Conservative pundits grapple with 'anti-science' charge, flail
Ever since Rick Perry expressed skepticism about both evolution and climate change, conservative pundits have rushed to defend Perry and the GOP from the charge that they are “anti-science.” Their efforts aren’t doing them any favors.
The latest is from Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, who seems to entirely miss the force of the accusation. It’s true that Perry “hasn’t criticized the scientific method, or sent the Texas Rangers to chase out from the state anyone in a white lab coat.” But no one thinks Perry is opposed to science as such. The point, as Jon Chait says, is that he has a propensity to disregard empirical scientific results when they conflict with his ideological commitments.
Lowry says, “Perry’s somewhat doubtful take on evolution has more to do with a general impulse to preserve a role for God in creation than a careful evaluation of the work of, say, Stephen Jay Gould.” And, “Perry’s skepticism on man-made global warming surely has much to do with the uses to which the scientific consensus on warming is put.”
So what Lowry is saying is that Perry doesn’t deny the facts of evolution and climate change because he hates science … he does so because he doesn’t like the implications of those facts for his ideology. Remember, this is Lowry’s defense of Perry.
Then Jonah Goldberg jumps in and, predictably, things go downhill. Goldberg asks, “Why does the Left get to pick which issues are the benchmarks for ‘science’?” He then goes on to demonstrate why that task needs to be left in other hands. Flailing about looking for areas where the left is in a position analogous to climate change skeptics, he cites geoengineering, Yucca Mountain, offshore drilling, and renewable energy. You’ll note that these are all fairly unambiguously policy questions, estimations of risk and benefit — no one on the left denies that sulfur particles reflect solar radiation, for instance, they just question whether dumping hundreds of millions of pounds of them in the atmosphere is wise.
As far as real science the right champions, Goldberg mentions the heritability of intelligence, fetal pain, and “the distribution of cognitive abilities among the sexes at the extreme right tail of the bell curve.” A few things jump out about these examples. First, all of them are highly contested in and outside the scientific community. Second, they are peripheral, as opposed to evolution and climate change, which nest at the intersection of dozens of lines of evidence. If it turned out intelligence was more (or less) heritable than we thought, it might affect how we treat each other, but it wouldn’t change any fundamental understandings in neurobiology. But if anthropogenic climate change really turns out to be false, it’s going to force deep rethinking in numerous scientific subdisciplines. (Somebody will have to explain why heat-trapping gases aren’t trapping heat.)
And finally, all those examples are used by some of the nastiest creeps on the right to justify racism and sexism. I guess Golberg’s dedication to science is such that he’s willing to risk those associations.
Over at Reason, ostensible champion of liberty and, well, reason, David Harsanyi offers a version of Goldberg’s “I know you are but what am I” that doesn’t much improve on it. He says, effectively, that liberals’ devotion to liberalism in matters of policy is far worse than conservatives’ devotion to blind ideology in matters of fact. Touché?
It soon becomes clear that Harsanyi isn’t trying to absolve the right’s climate cranks — he’s one of them. “There is a spectacular array of viewpoints on this issue,” he says. “The answers are far from settled.” Meanwhile, Brad Plumer notes:
In 2010, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a survey of 1,372 climate researchers, finding that 97 to 98 percent of those publishing in the field said they believe humans are causing global warming. That’s the same majority that existed in a similar 2009 survey. Dissenters do exist, the PNAS study found, but “the relative climate expertise and scientific prominence of the researchers unconvinced … are substantially below that of the convinced researchers.”
There are many interesting open questions in the climate sciences, regarding feedbacks, impacts, sensitivities, and more. But the core question, whether humans are driving climate change, has been answered to the satisfaction of the scientific community. It qualifies as a “fact” by any measure internal to science. It is accepted by scientific academies and mainstream political parties across the world. Ideologically driven skepticism has been overwhelmingly concentrated in U.S. conservatism.
Lowry justifies this fact. Harsanyi celebrates it. Goldberg tries to change the subject. Every one of them employs the logic of the schoolyard: you do it too, so we’re even! It doesn’t seem to occur to them that, no matter what the left may or may not do, it is not healthy for the conservative movement to obscure important, policy-relevant facts behind a veil of tribally enforced ignorance.