The anti-science right is on the march. Whether they’re opposing embryonic stem cell research, evolution, the effectiveness of condoms, therapeutic cloning, or Terri Schiavo’s medical diagnosis, conservatives are standing firmly against science whenever it conflicts with their vision and values.
“You should allow the Word of God to drive your understanding of the evidence,” says one opponent of evolution. Famed conservative newsman Tony Snow calls for puncturing “the myth of scientific invincibility,” and teaching schoolchildren that science is mere “inspired guesswork.” Leon Kass, chairman of The President’s Council on Bioethics, calls his own critique of human cloning “one of those instances about which the heart has its reasons that reason cannot entirely know.”
The right’s hostility to science isn’t surprising. Science is based on the premise that knowledge depends on reason rather than revelation, evidence rather than emotion, facts rather than faith. Such an outlook is incompatible with religion and therefore with the right, which is explicit about its religious agenda, regularly condemning the left’s “secularism” and “scientific fetishism.”
And what about the left? Is it really a bastion of reason and science the way the right claims?
Consider the environmentalist movement. Environmentalism is generally considered to be a scientific movement, its views based on facts discovered by climatologists and ecologists trying to understand nature. But the warnings and prescriptions issued by environmentalists are often anything but fact-based.
In 2004, the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment issued “Impacts of a Warming Arctic,” a report that proclaimed, “Global warming could cause polar bears to go extinct by the end of the century by eroding the sea ice that sustains them.” Yet the facts contained in the group’s own report clearly disprove their claims: they show that the temperature fluctuations recorded by the group represent, not a continual warming trend, but the warming phase of a warming/cooling cycle; they show that these temperature fluctuations cannot be the result of increased manmade emissions of greenhouse gasses; they show that, at worst, human activity has caused a .6 degree Celsius rise in average global temperature since the start of the Industrial Revolution, even though average global temperatures can naturally fluctuate more than three degrees. To top it all off, the group’s key finding clashes with all available evidence, which indicates that the population of polar bears has actually increased!
Such a massive departure from the truth cannot be the result of honest error–it can only be achieved by people who believe that misrepresenting the facts is a virtue when it serves a noble cause. Yet such is the mentality of the environmentalists, and while this case is striking, it is by no means unique. Whether the issue is global warming (or global cooling), DDT, acid rain, the depletion of the rainforests, or the Alar scare, every single environmental panic has been shown to be, if not completely baseless, then wildly exaggerated. “We have to offer up scary scenarios,” said Stanford University Environmentalist Stephen Schneider, “make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we may have. Each of us has to decide the right balance between being effective and being right.”
To be scientific demands more than a science degree. It means basing conclusions on facts rather than searching for (or creating) facts to confirm one’s convictions. Yet despite environmentalism’s consistent record of false predictions, faulty methods, and deceptive claims, the left continues to embrace the environmentalist cause.
The reason is obvious–the left isn’t pro-science at all.
No one is more explicit about this than the left itself, at least when they are speaking off the record, safely tucked away inside the walls of academia. In their book, Higher Superstition, Paul Gross and Norman Levitt catalogue the academic left’s assault on science from all quarters of the social sciences: post-modernist, Marxist, feminist, multiculturalist, and, of course, environmentalist. Each of these schools, sometimes distinct from the others, sometimes not, has its own complaint about science. Science, say the post-modernists, is just our culture’s particular faith, no better than any other culture’s myths. Science, say the Marxists, “is really bourgeois’ science.” Science, say the feminists, “is poisoned and corrupted by an ineradicable gender bias.” Science, say the multiculturalists, is “inherently inaccurate and incomplete by virtue of its failure to incorporate the full range of cultural perspectives.” Science, say the environmentalists, embodies “the instrumentalism and alienation from direct experience of nature which are the twin sources of eventual (or imminent) ecological doomsday.”
Each of these claims, while different, reduces to the same lament: “Science doesn’t cohere with our ideology, so something is wrong with science!” And this is the tragedy of today’s intellectual mainstream: both the right and the left are fundamentally opposed to science.
Some might object to this characterization. After all, they argue, the right and the left both respect science at least some of the time. But this is like calling a medical study reliable if only some of its data was fabricated. To be pro-science is to be pro-science without exception. It’s to stand for science on principle, not just when it happens to confirm one’s particular dogma.
But as bad as it is, the assault on science is just a particularly ugly manifestation of the philosophic fundamental that motivates both liberals and conservatives: both liberals and conservatives are anti-mind.
Liberals claim that man can know nothing–his mind is impotent, trapped in a “cultural construct,” or a “gender matrix.” “Man’s mind is impotent,” agree the conservatives, “most of all the ‘intellectual elites.’ Man must therefore surrender his mind to God.” Whatever their superficial differences, both sides share the same basic principle: man cannot think, and so must abandon his quest for the truth.
To defend science, one must first defend man’s mind. And if one wants to defend man’s mind, one must replace the baseless acceptance of ideological dogma with a passionate, unwavering commitment to the truth. One must stop searching for facts to fit one’s vision, and fix one’s vision on the facts.
Don Watkins is a freelance writer and senior editor of Axiomatic , an online magazine for Objectivists.