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.