Mike the Mad Biologist

By way of Matthew Yglesias, we read that,over at National Review Online, Kevin Williamson claims progressives only care about science as a way to wage culture war (yes, coming from movement conservatives, that’s rich):

There are lots of good reasons not to wonder what Rick Perry thinks about scientific questions, foremost amongst them that there are probably fewer than 10,000 people in the United States whose views on disputed questions regarding evolution are worth consulting, and they are not politicians; they are scientists. In reality, of course, the progressive types who want to know politicians’ views on evolution are not asking a scientific question; they are asking a religious and political question, demanding a profession of faith in a particular materialist-secularist worldview….

Evolution is a public question not because politicians have anything intelligent to say about the science, but because the question provides a handy cudgel to those who wish to beat the Judeo-Christian moral tradition into submission in the service of managerial progressivism. Perry should talk about that, not about alleged “gaps” in the scientific evidence, about which neither he nor his questioners nor the great majority of his critics nor the great majority of his supporters knows the first thing.

I don’t think anyone asked Rick Perry or any other GOP candidate about the relative importance of neutral versus selectionist processes. Many people don’t understand the technical details (that’s why we have biologists), just as many people don’t understand the technical details of building a light water reactor. But knowing a candidate’s views on nuclear power in general, its pros and cons, does matter. Given the importance of evolution to biology, we do need to know if a presidential candidate is a creationist or not.

This week, I’m running some analyses trying to figure out how certain pathogenic lineages in E. coli evolved to determine where they came from (e.g., clinic versus farms), and, funny, I thought I was doing it to understand the spread of disease. When I’m not doing that, I’m using genomics to understand the evolution of antibiotic resistance.

The very same algorithms and computational tools that I use to combat infectious disease are the very same algorithms that other biologists use to understand finches in the Galapagos. Or how all those primates evolved, including us. You want to understand the evolution of MRSA–methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus, which kills more people than AIDS does in the U.S. every year–then you have to deal with all those damn dirty apes (and other primates). There’s no a la carte service here.

So when a presidential candidate (actually, most of the candidates in one political party) makes pro-creationist noises, I’m bothered because he could get in the way of research. And because he’s making it that much harder to train the next generation of biologists in all facets of biology. It’s not about “demanding a profession of faith in a particular materialist-secularist worldview.” The question is will the person, with whom the (scientific research) buck stops, interfere with biological research and the teaching of biology?

Before I go home from work, I don’t ask myself, “Now, Mad Biologist, did you beat the Judeo-Christian moral tradition into submission in the service of managerial progressivism? No? Then get back to work! You’re not done yet!” (besides, that’s a lot of work. Someone needs to develop a machine to do that). Evolution matters to this Jewish* liberal because it’s an incredibly powerful tool for understanding the biological world around us, as well as an accurate explanation of biological diversity. When that explanation happens to conflict with certain sectarian dogmas, that’s a problem for those who hew to those dogmas, not the rest of us. Williamson is just going to have to cope with the fact that his party–and many of its elected representatives–has been taken over by people who are willfully ignorant (you thought you could control these lunatics, and now they turn out to be an embarrassment. Too bad. You reap what you sow).

Figure it out, or get out of our way. Either way, there’s useful science to be done.

Using evolution, not creationism.

Update: Williamson doubles down on stupid, accusing Kevin Drum of incorrectly claiming that heritability is ‘only’ fifty percent. Ahem. And that’s before we account for issues of genotype-environment covariation.

*This moderately observant ‘Judeo’ wishes to God (yes, liberals are allowed to do this too) that Christian conservatives would stop using us as a fig leaf for their own insanity.

Comments

  1. #1 Greatbear
    August 24, 2011

    There are lots of good reasons not to wonder what Rick Perry thinks about scientific questions, foremost amongst them that there are probably fewer than 10,000 people in the United States whose views on disputed questions regarding evolution are worth consulting, and they are not politicians; they are scientists.

    The problem with this view is that scientists are not policymakers, politicians are. Policymaking goes even beyond funding for research. Whem the overwhelming majority of republicans in Congress believe that climate change is a hoax, that has a huge impact on the policy direction of this country.

    Republicans always seem to regard everything as a battle between “worldviews”, whether it’s capitalist vs. socialist or secular vs. religious. But the role of science in policymaking is not about whose worldview prevails, but on whether the the policymakers are basing their decisions on reliable information that is based on factual data. If a candidate’s views on science is that it’s just one among several worldviews and all worldviews are equally valid, that is something the voters should know.

