Chris Mooney has another vacuous op-ed in the Washington Post. It’s aggravating because he actually starts out well, saying stuff that I agree with entirely, and then suffers a massive failure of either nerve or logic to offer meaningless noise as a solution.
The part I agree with is that he points out that education is not the only answer to our problems with creationism, climate change denial, and anti-vaccination movements. Many of the noisemakers behind these denialist machines are quite intelligent and well educated, and there isn’t a clean and simple correlation between, for instance, having a college degree and accepting evolution (this does not diminish the importance of education—without it, your views are at the mercy of popular fads).
The real drivers of anti-science are toxic ideologies: modern Republican politics (there is a deeply buried strand of Republicanism that is pro-science and industry, but it seems to be lost among the Beckians and Palinites), naive libertarians, fear of exploitation by Big Pharma, and one that Mooney strangely omits from his list, religion. Republicans and Libertarians and Christians are not necessarily stupid people at all, and the reason they turn to denialism isn’t always because they are ignorant, but because their ideology skews their perspectives in destructive ways.
I actually agree with Mooney on this.
Unfortunately, he ruins it all with his conclusion, which is a fantastic example of do-nothingness.
Experts aren’t wrong in thinking that Americans don’t know much about science, but given how little they themselves often know about the public, they should be careful not to throw stones. Rather than simply crusading against ignorance, the defenders of science should also work closely with social scientists and specialists in public opinion to determine how to defuse controversies by addressing their fundamental causes.
Go talk to the social scientists? Now the social sciences are wonderful tools, and I agree that we need to get their insights, but Mooney has already given us the perspective of social science research: that bad ideas aren’t simply the product of bad education, but of bad ideological priors. Fine. Let’s move on. Now how can we weaken the influence of the know-nothing wing of the Republican party and religion? Once upon a time, Mooney was one of the better artists of confrontation, who did an excellent job of tearing up Republican policies and making positive suggestions for strengthening the influence of science. Since he started listening to certain ‘specialists in public opinion’, he has lost his fire and turned into a passive follower who seems to do nothing but advocate deference to the very ideologies that are elevating anti-science into the public discourse.
We don’t need any more acquiescence to the status quo. That’s how we got here in the first place.
What we need from social scientists is better strategies for dismantling the influence of religion and demagoguery on American politics, and that requires clearly identifying and targeting those bad beliefs as the enemy of good science and good education. I already know that Mooney will run away from that kind of forthrightness.
Let’s also not forget that the one group that is growing fast and challenging the hegemony of Christian politics in this country is the aggressive, assertive, affirmative, activist atheist advocates (that A stands for more than one thing, you know) — and that Mooney detests them. We are going right to one of the roots of the problem, we aren’t assuming that simply educating everyone about science will make creationism and global warming denial and anti-vax lunacy go away — we’re promoting more science education and criticism of superstition. We seem to be putting into practice what Mooney only mumbles ineffectually and non-specifically about.