Save Science by Not Talking about Science, Ctd.

Side note: My dad actually bought me this shirt. I love it, and my wife hates it when I wear it. She just thinks it makes me look stupid. I don’t think she cares about the rabbit.

John Timmer at Ars Technica places a plague o’ both your houses when it comes to the convenient rejection of scientific fact. And he’s right.

For many in the US, expertise has taken on a negative cultural value; experts are part of an elite that thinks it knows better than the average citizen. (This is accurate, for what it’s worth.) Very few object to that sort of expertise when it comes time to, say, put the space shuttle into orbit, but expertise can become a problem when the experts have reached a consensus that runs against cultural values.

And, for many in our society, scientific expertise has done just that. Abstinence-only sex education has been largely ineffective. Carbon emissions are creating a risk of climate change. Humanity originated via an evolutionary process. All of these findings have threatened various aspects of people’s cultural identity. By rejecting both the science and the expertise behind it, candidates can essentially send a signal that says, “I’m one of you, and I’m with you where it counts.”

This is not some purely partisan phenomenon. On other issues, rejection of scientific information tends to be associated with the political left—the need for animal research and the safety of genetically modified foods spring to mind. These positions, however, are anything but mainstream within the Democratic Party, so candidates have not felt compelled to pander to (or even discuss) them, in most cases. That’s created an awkward asymmetry, one where a single party has a monopoly on public rejection of scientific information and certain kinds expertise.

It’s not really symmetrical; there can be little doubt that the right’s repudiation of reality is far worse than that of the left’s. That said, most of the false panic about vaccinations causing autism, for example, is fomented on the left (and sometimes even aided by left-leaning publications like the Huffington Post). And when nonbelievers who tend toward the Democratic Party make their views known, they often accused not of being too left-wing, but too right-wing, as though their confidence in the nonexistence of a magic super-being (which is based on science, fact, and reality) is somehow equivalent to the right’s zealous insistence of the opposite (which is not); it goes against the more mainstream left wing value of tolerance and diversity for their own sakes.

But to Timmer’s point, a lot of this organized willful ignorance is abetted by a general American distrust of experts and intelligence. It seems to threaten people when it’s not fully graspable immediately. (Note the different attitudes to expertise in athletics or business, which I think doesn’t seem as arcane to the general public.) Which is why, politically, I think these arguments for now need to be framed not in terms of which academics agree with what proposition, but what is simply true, like gravity makes things come down, like fire burns and ice is cold. It’s probably our only shot.

First post on this topic here.

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