The Intersection

I can’t tell you how many people this morning have emailed me this Michael Gerson op-ed from the Washington Post, which debunks the “Republican war on science” thesis. They all want me to debunk the debunker in this instance. But why?

Gerson doesn’t accurately represent my argument in the first place. He’s off down the eugenics trail, talking about values, blah blah blah. We “war on science” folks all know these distinctions–that the facts of science don’t prescribe moral positions, that science doesn’t dictate policy, etc–but they’re dealt with long before we actually make our “war on science” argument.

By contrast, Gerson ignores the meat of that argument entirely. He doesn’t touch climate change, or evolution, or any of the dozens upon dozens of Bush administration political science scandals. Neither does he address the literally hundreds of government scientists polled by the Union of Concerned Scientists who complain of political interference.

In short, Gerson’s oped is a joke. No need for debunking, just laughing.


  1. #1 PalMD
    May 7, 2008

    He seems to be hanging on to the coattails of Ben Stein (how pitiful) with his “science kills” message.

  2. #2 Patience
    May 7, 2008

    I can understand your frustration, but the idea among many progressives that our ideological opponents’ arguments are too ridiculous to be taken seriously has often meant, it seems to me, that progressives fail to engage in explicitly explaining why such arguments are so ridiculous.

    It’s a strange leap from “Any practical concern about the content of government sex-education curricula is labeled ‘anti-science.'” to “Does anyone really believe in a science without moral and legal limits? In harvesting organs from prisoners?” The illogical twists in Michael Gerson’s argument ought to be pointed out and it ought to be explicitly reiterated that the Republican “war on science” is something very different from Gerson’s caricature.

  3. #3 minimalist
    May 7, 2008

    Have a look at the comment section. Ten solid pages of people refuting Rev. Mike’s column with specific examples. There’s no need for Chris to do anything — the readership of the Post is familiar with these examples, since the Post has generally done a pretty good job of reporting on them.

    This column is strictly for the Kool-Aid drinkers. As Chris says, not worth dignifying with a serious response.

  4. #4 Colugo
    May 7, 2008

    If Gerson had not framed his opinion piece as an attempt to debunk The Republican War On Science thesis but instead focused on and elaborated the notion of a “new eugenics” it would be much more useful. These biotechnologies and their philosophical, economic, and social aspects are only going to become larger and more pertinent issues, ones that do not easily break down on right vs left or pro-science vs fundie lines. Wherever any of us stand on these debates, we will be wrestling with them for the foreseeable future – and not a few us will likely change our minds as the technologies change.

  5. #5 Wes Rolley
    May 7, 2008

    While I agree with Chris on this one, I don’t think that you can unilaterally declare victory in the Republican War on Science. It would be rather like “W” standing on the carrier deck stating that “major combat operations are over”.

    The most recent example is that in the “a href=””>Anchorage Daily News this past week.

    The state Legislature is looking to hire a few good polar bear scientists. The conclusions have already been agreed upon — researchers just have to fill in the science part.

    While the reporter, Tom Kizzia, offers an opinion even in the second sentence of the story, the fact that these efforts continue, and are believed, means that Chris needs to keep his ammo dry.

  6. #6 Cain
    May 7, 2008

    The Post frequently publishes op-eds with a “Taking Exception” label. A rebuttal from the author of “The Republican War on Science” would fit the bill, methinks.

  7. #7 Ethan Siegel
    May 7, 2008

    But we’re doing so well in America in terms of science understanding! In terms of knowledge and literacy compared to the rest of the world.

    Oh wait, maybe not. Seriously, from that link: 47% of Americans believe that the earliest humans lived at the same time as the dinosaurs.

  8. #8 donna
    May 7, 2008

    When Republicans deny something, that means it is exactly what they are doing.

    The continuing attempts to keep the American people ignorant and stupid so Republicans can prey (not pray) on them is the real story. It is not just about science, it is economics, it is business sense, it is the role of government, it is everything. Republicans prefer ignorant people who are angry about something and easy to take advantage of. And all those who angrily deny it just continue to make the point.

