Mike the Mad Biologist

Chris Mooney comments on the recent attempt by movement conservatives to rebut the concept of a Republican War on Science:

A new wave of conservative science punditry–epitomized by an essay by Yuval Levin in The New Atlantis entitled “Science and the Left,” which was itself recently publicized by former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson in an oped in the Washington Post–demonstrably lacks such candor. Setting out to debunk the idea that there really is a “war on science” coming from the right, these writers don’t bother engaging on the facts of the case at all. They don’t attempt to show that, say, conservative anti-evolutionists are right, or that conservative global warming deniers know what they’re talking about. Instead, Levin and Gerson ignore, trivialize, and even mock the very serious argument that scientific information has been systematically mistreated under this administration and by the American political right. Here’s Gerson: “There are few things in American politics more irrationally ideological, more fanatically faith-based, than the accusation that Republicans are conducting a ‘war on science.'” As for Levin: “Beneath these grave accusations, it turns out, are some remarkably flimsy grievances, most of which seem to amount to political disputes about policy questions in which science plays a role.”

And that’s it for these authors–rather than taking apart the “war on science” argument, they simply assert with a wave of the hand that we’re all confused, that the facts of science aren’t under attack from the right, it’s just that disagreements have occurred over ethics and policies. But of course, that’s hokum. As the author of the original book making this argument–The Republican War on Science–I took pains to show that in each of my case studies, the scientific information itself was under attack. And as for the literally hundreds of scientists employed by this government who have now been shown, in successive surveys conducted by the Union of Concerned Scientists, to have experienced political interference in their work? Once again, these scientists trade in facts, analysis, and expertise. They know the elementary science-policy distinction as well as everyone; as government researchers they live and breathe it. They’re still outraged.

Levin and Gerson demonstrate how far over the shark the conservative movement has jumped. During the 80s and 90s, conservatives would pretend to agree on an issue and then propose some stupid ‘market-based’ solution that would have the opposite effect of what was stated (e.g., Social Security privatization). It was actually a pretty good political strategy, even if it was in the service of awful policy. But now, they’re not even trying. As David Brooks noted (italics mine):

Brooks had moved through every important conservative publication–National Review, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, the Washington Times, the Weekly Standard–“and now I feel estranged,” he said. “I just don’t feel it’s exciting, I don’t feel it’s true, fundamentally true.” In the eighties, when he was a young movement journalist, the attacks on regulation and the Soviet Union seemed “true.” Now most conservatives seem incapable of even acknowledging the central issues of our moment: wage stagnation, inequality, health care, global warming. They are stuck in the past, in the dogma of limited government…. “American conservatives had one defeat, in 2006, but it wasn’t a big one,” he said. “The big defeat is probably coming, and then the thinking will happen. I have not yet seen the major think tanks reorient themselves, and I don’t know if they can.” He added, “You go to Capitol Hill–Republican senators know they’re fucked. They have that sense. But they don’t know what to do. There’s a hunger for new policy ideas.”

I’m going to go out on a limb (not really) and predict that applying post-modernism to basic factual reality is not a viable long-term political strategy or organizing principle in U.S. electoral politics.

Comments

  1. #1 phisrow
    May 26, 2008

    There is a certain blinding irony to all this. Somehow, postmodernism managed to migrate from the domain of the flakier sections of hard-left academia into the front and center of the party of absolute truth and economic realism(tm).

    I realize that postmodernism is a convenient smokescreen under which to overrun annoying things like science and the-world-not-actually-working-the-way-you-want-it-to; but I just can’t imagine how they can keep their heads from exploding. Do they actually believe it at this point?

  2. #2 PhysioProf
    May 26, 2008

    Calling it The Republican War on Science minimizes the scope of what they are trying to do, and arguing it on those terms just plays into their hand. What we are dealing with is The Republican War on Objective Reality.

  3. #3 tincture
    May 26, 2008

    @phisrow,

    Some people must believe it, it’s the (current)corner stone of the IDiot movement.

  4. #4 Monado
    May 26, 2008

    You know, when I read Any Rand and her bad-guy idiots asserted that a thing must be true because they wanted it to be true, and be damned to technological limitations or reality, I thought them too far-fetched to have any credibility at all as characters in a book. To my chagrin, I’m now seeing the attitude in U.S. politics. I was wrong. People really are that stupid (now, anyway).

  5. #5 Monado
    May 26, 2008

    Sorry, I meant to type “Ayn Rand.”

  6. #6 Mike Haubrich, FCD
    May 26, 2008

    What’s interesting about the quote from Brooks is Newt Gingrich recognizes the failure of the Republicans to keep the electorate in check with their politics of fear and denunciation of the Democrats. He recently proposed a complete new set of conservative goals, but interestingly (or boringly) enough they are proposals that look like the same old stuff that conservatives have been pushing since 1980.

    From Human Events (Winning the Future:)

    Repeal the gas tax for the summer, and pay for the repeal by cutting domestic discretionary spending so that the transportation infrastructure trust fund would not be hurt.

    Establish an earmark moratorium for one year and pledge to uphold the presidential veto of bills with earmarks through the end of 2009.

    Declare English the official language of government.

    Protect the workers’ right to a secret ballot.

    Remind Americans that judges matter.

    Their inability to recognize and respond to real problems is sympomatic of their blindness, and their opposition to science will keep them in the doghouse for several years.

  7. #7 Pierce R. Butler
    May 26, 2008

    David Brooks, on the record, used the word “fucked”?!?

    Pass the smelling salts!

  8. #8 Pierce R. Butler
    May 26, 2008

    … applying post-modernism to basic factual reality is not a viable long-term political strategy or organizing principle in U.S. electoral politics.

    It’s been a winning strategy for the Repubs for >= 28 years now.

  9. #9 Greg Murray
    May 26, 2008

    PHYSIOPROF. I agree emphatically with you that the “war on science” is a very poor way to talk, both politically and realistically. I cringe when I read the phrase “the science says …” What is wrong with “the fact is …” or “the truth is…”? For Republicans and many religious leaders this is a battle for authority. They want to undermine the truth by casting aspersions on those who speak it. Using this type of language continues the fiction that this is a battle between Science and Religion. The fact is the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. It’s not that scientists say one thing and Republicans another.

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