Over at Crooked Timber, John Quiggin has launched a broadside at NYTimes Science Blogger John Tierney (also here) over what he (Quiggin) considers politicization of science:
One of the big problems with talking about what Chris Mooney has called The Republican War on Science is that, on the Republican side, the case against science is rarely laid out explicitly. On a whole range of issues (evolution, passive smoking, climate change, the breast-cancer abortion link, CFCs and the ozone layer and so on) Republicans attack scientists, reject the conclusions of mainstream science and promote political talking points over peer-reviewed research. But they rarely present a coherent critique that would explain why, on so many different issues, they feel its appropriate to rely on their own politically-based judgements and reject those of mainstream science. And of course many of them are unwilling to admit that they are at war with science, preferring to set up their own alternative set of scientific institutions and experts, journals and so on.
So it’s good to see a clear statement of the Republican critique of science from John Tierney in this NY Times blog piece promoting global warming “skepticism”. The core quote is
climate is so complicated, and cuts across so many scientific disciplines, that it’s impossible to know which discrepancies or which variables are really important.Considering how many false alarms have been raised previously by scientists (the “population crisis,” the “energy crisis,” the “cancer epidemic” from synthetic chemicals), I wouldn’t be surprised if the predictions of global warming turn out to be wrong or greatly exaggerated. Scientists are prone to herd thinking — informational cascades- and this danger is particularly acute when they have to rely on so many people outside their field to assess a topic as large as climate change.
Both this quote and the rest of Tierney’s article are notable for the way in which he treats science as inseparable from politics, and makes no distinction between scientific research and the kind of newspaper polemic he produces. Like most Republicans, Tierney takes a triumphalist view of the experience of the last thirty years or so, as showing that he and other Republicans have been proved right, and their opponents, including scientists, have been proved wrong (illustrated by his blithe dismissal of complicated problems like population and energy as “false alarms”). Hence, he argues, he is entitled to prefer his own political judgements to the judgements (inevitably equally political) of scientists. (Emphasis mine. Links in the original.)
Quiggin goes on to argue that when confronted with scientific conclusions that they don’t appreciate, Republicans more inclined to surrender to their own prejudices. In order to respond to inconvenient facts, they also tend to draw the scientific method into question generally rather than arguing the facts on their merits. Thus, this tendency to politicize science is a illicit way of arguing against it.
While I sympathize with Quiggin’s frustration, I have a slightly different interpretation to offer of why Republicans are so resistant to science. I want to offer this interpretation from my own experience as a way of (maybe) healing the rift between some conservatives and science.
Let me just start by clarifying that I am neither a Republican nor a conservative. I am registered as an Independent, and I consider myself a libertarian. However, in my position as a fence-sitter, I have had significantly more access to conservative thought and Republican voters than most people I know in science. Thus, I am in a position to sympathize both with the scientist’s frustration at Republican intransigence and the conservative’s reluctance to accept the scientific establishment.
To summarize, I think some Republicans do not reject science per se, rather what they reject is the tendency for scientific facts to be used for planning. By planning, I mean active organization of a system to achieve a desirable (to some) outcome. Planning can be applied to any complex system — societies, economies, climate, etc., and it is predicated on the assumption the knowledge of how a system works gives one the ability to control the outcome.
Let’s take a step back. In my experience, there are two camps in the conservative rejection of science. (In this post, I will use the terms Republican and conservative interchangibly.)
- The Religious Camp — The Religious camp of conservatives reject science because they do not believe that the truth can be determined empirically; rather they believe that the truth is revealed — usually from the Bible. Evangelical conservatives fall into this category. With respect to this group, Quiggin has it just right. They do not like science, and they are unwilling to accept anything that science produces insofar as it challenges their worldview. Because they cannot argue science on the merits — they do not recognize facts as the only standard on which debate can be conducted — they engage in all manner of hand-waving. One common strategy is the one that Quiggin describes: framing science as a sociopolitical construct. Others are the attempt to paint a scientific conspiracy or resort to a spiritual agency to explain events.
- The Anti-Planning Camp — The anti-planning camp doesn’t have a problem with empirically determined facts. What they have a problem with is the use of facts for social engineering. To prove this objection, they cite all manner of historical examples — from the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany (now cliches from overuse) to more modern examples such as Venezuela, Zimbabwe, and Bangladesh. They even cite American historical examples such as the abortive National Industrial Recovery Act. What these examples have in common is that they were all historical cases where intellectuals professing to make decisions based on “science” attempted to refashion society with unfortunate results. Granted in almost all cases the nature of the social engineering was primarily economic. Granted in almost all cases the people doing engineering were not who you and I would consider scientists. However, they were speaking in the name of science and did believe that their policies were justified by science.
The problem that the anti-planning camp has is not so much with science, but rather with scientism — the notion that scientific conclusions can be applied to other domains of human life. (For this reason, they look for philosophical support to people like Friedrich Hayek. See The Road to Serfdom and The Counter-Revolution of Science for examples of this thought.)
The core philosophical argument of the anti-planning camp is not the facts do not exist, nor is it that science is not the best method available to elucidate those facts. What they reject is the notion that facts provide predictive power over systems as complex as the climate and the economy.
