Are conservatives “anti-science”?

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Ever since the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925, when Clarence Darrow cross-examined William Jennings Bryan, and H.L. Mencken ridiculed the good people of Rhea County as “babbits,” “morons,” “peasants,” “hillbillies,” “yaps,” and “yokels,” describing conservatives as “anti-science” has been a staple of the leftist narrative.

When candidate Obama sought to explain small-town irritability in 2007, and said, “it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations” — he didn’t “slip” or “misspeak.”  He spoke the heart of his leftist narrative — that conservatives are irrational, excessively religious, conspiracy-theorists, and clueless scapegoaters.  No surprise, then, that Republicans would wage a “war on science.”  The notion became a New York Times bestseller.

The notion is spectacularly false.  It confuses what science is with what many individual scientists do.  It confuses how science actually happens with how scientists and politicians in both parties make use of what scientists do.

Scientists sometimes err in proffering “science” as a relentlessly pure and rational activity, rather than an activity undertaken by flawed human beings, some of whom do “science” in the service of pure self-interest or politics.  When conservatives have objected to “science,” it has generally been to activity undertaken by flawed human beings, not science itself.

It is naturally a given that the scientific method of experimental verification is result-neutral, and that facts confirmed by experiment are reliable.  No one, on the right or left, takes issue with the scientific method.  But “science,” as a phenomenon we discuss and debate in the public sphere, has little to do with the “scientific method” and much to do with extrapolations, conclusions, stretches, theories, and predictions generated by scientific activity — and these invariably interesting scientific narratives are manifestly not the same thing as “the scientific method” or “pure science.”

They are the stories of science, the way science makes itself broadly interesting and relevant.  When science confirms a fact in the laboratory, no one, right or left, assails science.  What happens thereafter, the narratives of science, become grist for the political mill.  Scientists, being human, wish profoundly for their fifteen minutes of fame and therefore add to the laboratory results their notions of what it must mean.  And so the science enters the political realm.

Climategate is a fascinating meta-narrative about science (and liberals and conservatives).  We discovered that certain scientists, being human, wished most profoundly for a certain narrative about global warming to be true — so much so that they conspired to suppress contrary evidence and skeptical scientists and engaged in active fraud to perpetuate their narrative.

The impulse to demonize science is as inexcusable as the impulse to fetishize science.  The will to fetishize science drives the insistence that scientists’ extrapolations, conclusions, stretches, theories, and predictions must be true because they come from “science.”  Yet these scientific narratives are not “science” — they are simply the wish of a scientist to be relevant, or famous.

Al Gore acquired global fame, a Nobel Peace Prize and an Oscar peddling a narrative about global warming.  It turns out he was manifestly unscientific.  A British court found that his Oscar-winning documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, had nine inconvenient untruths.  Is this a leftist war on science?  No, this is one self-aggrandizing politician abusing science.  There is neither a Republican nor a Democratic “war on science” — there are only politicians exploiting science narratives, which are not science.

Nature magazine recently editorialized ridiculously against “the growing anti-science streak on the American right.”  The editorial, which condemns Fox News, Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Joe Miller, and Rush Limbaugh, illustrates how self-appointed arbiters of “science” can both bask in the faux-purity of “science” and descend shamelessly into the manifestly unscientific realm of politics.

“Last month’s recall of hundreds of millions of US eggs because of the risk of salmonella poisoning, and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, are timely reminders of why the US government needs to serve the people better by developing and enforcing improved science-based regulations. Yet the public often buys into anti-science, anti-regulation agendas that are orchestrated by business interests and their sponsored think tanks and front groups.”

Nature‘s editorial board has it exactly wrong.  The “war on science,” with respect to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, was waged by the Democratic Party.  Interior Secretary Ken Salazar abused scientific recommendations to justify a moratorium on deepwater drilling, and the abused scientists protested.  Indeed, the magnitude of misinformation and scientific ignorance about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill coming from the Obama administration is astounding.

So it is possible for both Republicans and Democrats to abuse science.  Nature‘s silly screeching about conservatives is in fact unscientific.

Kendrick Macdowell is a lawyer and writer in Washington, D.C.