Over at National Review Online, Kevin D. Williamson is tying himself in knots trying to defuse or deflect the charge that Republicans have a problem with science. It started with this confused post, in which he says … well, it’s tough to figure out, but the thrust seems to be that liberals don’t really care about science any more than conservatives do. They just want whatever answers support their policy preferences.
He concedes that Rick Perry “is making an error by approaching these questions [evolution and global warming] as though they were scientific disputes and not political ones.” That is, he concedes that Perry is making a mistake by saying scientifically discredited things in support of his policy preferences. Instead, Williamson thinks he should just stick to the policy preferences. (It doesn’t seem to occur to Williamson that empirical errors might produce poor policy proposals.)
Jon Chait responds that, no, liberals actually do care about science and empirical reality. And they prefer their political leaders to have similar respect for science and empirical reality. Conservatives, particularly the modern variety, demand ideological adherence from their politicians but seem to have no similar concern about empirics. (Matt Yglesias makes roughly the same point.)
This brought a response from Williamson in which he says, basically, that it doesn’t matter what politicians think about science. Pundits either. They’re not qualified to have opinions; all that matters is what scientists think:
Scientific disputes are highly specialized, and meaningful participation in them requires a great deal of non-generalist knowledge. I’m generally skeptical of argument from credential, but there’s a time for it.
I completely agree! The vast bulk of people do not have the specialist knowledge necessary to make first-order arguments about scientific issues. They must, of necessity, turn to those who do have credentials: the scientists doing first-order work. It’s a perfectly sensible heuristic.
But Williamson’s example of this heuristic in action is incredibly telling:
For instance, a great number of scientists have a particular view of global warming. Richard Lindzen has reservations about that view. Professor Lindzen is an atmospheric physicist a full-on professor at MIT. Your average politician is not packing the gear to get in the middle of that fight. I’m not. Chait isn’t, either. Is Lindzen not a real scientist? Is he a kook? Is Jonathan Chait going to make that case? Given two scientists with different opinions about climate forecasting, why exactly ought I to consult Jonathan Chait, or Jon Huntsman?
This is a spectacular bit of sophistry. Of course, in a dispute between “two scientists with different opinions about climate forecasting,” what Chait or Huntsman thinks is irrelevant. But that’s not the dispute. The dispute is between Lindzen and 97 to 98 percent of other practicing climate scientists. In that situation, Williamson’s own heuristic — “argument from credential” — pretty overwhelmingly suggests going with the bulk of scientists. It’s hard to imagine what could possibly suggest going with the outlier in the absence of specialist, first-order concerns that Williamson concedes he doesn’t have.
And yet all Republican contenders for higher office, with the exception of Huntsman, go with Lindzen and the two or three other outliers who appear regularly on Fox News. They are all rejecting the heuristic Williamson says we should use. Why, it’s almost like they’re choosing to believe whatever supports their policy preferences.
I understand why Williamson wants to put science aside and talk about “the environmentalist-anti-capitalist green coalition.” He’s in the Manzi-led “climate change is real but not worth doing anything substantial about” camp. That view rests on economic analysis that is just as absurd as Inhofe’s climate science, in my opinion, but with economics there’s less clarity than the physical sciences, less expert consensus, so it’s safer ground for a purely ideological dispute. And as I’ve always said, the Manzi view is far more politically potent than outright denialism. I don’t know why the whole conservative coalition doesn’t adopt it, if only for tactical reasons.
But no matter how he dances, Williamson can’t deny that the vast bulk of Republican politicians do not share that view. They do not put science aside. They say false things about the science! Lots of them, every day. And there is no policy-relevant area of science where the mainstream of the Democratic Party is similarly anti-empirical. There’s no precedent or parallel for the flat-earth mania that’s gripped the modern conservative movement. Instead of waving it away or insisting we should all talk about something else, Williamson might want to grapple with it.