Thursday, December 6, 2012

Science and Politics

When asked by GQ, Marco Rubio stumbled around the age of the universe, saying that how to reconcile the "multiple theories" including "recorded history" and "the Bible" "on how the universe was created" is "one of the great mysteries." After being widely mocked, he clarified that he actually shares Obama's view. According to Krugman, this is an illustration of a general Republican attitude: "If evidence seems to contradict faith, suppress the evidence."

The reality is, of course, that no one has first hand knowledge the age of the universe. Any answer is, structurally, an appeal to authority. On one side is the empirical materialism -- science -- that has given us cell phones and moon landings. On the other, for some of us, is the (biblical) faith that gives our lives structure, meaning and purpose. The evidence of religious faith, denied by Krugman, is powerfully experienced by believers. As Strauss taught, the attempt to reconcile "Athens" and "Jerusalem" -- what Rubio appeared to be doing in mixing "theologians" and "theories" -- bastardizes one or the other. For most of us, no longer 17 or 18, it is enough to understand that human truth is, by nature, limited and unstable -- an understanding shared, in other contexts, with liberals.

It is easy to note that conservatives have no monopoly on bad science. Beyond the obvious: While conservatives may deny global warming, progressives demand costly and by any scientific measure ineffective "solutions". When it suits them politically, liberals deny that science is capable of progress (and conversely..). In the end, Science mixes poorly with politics for the same reason it mixes poorly with religion: Politics in practice, as religion, requires tribal loyalty and fidelity to dogma.

Its important not to lose sight of the political issue at the heart of this: Whether, or to what degree, public schools ought accommodate the beliefs of parents.


  1. I disagree that "science mixes poorly with politics". The major driver of biomedical research in this country is the NIH, which is a political organization. Beyond bioscience, the evidence-based study of any subject is by definition a science (e.g. political science).

    People get the government they deserve. I think it is alarming how few American politicians understand any type of science, or demonstrate the ability to think scientifically. Republicans are far worse than Democrats on this regard although none of them are actual scientists of any stripe. In contrast China is run by engineers and they are outpacing us.

    You need to have a standard for what is taught in public schools. If you try to accommodate the individual beliefs of every parent, you will teach them no science and no history either. The standard society has agreed upon is evidence-based scientific theory. When these theories are challenged from a scientific standpoint, even a minority view, it gets discussed by judicial institutions. Most of the hot-button 'belief' issues have already been discussed, debated, and settled ad nauseum at a very high cost to the taxpayer. If anything the result has been *extremely* accommodating towards minority views with very little data to support them. New York is actually pretty conservative. Kentucky basically teaches Creationism alongside evolution. American society has gone out of its way and spent millions - perhaps billions - of dollars accommodating these minority views.

    As a scientist I will tell you that the fossil record has become quite secondary to genetic sequencing data which is in effect a "primary source" of biological history, just as we rely on historical texts to teach us history. The evidence for evolution and the age of the Earth was very concrete even before the era of genomics. It is now overwhelming.

    1. Hey! I appreciate the thoughtful comment.

      Certainly, not everything the government does is equally political. For example, we tend to see the Armed Forces as "beyond" politics. I would think this is generally true of the NIH, except when it intrudes more directly into the political arena (for example, over funding controversial research). Would you agree this less-political is far preferable to a more-political?

      Tangential, quibbles: There is certainly a distinction to be drawn between the "hard" and "social" sciences. And whatever else is involved, its certainly easier to "out-pace" when you aren't the "pace-car".

      I would question whether the assertion that "Republicans are far worse than Democrats" is, itself, evidence based.

      Its obviously true there needs to be some standards, but less true to say society has "agreed" to any, or that the matter is "settled" -- there is manifestly still political controversy. What may seem "*extremely* accommodating" to the politically powerful, is not experienced as such by their opponents.

      Would I be wrong to argue that the political push to teach "creationism" is, in large part, driven by the exclusion of more directly religious teaching from our public schools and the imposition of the "evidence-based scientific" standard. And that the (parallel) teaching of pseudo-science does far more harm to science education that the (parallel) teaching of more directly religious content would?