Their line of reasoning goes this way: Scientists investigating a system discover a corpus of facts verified by experiment. From this corpus of facts, they develop a model to describe the behavior of that system. From this model, they attempt to predict the behavior of that system in the future — particularly as it relates to the results of further experiments. However, how well does that model predict the future? Does it include all the necessary variables? Can experiments be contrived that show unanticipated results? Could confounding factors develop in the future that might render the model inaccurate? Thus, the core problem of the anti-planning camp with science is not with facts. Rather, it is an attitude in dealing with complexity that discounts the ability of scientists to make models with high predictive accuracy.
This view of the world is fundamentally conservative. (Not in the Bush sense…you know…in the actual sense.) It reflects a humility towards the ability of human beings to influence the world around them. Further, it recommends a Burkean approach to policy based on incremental changes that emerge organically over time.
As an aside — as I can feel skepticism boiling over — let me attempt to justify this point of view. I do not even need to reference the tired old cliches of scientific failure dealt with often in the popular press. We can find historical examples in my discipline. Take B.F. Skinner and the behaviorists. The behaviorists treated animal (and human) behavior as if it were a black box wherein the outcome could be predicted exclusively by the history of the reward and penalty. The problem with this view is that it neglected a very important factor in behavior, namely cognition. Cognition — as well as the learning state that results from the interpretation of previous experiences — represents a unnamed variable that affects later behavioral outcomes. We figured this out later, but given Skinner and his disciples — who admittedly developed a very clear and internally consistent theory of behavior — I can understand the skepticism associated with scientific theories.
The Skinner example also serves to illustrate something else that the anti-planning camp finds reprehensible: theoretical overreach. Because of their experiments with animals, Skinner and his cadre sincerely believed that his theories were directly applicable to humans. Hence his quote: “Give me a child and I’ll shape him into anything.” His view of humans as completely, environmentally conditioned was incorporated into many contemporary theories of education. Sadly, humans are slightly more complicated, and these theories of education often did not work as well as intended.
That the anti-planning camp doubt the predictive capacity of models can be shown in their response to the scientific issues of the day. Take global warming. Though you may find this difficult to believe, some conservatives acknowledge the reality of global warming as a fact. What they dispute is the notion that understanding global warming as a fact allows one to predict the results of global warming abatement policies. This is not to discount the very competent modeling that been performed by climatologists. Climatologists have provided very accurate assessments of the likely changes in mean global temperature, including different trajectories according to different profiles of greenhouse gas emissions. The anti-planning camp simply responds that none of these assessments include the likely consequences of improved technology or the myriad of small changes to the economy that any policy might create.
Thus, the anti-planning camp dissociates the matter of whether global warming is real from the matter of what policy we should enact to fight it. They deny the notion that because global warming exists, policy A must be enacted. They deny the core assumption of all planners — which Hayek termed the “fatal conceit” — that knowledge of a system implies both predictive capacity and the ability to intervene.
Now, I do not deny that many conservatives also dispute global warming on the facts. However, see how this view develops from the anti-planning perspective. The anti-planners argue that knowledge of a system does not imply the ability to manipulate that system. From there, it a short rhetorical journey — particularly if it is an argument you want to win — to denying the fact of global warming. This journey is tantamount to the realization that if you can’t win on logical grounds — and the conflict between planning vs. not-planning is insoluble by logic alone — you should attack their premises. Likewise, it is a short trip from attacking the premises of global warming to attacking the scientists themselves. The scientists might be deluded or engaged in group-think. (There is also a tendency — which Quiggin points out — to conflate the views of scientific establishment with what is said about science in the press. However, I would argue that this is a bipartisan phenomena.)
It is not my intent to defend this behavior. I do not consider it productive to argue the facts of global warming. I do not consider it acceptable to attack individual scientist’s credibility. My point in this is to illustrate the fundamental difference between the anti-planners and the people Quiggin appears to describe.
Republicans as Quiggin describes them are against facts per se. They view science as socially constructed and therefore suspect in toto. I assert that many conservatives that do not reject facts per se. Rather, they reject what they perceive as the likely application of those facts in an attempt to manipulate complex systems. From this realization, many cross-over to disputing particular scientific conclusions and questioning the credibility of particular scientists.
Just to clarify, I am not saying that Republicans as Quiggin describes do not exist. There are certainly Republicans — particularly Tom Bethell — who are quite accurately described. I am sympathetic to his disdain for them. I do not acknowledge a standard for debate other than empirical fact — a standard that they dispute. This makes debating them an exceedingly frustrating exercise. Further, I do not believe that these individuals can be brought into the scientific fold.
In contrast, the anti-planning Republicans can in my view be convinced to accept science. If you are dealing with an anti-planning conservative, you can have a debate on the facts. (You will probably have a considerably more productive debate if you start by disavowing that particular facts imply particular policy conclusions.) However, this is a debate that we can win — in wild contrast to debates with religious conservatives.
The purpose of this post is to illustrate why the rift between some conservatives and science is bridgeable. I believe that the anti-planning conservatives can be divided from the religious conservatives and brought into the fold of scientific acceptance. As a first step, however, this process will require at least the recognition that conservatives are diverse in their perception of science.