jewish community, while the left is more sympathetic to the other side.
No, the antisemitism in the U.S. is mainly by right-wingers. Conservatives might be more sympathetic to Israel and liberals to Palestine, but both sides seem to be misguided in their rationales.