  2. #2 george.w
    August 24, 2011

    If they want to know what the question is “really” about, it’s this: “Can you change your ideologically-held position on the basis of evidence?” Because if they can’t, then I don’t want them making policy on energy, economics, climate change, education, public health, etc. Evolution and climate change are two pretty good proxies for that question – both rest on strong scientific foundation and both are opposed for ideological reasons.

  3. #3 mo
    August 24, 2011

    But to be fair, it often seems to me that many of the more trolling people over at Pharyngula behave exactly in the way this Kevin Williamson sugests ;-)

  4. #4 kermit
    August 24, 2011

    I think that a simple question of Creationism vs mainstream science is a quick and dirty way of determining whether or not a president or legislator would look for materialist/secular solutions to materialist/secular problems. Would Mr. Williamson assert that Gov. Perry’s prayer rally to fix the economy was the right approach?

  5. #5 TTT
    August 24, 2011

    It’s the president’s job to make good decisions based on careful analysis of evidence and understanding the world around him.

    If someone is a creationist, as Perry proudly is, then it strongly calls into question their entire relationship with the entire category of everything we recognize as “evidence,” on any subject, and how they could ever use any amount of any evidence to make any decision.

  6. #6 Mokele
    August 24, 2011

    I’m with george w. and TTT on this: If a candidate (for any office) is creationist, they’re either stupid, willfully ignorant, or willing to choose ideology over reality, none of which are traits that I want in a leader.

    The topic of the question is irrelevant – it could be evolution, global warming, Bigfoot, healing crystals, Obama’s birth certificate, or the shape of the Earth – the information conveyed by their answer is the same. Evolution and global warming are simply the most topical and widespread.

    I don’t just apply this to politicians, either – anyone who shows such obvious cognitive defects will lose at least some significant amount of respect from me, if not all of it. Our minds are literally the only thing that has allowed us to advance beyond being tasty snacks for the local leopard population. If we refuse to use them for such trivial reasons, we may as well go back to that state.

  7. #7 BaldApe
    August 24, 2011

    Asking such a question might result in getting a pretty good idea where the candidate stands on the problem of how evidence is applied to policy.

    Do we address problems that really exist with solution that might be expected to work, or do we moralize about the creeping homosexual menace, and solve the problem by building a mud fence around Las Vegas?

  8. #8 Nemo
    August 24, 2011

    So, uh, what exactly is “managerial progressivism”?

  9. #9 becca
    August 24, 2011

    So, uhm, is it a huge problem if I believe in climate change out of “faith in a particular materialist-secularist worldview”, rather than having any respectable grasp on the science?

  10. #10 Wow
    August 25, 2011

    It doesn’t to a large extent matter, becca.

    To those unbelieving in the science, there are STILL reasons to switch power generation away from fossil fuels.

    And there’s no need to revert to the false dichotomy of

    1) Having a respectable grasp of the science
    and
    2) Having faith in a particular materialist-secularist worldview

    because you can just, as you do with almost every event in your life, merely let the experts be experts.

  11. #11 Knightly
    August 25, 2011

    I’m sure there are politicians on the left who use science only as a bludgeon because they don’t really understand it. They’re politicians, not scientists. If they’re right then that’s more a coincidence or their trust in scientists rather than their own critical thinking.

    I still think that’s better than politicians on the right who use science as either exactly equal to religion (scientists just GUESS at things and then you put your FAITH in them!) or an evil bogeyman that hates nothing more than unborn babies, Jesus and a healthy economy.

  12. #12 G.Shelley
    August 26, 2011

    I can sort of see two sides to this
    On the one hand, someone who rejects evolution can’t be trusted to make evidence based policy – they have shown that if the facts conflict with what they want to believe, they will reject them.
    On the the other hand, politicians tend anyway. How many of them are even willing to suggest considering an evidence based drug policy for example

  13. #13 Wow
    August 26, 2011

    “On the the other hand, politicians tend anyway. How many of them are even willing to suggest considering an evidence based drug policy for example”

    One reason for this is that people keep voting in bigoted idiots anyway, if only to stop WORSE bigoted idiots getting in.

    The old “the wrong lizard might win” argument.

    “If they’re right then that’s more a coincidence or their trust in scientists rather than their own critical thinking”

    But if they always go with the evidence of experts rather than guess wrong, then why is this a problem?

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