Why Conservatives Are Often Wrong About Science
Everyone, regardless of political leaning, has one issue on which they disagree with the body politic of their respective affiliation. Mine happens to be science. In particular, the misrepresentation and misunderstanding of science so often perpetuated in the conservative news. In US society, the most notable attacks on science have come by way of two issues: the theory of evolution, and global warming.
In the first instance, evolution, the attacks have been entirely faith-based. In the second, attacks have come in the way of imagining vast, global conspiracies. The first attack has no merit (I’ll explain why. Settle down.) The second… well, maybe there’s something there, after all.
Before global warming became the contentious issue du jour, the Evolution v. Creationism/Intelligent Design strawman dominated the headlines. In 2005, the Kansas Board of Education voted to back Intelligent Design, by expecting students to understand it for state assessment tests. What was actually taught in the classroom was left up to local school boards. (Read the Washington Post article here. Read Wikipedia’s overview of the controversy here.)
In 2008, renowned economist and recognized smart guy, Ben Stein, narrated a film entitled “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed,” which claimed to explore the controversy between Evolution and Intelligent Design “fairly.” The movie’s official website has since disappeared, so the best link I could find is, again, to Wikipedia.
I watched Mr. Stein’s film. Not only does he claim, incorrectly, that there is vast contention of Darwinian theory in biological academics (there isn’t), he blames Evolution for Nazism, Communism and Eugenics. He downplays the role of The Discovery Institute in Intelligent Design’s momentary popularity, and even claims Evolution is a theory that has been largely disproved, which is ridiculous and false. Oddly, he explains what ID isn’t, but never really talks about what it is (other than, very briefly, touching on the concept of Irreducible Complexity.)
Mr. Stein, Creationists and other Conservatives miss the fundamental problem with Intelligent Design: it isn’t science. Therefore, it has no place in the science classroom, for the same reason I have no business being Pope.
Before I completely disenfranchise my conservative and religious readers, let me clarify. I have no problem with ID, or even Biblical creationism being taught in schools. The former is, frankly, a beautiful philosophy, and the second comes from a book and set of beliefs upon which much, if not most, of our society is founded. I just don’t think they belong in the science classroom. I also don’t think liberal politics should be taught as part of art history, or Spanish as part of a choir class.
Scientific theories comply with the scientific method. Science narrows its scope in an attempt to answer certain questions about the nature of the universe. It does not attempt to answer all questions. In fact, my very first physics teacher opened her first day of class with the following:
“Science has nothing to say, one way or another, about the existence of God. The scientific method tests the provable and attempts to answer those questions that can be answered.”
Or words to that effect. For the record, aside from being a first rate physicist, she was also a born again Christian.
The scientific method consists, basically, of the following process:
- Developing a hypothesis – usually based on observation. This hypothesis should be stated in a way that it can be disproved.
- Forming predictions based on the hypothesis – in other words, if the hypothesis is correct, then it should result in recognizable results.
- Setting up and conducting experiment(s) that test the hypothesis – based as much on predicted results as the hypothesis itself.
- Evaluation and improvement – this includes not only evaluation of the results, but refining the process (or throwing out the hypothesis).
- Confirmation – including publishing the data and the methodology in recognized, peer reviewed journals so that others may confirm or overturn the results.
There’s no way to test for God, or a Creator if you prefer not to use religiously loaded terms. Therefore, one can’t use the scientific method to prove the underlying concept of Intelligent Design: that there is a master architect at work.
As for global warming, the attacks are two-pronged. The first argument points to vigorous debate among scientists and jumps on any view that disagrees with global warming science as “proof” that the entire field has been debunked. It hasn’t. There is much more conflicting data in the study of global warming than there is in the study of evolution, it’s true. But that is part of the scientific process.
Also, conservatives tend to point to meteorologists (who, as a group, tend to disbelieve global warming exists) as proof the science is bunk, while largely ignoring climatologists (who largely believe global warming does exist). Meteorologists are trained only in short term weather patterns. Climatologists receive much more vigorous training, and understand long term climate patterns that weathermen do not. Conveniently, geologists and geophysicists are almost universally discounted as liberal hacks by conservatives, though these are some of the most qualified scientific minds studying the issue.
Also, people tend to point out false data, such as a particularly cold winter on the East Coast as proof that global warming is bunk. I heard this repeatedly on Fox News all Winter long. Of course, when it turned out the maple syrup industry in Vermont was going to have a very bad year due to unseasonably warm temperatures and a very early Spring, all the conservative newsies shut up.
In actuality, there is good science backing up and refuting global warming and, more specifically, anthropogenic global warming (AGW). This is as it should be and is a vital part of the process. While it’s true that ice caps are increasing in size, it’s also true ocean temperatures are warmer than ever recorded. Just as one example.
The other attack on global warming comes in the form of the “who profits?” inquiry. Conservatives point out Al Gore has made literally millions of dollars off the GW controversy. Glenn Beck points out the Chicago Climate Exchange, who’s involved and how much money is being made. It is noted that some of the same people influencing climate and energy policy are the same people making a killing off of the resulting “Green” movement.
This second argument is extremely compelling, and I believe it does point to a GW, or AGW, conspiracy. But let’s not conflate business opportunists and political/social “conspiracies” with the science they’re using to bolster their positions.
Finally, lest it seem I’m blasting my fellow conservatives, let me point out I think scientists themselves share a large part of the blame for the misunderstanding, purposeful or not, of the scientific method and the academic community. When evolutionary biologists like Richard Dawkins make concerted and repeated attacks on religion and faith, how else are conservatives with religious views supposed to react? Of course they see science as an attack on faith when the same, supposedly objective, scientists use their bully pulpit to attack their values.
Conservatives are suspicious of a largely liberally funded Green movement when scientists misrepresent their data, as in the now famous Climategate Scandal. (Incidentally, those scientists involved in the scandal were mostly cleared of wrongdoing.)
When liberals use science they don’t understand, and then lie about it to push an agenda, conservatives are naturally skeptical of the whole agenda, including the science.
When scientists blame conservatives, or write them off as science deniers, involving themselves in political one-sidedness rather than concentrating on advocating their science fields of study, for a failing agenda, then non-scientists look at the political nature of their attacks.
American society has launched a large scale attack on Christianity and fundamentally Western religious views. American society has pushed Global Warming as a universal truth, when there is still real controversy over the issue among scientists themselves. Naturally, conservatives are skeptical. But let’s not blame good, honest science for the mistakes of its advocates.
I’m going to leave the comments open on this one for as long as possible. Also, I’ll approve any comments with as many links as you choose to put in them (I think I moderate at two or more links), as long as they pertain to the discussion: either about science and how it’s used, or about Evolution/ID and GW/AGW.
I hope you are encouraged to participate, no matter what your opinion may be. Keep in mind, vigorous discourse is encourage, but profanity, ad hominem attacks and inappropriate links will be deleted.
Also, if you have any general science questions (like “what is the difference between a hypothesis and theory?” I’d be happy to answer them if I can)