The Right’s Science Problem

February 15, 2008

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The Right’s Science Problem

As neoconservatism ascended, its regard for science slipped to the brink of open contempt, for it owed much of its political traction to social conservatives apt to dismiss science as corrupt as literary theory, only more materialistic, and a born-again Base defensive of Biblical authority. Both seemed to worry little about what children needed to know about science as technological change transformed the world economy in the post-Reagan era.

 

It wasn’t just about stem cells and Darwin being Biblically Incorrect. To political operatives, downplaying science made focus-group sense, for no-brow votes count the same as middle or high, and in many congressional districts, parents fearful of begetting video-game addicts outnumber Wired subscribers. So to the horror of yuppies raised on a mixture of Doctor and Mister Spock, a counterculture of tabloid science providers and anti-science journalists arose on the right in the ‘90s, catering to a Base ten million families strong. The End Of Natural History wasn’t what Francis Fukuyama had in mind, but as long as televangelism competes with the internet for hearts and minds, some media niches serving the Base will prosper by anathematizing science.


 

The process peaked in 2005. As a collection of 18th-century sermons appeared on the President’s bedside table and his Panel on Bioethics appeared to morph into an ecumenical prayer breakfast, policy wonks started reading Scientific American with the curtains drawn. The liberal propensity of academic science, always less a canard than a cliché, had become an impediment to bipartisan discourse on the science itself.


 

This aversion washes over into environmental policy to this day. The atmosphere may be the Earth’s most complex dynamic system, but it is not hard to persuade the 20% of American voters who believe the Sun revolves around the Earth that climate change is just another postmodern ruse, a so-called “theory,” like evolution. Turnabout is indeed political fair play, and an intellectual cottage industry has arisen devoted to damning the scientific method as just another metaphysical cult, and compressing its kaleidoscopic reality into the mold of a single hidebound fundamentalism defending its own holy scripture.

 

That impoverished premise gave rise to a new cultural relativism on the neoconservative right. Their parochial redefinition of normative science as just one out of many scriptural belief systems opens the door to politically convenient truths offered by cranks, mountebanks and publicists of all stripes. In the dim scientific twilight of the no-spin zone, anything goes. It’s not just stem cells—hot water is rejected as Hurricane Katrina’s proximate thermodynamic cause. FOX TV prefers to air a meteorologist from Pocatello who swears the Japanese mafia summoned the storm,  the Yakuza using a Russian ray gun to twist the Northern Lights into focused revenge for Hiroshima.

 

The scientifically surreal blends seamlessly into the big picture painted by the talking heads O’Reilly favors. For years he echoed the contention that satellite-measured temperatures disproved the existence of global warming.  But when the rocket scientists who launched the gadgets sheepishly confessed in peer-reviewed print that they had misread their instruments, FOX changed message, leaving tens of millions disinformed rather than troubling to set the climate record straight.  FOX and Rush Radio have also focused on demands for equal time for ‘Intelligent Design’ in the classroom—witness Ben Stein’s reversion to Nixonian type in the new film “Expelled.” Nor has Darwin been alone on the neo-right firing line. Einstein and Pasteur have joined him.

 

The American Spectator has featured attacks on the theory of general relativity, and joined the Washington Times and The Weekly Standard in casting doubt on the germ theory of disease by showcasing lawyer Michael Fumento’s acquittal of the virus that has killed millions of African women in The Myth of Heterosexual AIDS. Another Intelligent Design culture hero, Michael Behe, finds “there are no factual errors” in Apocryphal Science, a catalog of factoids worthy of Erik von Dannikin or Edgar Cayce. Railing against general relativity (or “Dada Physics”) in AmSpec, it didn’t seem to bother Discovery Institute guru Tom Bethell that one of his sources, Tom Van Flandern, had previously made a dead-pan call for scientific investigation of “The Face on Mars.” (Behe doesn’t want to rule out the possibility that aliens “designed” the visage on the red planet, and perhaps made Italy look like a boot while they were at it.)

 

As Berkeley economics professor Brad DeLong told Salon: “The admission that measurements of time and space depend on the motion of the observer is in [conservatives’] minds somehow tied up with the erosion of traditional cultural ‘absolutes,’ and scientific truth should be sacrificed to cultural order whenever necessary.” He cites the writings of Bethell as an example. Science Expelled from Eden ceiling of the Visine Chapel ca. mmviii

The disconnect between neocon Weird Science and what the National Science Foundation does can’t be pinned on paleocons. Despite the neocon’s Faustian bargain with the Bible belt, the old intellectual Right has been enamored of F.A. Hayek’s idea of “spontaneous order” in markets and society. They are not surprised by “spontaneous emergence” in computer models of how things evolve and adapt without planning or external hierarchy, or that Intelligent Design notwithstanding, science should persist in finding natural selection at work in more, and less, than life.

