Yes, Virginia, There Is a War on Science

By Chris Mooney | May 14, 2008 10:02 am

Okay, so….I got sick of this new wave of conservative science punditry, which dismisses the “war on science” argument without even bothering to show it’s wrong, and then goes on to claim that we liberals are “new eugenicists” and that our embrace of science is going to lead us off a political cliff. The result is my latest Science Progress column, readable here. It starts out like this:

I hate to confess it, but lately I’ve been feeling a bit wistful for the arguments of conservative science pundit Tom Bethell, author of the 2005 polemic The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science. Granted, the “Incorrect Guide to Science” would probably have been a more accurate title, in that Bethell is just plain wrong about everything from evolution (which he tries to debunk) to global warming (which he argues isn’t human-caused) to African AIDS (which, shockingly, he calls a “political epidemic”). Yet despite such outrages, there’s something bracingly honest about Bethell’s book–he really doesn’t accept mainstream science on many issues, and so he tries, very straightforwardly, to argue that his facts are right and everybody else’s wrong.

A new wave of conservative science punditry–epitomized by an essay by Yuval Levin in The New Atlantis entitled “Science and the Left,” which was itself recently publicized by former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson in an oped in the Washington Post–demonstrably lacks such candor….

You can read the whole piece here.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Politics and Science

Comments (12)

  1. PalMD

    Go get ’em!

  2. Owen

    liberals are “new eugenicists”

    Godwin’s Law FTW!

  3. Colugo

    “claim that we liberals are “new eugenicists””

    Whether it is called eugenics or not, or uniquely associated with liberals, these related issues will only become more politically pertinent. To name just a few voices, Science blogger Shalini Sekhar, Richard Dawkins, bioethicist Peter Singer, and columnist Mark Morford have advocated (or suggested that we at least consider) manipulation of the human germline to improve bodies and behavior.

    A popular science-history book like Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel is perfectly useful (although it relies too heavily on infrastructural determinism). But since it was published there has been a number of scientific talks and papers with potential implications for human inequality. Did you notice some of the more controversial statements made by some of the authors of the ‘accelerated human evolution’ paper earlier this year? Do you recall Bruce Lahn’s hyped (but ultimately failed) hypothesis on cognitive differences between human populations? These are just two examples of what I believe is a mini-resurgence of racialist thought, not all of it emanating from predictable places like the Pioneer Fund. So I think it is perfectly reasonable to note that science reliably comes up with studies that “demonstrate” inequality of human populations.

  4. Sock Puppet of the Great Satan

    Wow, that essay achieved high levels of suckage. Positing environmentalism as the antithesis of science by assertion, when in fact the strength of environmentalism as a political force is *dependent* on the scientific assessment of environmental threats as they threaten our way of life, or photogenic elements of nature.

    1970s, 1980s: Environmentalism strong around perceived threats from organochemicals, acid rain, toxic (superfund) sites, freshwater contamination.
    1990s: Environmentalism weak, as immediate threats from toxic sites, organochemical pollutants and acid rain abate, but consensus of climatologists around climate change still developing. Environmentalism at its low ebb in
    mid-late 2000s: Consensus of climatologists/artic scientists around climate change becomes stronger. Corporations clamber over each other to be green. Environmentalism on the upswing as a political force.

    The Environmental and earth sciences have a powerful effect on the political strength of political environmentalism.

  5. Jon Winsor

    Levin spills a lot of ink, and then thinks that makes up for not actually addressing the substance of anyone’s arguments. These days that seems to be good enough for beltway GOP hacks, who are probably his intended audience anyway.

    So he may not care if his arguments completely miss the point as long as he can wake up the ideological footsoldiers…

  6. Barney

    If I might quote Levin out of context and without comment:

    “And for some on the left, too, the obsession is a way to stir up the kind of crisis atmosphere necessary for some pet causes and ideas to become politically plausible.”

  7. Wake up the ideological footsoldier?

    They are alive and well in the Alaskan Legislature, who are looking for scientists who will prove that Polar Bears are not threatened. (They know the answer, just looking for the right shill.)

    The old War on Science is not over.

  8. Jon Winsor

    And for some on the left, too, the obsession is a way to stir up the kind of crisis atmosphere necessary for some pet causes and ideas to become politically plausible.

    God help us if we start discussing actual issues in our political discourse. The people can’t handle that.

    They need to listen to those who’ve received the Straussian wisdom <a href=”and need to like Yuval Levin.

  9. Beth B.

    I can’t escape the conclusion that Levin has no idea what this “science” he speaks of is. His essay evokes images of a horde of labcoat-clad politicians deciding how best to go about “conquering nature” next.

    In particular:

    To choose well, the American left will need first to understand that a choice is even needed at all–that this tension exists between the ideals of progressives, and the ideology of science.

    Science is an ideology now? And here I thought it was a method of inquiry…

    Both ideals [equality and ecology] rely upon the presence of some unmastered mystery–some order beyond our grasping reach. A turning away from that humbling mystery, and toward unbounded will, is the inevitable (and indeed intentional) consequence of the progress of the modern scientific enterprise.

    Did this sentence (4th to last paragraph) or indeed this whole section of the essay actually say anything coherent?

    And that’s not even touching the dismissal of the “war on science”. Yours is a nice response to an irresponsibly deceptive piece on the issue. (By the way — longtime lurker, first time commenter. Always enjoy and am informed by your posts. Keep up the good work.)

  10. David Bruggeman

    While the Levin essay is far from the best piece run in that publication, The New Atlantis is an attempt at serious analysis of science and technology from a classical conservative perspective. By classical conservative I mean in the sense of respecting tradition and preferring gradual to radical change. I’m sure it fits a particular intellectual tradition, but I don’t know enough about Burkian or other conservative intellectual traditions (yes, they exist, they just aren’t well engaged by most of those embracing the conservative label) to determine where exactly The New Atlantis fits.

  11. Sock Puppet of the Great Satan

    “I can’t escape the conclusion that Levin has no idea what this “science” he speaks of is. His essay evokes images of a horde of labcoat-clad politicians deciding how best to go about “conquering nature” next. ”

    Well, what do you expect from a guy whose magnum opus to date is a book called “The Tyranny of Reason”?

  12. Jon Winsor

    I think a Burkian political perspective is fine, and often healthy. But it looks to me like Burke isn’t Levin’s chief influence. What I have a problem with is the belief that the people can’t be trusted with the knowledge they need to make their own decisions in a democracy. If Yuval Levin thinks that climate change isn’t a problem, for instance, he should make that argument out in the open, instead of jamming the public’s bandwidth with vague, ad hominem attacks on “The Left.”


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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