The Intersection

Recently, several folks have sent me this link to Blogs for Bush, where one Mark Noonan has pronounced the “Death of Science.” “We have reached the end of the Age of Science,” Noonan writes. “What will come after, I don’t know, but I don’t think that we’ll ever again have a time when Science is enshrined as some sort of god-like arbiter of right and wrong.”

I have to say, the post is really a bit shocking, if also quite revealing. You can see here for another takedown, but let me just offer a few reflections.

First, the post itself is extremely silly. It says things like this: “Science could only thrive as it did from about 1650 until 1850 when everyone agreed on the rules.” Actually, many of the “rules” of modern science had not yet been canonized during this time period, when far less firm distinctions existed between science and philosophy, for example.

Yet the sentiment behind Noonan’s post is, I suspect, quite widespread on the political right today. It is that scientists can’t be trusted because they pull the wool over our eyes with bogus theories and have rejected religion. This broad outlook, I suspect, leads many conservatives to reflexively distrust anything that scientists come up with, following this logic as described by Noonan:

Science is now so intertwined with myth and political gamesmanship that whatever judgements [sic] are pronounced under the cover of science are immediately suspect – everyone who hears such things wonders when some future science will completely refute what is held as rock-solid science today.

And so it is that we can just throw out the entire baby with the bathwater, much as Jonathan Wells throws out the entire scientific literature in evolutionary biology. From an argumentative standpoint, it must be convenient not to have to pay attention to anything that scientists have ever published, because the whole edifice is suspect. Of course, many of these people will still mine and cherry-pick the scientific literature for arguments that seem to support the conclusions they want to reach. Don’t tell them that this behavior is entirely contradictory or even hypocritical.

Insofar as Noonan’s sentiments represent widespread feelings on the political right in this country, we are in big, big trouble. Science is sullied in the minds of the people, and nothing scientists can do is going to be able to change that in the short term, because conservative politicians and the conservative media will just keep on attacking key areas of science and reinforcing this distrust.

In the long term, of course, education might help–but we have to deal more immediately with the here and now. And this in turn suggests to me that, as I argue in the new edition of The Republican War on Science, science has got to be prepared to defend itself. References to the literature aren’t going to solve this problem–not by a long shot.


  1. #1 David Roberts
    August 26, 2006

    I think you’re getting a bit distracted by the particulars here. These folks make a show of regretfully discovering that science is dead, but the fact is that they recognize on some level that science is intrinsically hostile to their project, so they want to kill it. This attack on science is of a piece with the broader attack on independent, objective sources of knowledge.

    I mean, strip away the details, and what’s left? The charge that science has a liberal bias. The same charge made against the media, against international fact-finding bodies, against historical scholarship, etc. etc.

    The right wants to create a full mythology, and the notion that there are some hard limits to that, some facts and epistemological methods that don’t budge, is offensive to them on a primal level.

    I’m not the first to comment on this, but it really is bizarre that a movement that claims such hostility to postmodernism so fully embodies it.

  2. #2 Scott
    August 26, 2006

    David, I think you missed Noonan’s point. Not that, “science has a liberal bias” (which I’m sure he’s agains), but rather that, “we ceased educating the men of science with a knowledge of religion”.

    What I find sad is Noonan’s ironic self contradictions:

    He laments that, “Science is now so intertwined with myth and political gamesmanship…” that no one belives scientists any more. Yet his solution? Teach “men of science” about “the relationship of man to creation, and his Creator”.

    It’s all about education. They need to teach the kids early and often about the “right” religion, so they don’t become godless, aethistic scientists.

    I like a comment I read recently. Conservative evangelicals are strongly in favor of a “classical” scientific education. “Classical” in the sense of the late 18th century.

  3. #3 Ron
    August 26, 2006

    I agree with David. This is the bizarre notion of group that makes up less that 1% of the world population. From almost anywhere else, these people are way out there.

  4. #4 David Roberts
    August 26, 2006

    Well, Ron, I’m not as optimistic as all that. I think, on some primal level, human beings are inclined to divide the world up into Our Tribe and Outsiders. Our Tribe has its mythology (The Truth), and They have theirs.

    The notion that there are neutral, apolitical actors whose sole function is to discern the facts, with no tribal affiliations and no fealty to any particular mythology, is anathema to humans’ basic social dispositions. (IMO.)

    There’s been a consensus among political and scientific elites for the last century or so that science is to be respected and kept separate from questions of ideology, politics, and religion. But I think we (most of us are, let’s face it, members of that elite) vastly overestimate the durability of that consensus. It never really took hold among average people (look how many still don’t believe in evolution — large majorities) and I even doubt it was as deeply rooted among the elites as we might have hoped.

    To many of us, it’s probably unthinkable that we could move backwards, that science could be explicitly marginalized in favor of tribal mythology. But as my dad (a conservative) is always warning me, a descent into darkness and barbarism is always closer and easier than you think.

    In short, I don’t think Noonan’s basic attitude is as fringe as people like us wish it were.

  5. #5 Dark Tent
    August 26, 2006

    “Science is now so intertwined with myth and political gamesmanship that whatever judgements [sic] are pronounced under the cover of science are immediately suspect”

    Oh, really?

    If that is true, then why, in public opinion polls asking people to rate different professionals with regard to whom they admire most, do scientists conistently come out near the top?

    I guess we are to believe that people greatly admire scientists but don’t believe a word they say?

    Where does this stuff come from?

