Culture War By Proxy

By Sean Carroll | March 12, 2008 11:32 am

John McCain thinks he’s hit on a good strategy for the upcoming Presidential campaign: make fun of scientists.

WEST GLACIER, Mont. — If you’ve heard Sen. John McCain’s stump speech, you’ve surely heard him talk about grizzly bears. The federal government, he declares with horror and astonishment, has spent $3 million to study grizzly bear DNA. “I don’t know if it was a paternity issue or criminal,” he jokes, “but it was a waste of money.”

A McCain campaign commercial also tweaks the bear research: “Three million to study the DNA of bears in Montana. Unbelievable.”

Three million whole dollars! Just think what we could do with so much money.

The Washington Post article goes on to note, what should come as no surprise to anyone reading here, that the grizzly bear study is actually very interesting and worthwhile science. The researchers, led by Katherine Kendall of the U.S. Geological Survey, performed the first accurate survey of grizzlies in the Northern Continental Divide ecosystem. They discovered the happy news that this formerly endangered species had substantially rebounded, thanks in part to three decades of conservation efforts. The kind of thing that you actually have to go out and collect data to discover.

Completely beside the point of course. John McCain doesn’t care about grizzly bears one way or the other, and to him 3 million dollars is chump change. What he cares about his the symbolism — enough to highlight it in his stump speech and TV commercials.

McCain is tapping into a deep strain of anti-intellectualism among American voters. Some of us tend to take for granted that questions about the workings of the natural world should be addressed by scientists using scientific methods, and that attacks on science must be motivated by external forces such as economic or religious interests. What scientists tend to underestimate is the extent to which many people react viscerally against science just because it is science. Or, more generally, because it is seen as part of an effort on the part of elites to force their worldview on folks who are getting along just fine without all these fancy ideas, thank you very much.

In the old-time (1980’s) controversies about teaching creationism in schools, pre-Intelligent-Design, one of the most common arguments was that school boards should have “local control” over the curriculum. Defenders of evolution replied that this was clearly a ruse to disguise a religious anti-science agenda. Which may have been true for some of the national organizations behind the movement; but for many school boards and communities, it really was about local control. They didn’t want to be told what to teach their kids by some group of coastal elitists with Ph.D.s, and creationism was a way to fight back.

Don’t believe me? They are happy to tell you so to your face. Consider the case of John Derbyshire, columnist for the National Review Online. Derbyshire is admittedly a complicated case, on the one hand writing books about the Riemann hypothesis and on the other proudly proclaiming that he reads Blondie and Hagar the Horrible for “insights into the human condition.” And he is also generally pro-science and pro-evolution in particular. But nevertheless — despite the fact that he is smart and educated enough to understand that evolution is “right” in the old-fashioned sense of right and wrong — he will state explicitly (and quote himself later in case you missed it) that

I couldn’t care less whether my president believes in the theory of evolution. In fact, reflecting on some recent experiences, I’m not sure that I wouldn’t prefer a president who didn’t. [Emphasis in original.]

And why is that? I wrote a whole blog post explaining why it is important that the President understand and accept the workings of the natural world, but obviously Derbyshire disagrees. The reason why is that scientific understanding is too often the bailiwick of elite leftist snobs.

Possibly as a result of having grown up in the lower classes of provincial England, I detest snobbery. I mean, I really, viscerally, loathe it. This is one reason I hate the Left so much…

Invited to choose between having my kids educated, my car fixed, or my elderly relatives cared for by (a) people of character, spirit, and dedication who believe in pseudoscience, or (b) unionized, time-serving drudges who believe in real science, which would I choose? Invited to choose between a president who is (a) a patriotic family man of character and ability who believes the universe was created on a Friday afternoon in 4,004 B.C. with all biological species instantly represented, or (b) an amoral hedonist and philanderer who “loathes the military” but who believes in the evolution of species via natural selection across hundreds of millions of years, which would I choose? Are you kidding?

The real point is not who you would choose in such a situation — it’s that Derbyshire sincerely believes that these are the kinds of choices one typically needs to make. One the one hand: character, spirit, dedication, and pseudoscience. On the other: amoral, hedonistic drudges (sic) who believe in real science.

Derbyshire is not alone. Conservative commentator Tom Bethell has published a Politically Incorrect Guide to Science in which he takes down such Leftist conspiracies as evolution, global warming, AIDS research, and (um) relativity. At Tech Central Station, Lee Harris pens a passionate defense of being stupid more generally:

Today, no self-respecting conservative wants to be thought stupid, not even by the lunatics on the far left. Yet there are far worse things than looking stupid to others—and one of them is being conned by those who are far cleverer than we are. Indeed, in certain cases, the desire to appear intelligent at all costs can be downright suicidal…

In a world that absurdly overrates the advantage of sheer brain power, no one wants to be seen as a member in good standing of the stupid party. Yet stupidity has been and will always remain the best defense mechanism against the ordinary conman and the intellectual dreamer, just as Odysseus found that stuffing cotton in his ears was his best defense against beguiling but fatal song of the sirens.

Again: most sensible conservative commentators are quick to say “of course, all things being equal, it’s better to be correct/intelligent/scientific than otherwise.” But they truly don’t believe that all things are equal. The real fight isn’t against science, it’s a much broader culture war. Science is being used as a stand-in for a constellation of things against which many Americans react viscerally — elitism, paternalism, snobbery. Presenting better science and more transparent evidence isn’t going to change this attitude all by itself. We need to address the underlying cause: the relic anti-intellectual attitude that still animates so many people in this country.

The grizzly bears will thank you.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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