 

Neocons may not much distinguish between Mach and Marx, or Hume and Hegel, but scientists with impeccable Cold War credentials are staggered to see the materialism of the Enlightenment equated with the unlamented sacramental of the dead god of dialectics. Because to them, the subjugation of science by ideology was among the greatest of totalitarian evils. A generation ago, half the world’s scientists shed the manacles that Marxists clapped onto materialism.

 

Now some erstwhile saviors of Western Civilization want to attach their own metaphysical baggage. This should trouble those of neoconservatism’s founders whose own ascent from ideology made them eyewitnesses to the evolution of the philosophy of science. Since Irving Kristol says, “Ever since I can remember, I’ve been a neo-something: a neo-Marxist, a neo-Trotskyist, a neo-liberal, and a neo-conservative, “he seems qualified as well to testify his Positivist contemporaries never elided morality and matter—to say otherwise would be to indulge in the cultural relativism he so justly deplores.


 

So how did American scientists and conservatives end up at sword’s point in an internecine culture war, even as the Evil Empire was going infarct and technology was turning America into a hyperpower? Why has neoconservatism, though it hit the ground running alongside the computer revolution, produced few scientifically literate leaders?  Unlike many 20th-century worldviews, neoconservatism lacks a scientific agenda. The New Criterion is over a quarter century old, but The New Atlantis appeared only in 2003.  In the course of losing the custody battle for science in their divorce from the old left a generation ago, the neo-founding fathers lost their grip on a secret weapon in the battle against being mugged by reality—the intellectual Swiss Army Knife termed ‘dimensional analysis.’  It’s what that enables scientists from all disciplines to keep tabs on each other, and economists and statisticians as well.

 
 

Exorcising quantitative absurdity from the corridors of power is not all that hard—entry-level science overlaps with quantitative commonsense. Politicians do not have to be calculus whizzes to watch as scientists on both sides of an issue sort out the explicit components of complex problems and do the envelope-back math needed to produce order of magnitude estimates.  It is vital that they do so, because policy makers who trust blindly in a single source of science advice are prey to forgetting that many scientific questions have more than one wrong answer.

 
 

Climatology, like anthropology, has much to be modest about, but it is simply daft for neoconservatives to nod agreement when political hacks call global warming a hoax. The uncertainty that dominated the debate a generation ago has given way to rapid advances in geophysical data gathering and the computational power needed to keep pace with it , yet some think tanks seem too caught up in revivalism and hard wired to the Oil Patch to realize that an unreasonable aversion to the unreasonable power of mathematics can render them as scientifically challenged as the late Politburo. Crying ‘hoax’ is a singularly ineffectual way to deal with the orchestration of climate hype by Greens able to use state of the art science as a launching pad for high budget polemics on ‘educational’ TV.

 

Those who applaud White House party discipline on stem cells and science education forget the Soviet’s anti-Darwinist zeal. Fishing a crackpot party hack named Trofim Lysenko out of dialectical materialism’s maelstrom of a spin zone, Joseph Stalin made him Biology Czar. Beyond knocking Russian biology back into the 19th century, Lysenko’s politically correct agricultural policy inflicted a famine of genocidal dimensions on Siberia and the Ukraine. Little wonder Islamists who demonize science still pray fervently that the hyperpower on their trail will forget whence its cutting edge surveillance technology comes. Heaven help us if we oblige them. We owe Churchill’s surviving the battle of Omduran to write “Christianity is sheltered in the strong arms of science” to his side’s having got the proverbial Maxim gun, while the Khalifa’s horde did not.


 

A century later, science is expanding at a rate that not even Churchill’s copious imagination of disaster could apprehend, and the information explosion has welded the three great monotheistic religions in a nuclear trinity. Some would think this news strategic, but who is to report it to the Right?  What would special correspondent Winston Churchill make of The Weekly Standard, the Washington Times, and the Wall Street Journal charging into the 21st Century without a single science editor in the saddle?

 

Russell Seitz blogs at ADAMANT where you can find his CV & bibliography.

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