  9. #9 ed
    May 7, 2008

    Silly as Gerson’s op-ed is (as all of his are), a letter to the editor from Mr. Mooney might be a nice way to help drop Gerson’s cred, which he automatically gets from his position. It would also get a smidgen more exposure for Mooney’s books.

  10. #10 Ethan Siegel
    May 7, 2008

    BTW, you think there’s no such thing as climate change? Try news sources overseas…

  11. #11 turkeyfish
    May 7, 2008

    Forgive me for straying into the Physical Sciences part of Science Blogs. I guess I’m just a biologist with a very fond appreciation of the importance of the physical sciences to biology.

    As a scientist from Mississippi, where we have seen the ravages and commulative effects of the republican approaches and attitudes to science for some time now, I grow increasingly concerned about the politization of the scientific enterprise. Given an ever weakening educational system, one should not underestimate the power of emotion and fear over reason, particularly as it would seem that there are “centers” of the human brain that seem preconditioned people to “follow the herd in belief” rather than engage in rationale thought. We are taught from an early age “not to talk or listen to strangers”. There is a persistent myth about how “strange” scientists are relative to “normal” people. Much of what science may teach us, is indeed very strange to those who find comfort in collective belief, however misguided. This makes it difficult for many students to start a path toward science at the early age that they really should to appreciate better the spectrum contemporary science later in life.

    To exacerbate the problem, the trends toward, diminiution of resources for public science education (as opposed to testing, which seems remarkably well funded), home schooling and relgious schooling leave many young citizens with a very limited view of what science is, how it works, and how it is funded and for what purpose.

    While I agree that the editorial in question is to be laughed at its lack of logic and rationality, it is very defintely a mistake to overlook the damage to science and science education that such views can generate and perpetuate, particularly if they are extolled as prescriptions for public science policy and advanced as a framework for the broader debate about the role of science in our society. As a human enterprise, the conduct of science does not occur entirely outside the realm of natural selection.

    It is a mistake to assume that excellent science education for the masses is a goal that will be reached simply because of the superiority of scientific thinking versus other forms of behavior. You only have to look at fundamentalist muslim countries to see the effects of religious indoctrination on the stagnant development of most science and the costs of such behavior. Nonetheless, such belief systems are remarkably stable.

    This is a problem that cuts across scientific disciplines and one that requires affirmative responses and constant education. Perhaps living in the midst of many whose mentality is either largely ignorant or even openly hostile to science, I see that leaving the battlefied to the detractors of science, is not a viable strategy. It simply does not “educate” the masses about the importance of science. This a responsiblity each and every scientist and scientific society must assume and actively participate in, if we expect a more favorable view of science by the public at large. It won’t happen by scientists hoodwinking themselves into thinking the innate value and superiority of our intellect will win the day. At every opportunity, we need to educate about every aspect and discipline of science, if we are to expect more respect and appreciation for science in our society.

  12. #12 Jon Winsor
    May 8, 2008

    The scholar that Gerson mentions, Yuval Levin, is the author of a book called The Tyranny of Reason. Considering recent history, a much more timely book might be called “The Tyranny and Incompetence of Right Wing Think Tanks.”

  13. #13 Doug
    May 8, 2008

    Chris, I can’t say that I loved your book (… war on science) as the theme was not something that made me happy or filled me with joy, but I can say I was deeply affected by your book and have shared it with anyone I know willing to read it (and even people I don’t know).
    I am dismayed by articles such as the on in the Washington Post as it just goes to show how little understanding there is of what has been happening to the public understanding of science in general and the decline of our educational system too.
    I found this blog thru and I think that debate should air regardless of how many of the candidates show up. If there must be a show with 3 empty podiums then, dammit, show those 3 empty podiums and fill the time with a discussion about what is happening to our status amongst other nations w/ regards to our science and educational system….

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