  6. #6 Gerry L
    August 26, 2006

    From Noonan: “everyone who hears such things wonders when some future science will completely refute what is held as rock-solid science today.”

    Is anything in science held as “rock-solid”? Sounds like a rock-solid strawman to me. Or shall I give him the benefit of the doubt and say that he has a fundamental misunderstanding of how science works?

  7. #7 ekzept
    August 26, 2006

    … wonders when some future science will completely refute what is held as rock-solid science today …

    can they really believe something as simplistic as it’s all a matter of point of view? can they really believe there’s very little which is reproducible in physical sciences or biological sciences? are the pills we pop and the technologies we fly all phantasms?

    no, i don’t buy they buy that. i think they are victims of their own superstitions. (i wouldn’t even call them “myths”.) they buy the superiority of democratic judgments over all others, irrespective of how ill-educated the citizens are. they buy the pre-enlightenment idea that philosophers, theologians, and politicians are closer to the common dude so have the common dude’s best interest in mind more than “natural philosophers”. they don’t like it that knowledge has power even if knowledge isn’t itself power.

    there are many ways of reading history. i think one way of reading the post-Manhattan Project era of the relationship between science and government was an attempt to systematically wrest the power of the atom and the system that built it away from scientists and put it back entirely under the control of politicians and their minions. i think the scientists who developed the first fission weapon were like the Beatles and music: for the first time the songwriters were also the performers and got to keep a substantial part of the earnings from their creations. and, like the history of music since, the destabilized former Holders of the Gold have struggled to regain the top of the hill. in the government’s case, it’s used classification, loyalty trials, secrecy, and national security as weapons.

    it’s not possible for everyone, but the ideal response IMO is that of Richard Garwin, insisting upon scientific independence and integrity, yet being willing to provide expertise and advice as long as these conditions are rigorously met and followed.

    yeah, we need to worry about scientific education in the United States and the ability to continue basic research, but when major corporations have given up on that, putting their money elsewhere, i don’t know what we can do.

  8. #8 Janne
    August 26, 2006

    David, you’re right about people dividing themselves into tribes.

    But look at what’s been happening in the US for some time (the situation is arguably different in Europe): Conservatism is becoming tied up with christianity, and christianity, especially evangelical streams, are becoming tied up with conservatism.

    In effect, these people are arguing that you can’t be a conservative unless you’re either morally fundamentalist or born again christian; and you aren’t really born again unless you embrace political conservatism. They’re trying to define themselves as a very narrow group consisting of two only somewhat overlapping categories, and it looks like they might actually succeed.

    But that will not make most liberal religious people turn conservative; or make fiscal or cultural conservatives suddenly find evangelical religion. What will most likely happen is that people that don’t fit the mold and are suddenly not feeling welcome will start question their allegiance to these groups altogether. You won’t suddenly find Warren Buffet in a tent meeting; more likely you’ll see large checks start to flow to fiscally conservative members of the Democrats – or to breakout groups within the Republicans. And that risks fragmenting the entire conservative movement into small, far more extreme fractions spending all their time warring among themselves; this is exactly what happened to large portions of the European left.

    This is also exactly the risk the evangelical movements take in tying themselves hard to a particular political movement (and I believe a few people within have tried to warn about it recently too, and gotten roundly despised for it). If you are truly liberal at heart you won’t feel very welcome in most religious organizations today. And if you work in science, you are more likely to be lynched than welcomed if you show up at a tent meeting.

  9. #9 Dark Tent
    August 27, 2006

    “Conservatism is becoming tied up with christianity, and christianity, especially evangelical streams, are becoming tied up with conservatism.”

    Indeed. In his recent book “Our Endangered Values”, former President Jimmy Carter warns of this alliance between the religious right and the Republican party. The thing that distinguishes the current movement from previous ones, according to Carter, is the laser-like focus by those at the forefront on tearing down the wall that has traditionally separated church and state in this country.

    Carter is quick to point out the distinction between evangelical Christians and “fundamentalist” Christians. Most members of the former group (evangelical Christians), including Carter himself, are traditonally tolerant of other viewpoints and believe that merging church and state is a bad idea not only for government, but also for their religion.

    On the other had, many of the fundamentalist christians at the forefront of the current effort to merge church and state believe that their own ideas are God-given and that the ideas of others are simply wrong. They tend to be highly intolerant of other beliefs and ideas.

    Millions of these fundamentalists also subscribe to the idea of the “Rapture” in which Christ returns to earth to rescue the “true believers” and leaves everyone else to a hell on earth. They believe that certain (supposed) biblical prophesies have to be fulfilled before Christ will return. Some fundamentalist Christian leaders in this country have interpreted the prophesies to mean a war between the US and Iran, among other things.

    Our President (who is a born again evangelical) was once asked by a reporter whether he believed in the “Rapture”. He declined to answer one way or the other. It is certainly sobering to wonder whether Bush’s decisions on critical events (particularly in the Middle East) may be colored by a belief that he is in some way fulfilling biblical prophesy through his actions — eg, by taking America to war.

    The belief in the Rapture is something that the majority of Christians in this country do not subscribe to, by the way.

  10. #10 Dark Tent
    August 27, 2006

    ‘Separation of church and state is “a lie we have been told,” Harris said in the interview [with the Florida Baptist Witness, the weekly journal of the Florida Baptist State Convention], published Thursday, saying separating religion and politics is “wrong because God is the one who chooses our rulers.” ‘

    “If you’re not electing Christians, then in essence you are going to legislate sin,” Harris said.

    “Harris clarifies comments on religion”

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