Rod Dreher: Playing the anti-science card

[ Sat. Aug. 11. 2007 ]

Liberals don't have a clean history when it comes to science vs. ethics

02:48 PM CDT on Sunday, August 12, 2007

To hear the left tell it, the so-called war on science is the only war Republicans have managed to wage successfully.

From the Bush administration's suppression of data supporting global warming , to its opposition to federally funded embryonic stem-cell research, to the recent testimony of former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona , who said, of his former employer, "Anything that doesn't fit into the political appointees' ideological, theological or political agenda is often ignored, marginalized or simply buried" – Republican government has occasioned an assault on science not seen since Urban VII told Galileo to shut his trap.

That's the story, anyway. Unfortunately, there's more than a kernel of truth in the overwrought charge. This administration has been pretty awful about twisting science to serve its policy goals – though please note that after Dr. Carmona's Galilean cri du coeur, the libertarian writer Radley Balko showed that Dr. Carmona was willing to play the same game, as long as science was distorted in ways of which he approved.

But the slam against conservatives, however justified, is also hypocritical, dishonest and even dangerous.

Liberals themselves have resisted scientific research that doesn't suit their own beliefs. Bjorn Lomberg, the Swedish scientist and renowned global warming skeptic, is treated slightly better than a heretic in Calvin's Geneva . The European left rejects scientific advice on genetically modified crops, demonizing them as "Frankenfoods." Before bringing up genetic or social science research that reflects negatively on the capabilities or performance of racial minorities, women or other human groupings favored by the left, you would do well to remember "The Bell Curve." And for decades, an avalanche of data detailing the failures of "scientific" socialism did little to shake the true believers in its superiority as an economic system.

When liberals accuse conservatives of opposing science, what they often mean is that conservatives simply disagree with their policy preferences, especially in the matter of bioethics. President Bush's refusal to commit federal funds for embryonic stem-cell research was not "anti-science," but rather a move that put exceedingly modest limits on science. Does anyone other than madmen believe that science should be free to operate with no moral limits imposed by society? If scientific curiosity is its own justification, then prepare to pay your respects to Dr. Mengele.

Raising the anti-science alarm is a tried-and-true rhetorical strategy. For one thing, it allows liberals to flatter themselves for their superior intellect. For another, positing these conflicts as a clash between the forces of reason and ignorance has been an effective public relations move since at least the Scopes monkey trial. It plays to the American weakness for scientism – that is, granting science authority it does not deserve.

Result: Disagree with what scientists, or many scientists, say, and you reveal yourself to be a mouth-breathing peasant with a torch in one hand, a Bible in the other, ready to burn down the labs. In no case are you to be taken seriously. Sneering is not an argument, but as a political matter, it's often argument enough.

"People have a nasty habit of clustering in coalitions, professing certain beliefs as badges of their commitment to the coalition and treating rival coalitions as intellectually unfit and morally depraved," writes Harvard scientist Steven Pinker , in an essay about dangerous ideas.

"Debates between members of the coalitions can make things even worse," he continues, "because when the other side fails to capitulate to one's devastating arguments, it only proves they are immune to reason."

Why is this dangerous? Decisions that individuals and societies make based on false, flawed or ideologically tainted scientific information can be harmful, even devastating. History – Ciao, Galileo! –shows how damaging it can be to suppress science to serve an ideological agenda. Recent history shows how destructive it can be to suppress moral reasoning to serve a scientism-driven agenda.

In the early 20th century, eugenics – the scientific philosophy devoted to improving the human race through various forms of genetic engineering – was supported by leading scientists and academics, as well as progressive philanthropists, politicians and social reformers. Many mainstream Protestant religious leaders evangelized on the idea that science, through sterilization and selective breeding, should be employed to improve society by reducing the numbers of the "unfit."

Many liberals – religious and otherwise – embraced eugenics. So did business-minded conservatives. Who opposed it? In the main, Protestant fundamentalists and Catholics, who were denounced as obscurantists trying, yes, to impede the progress of science. And then came the Nazis.

Is it crazy to consider that religious traditionalists, whatever their shortcomings, might be playing the same prophetic role today? In this age of genetic wizardry, and a time in which something called "liberal eugenics" is bidding for respectability, can we really afford to vilify these people again? Last time around, the conservative church folks didn't know as much as the intelligentsia who looked down on them. But they knew what really mattered.

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