With the Tea Party, Historians and Scientists Are in the Same Boat

By The Intersection | June 3, 2011 1:25 pm

by Jon Winsor

Over at the US Intellectual History blog (a great blog, BTW), historian David Sehat reflects on Thomas Frank’s recent piece in Harper’s on the Tea Partiers’ claims to historical authority:

Frank spends a bit of space in the article showing the historical inaccuracy and general absurdity of the Tea Partiers’ quotations of the Founders. Many of the quotes are made up. A few could not have possibly been said by the Founders, because they contain vocabulary and concepts that were not yet in circulation during the Founders’ lifetimes. His article is, as these exercises usually are, pretty much shooting fish in a barrel, though still entertaining…

He’s entertained, but also exasperated:

I wonder, what is the best response from historians in the face of rampant historical inaccuracy that is often combined with fervent worship of a false past? Is our task to keep pointing out error, knowing that we will not be heeded? I’m afraid that it might be.

But I am still not ready to give up the effort.

His colleague Mike O’Connor responds in the comments:

It seems like the logical thrust of your argument leads not to historians endlessly noting factual misconceptions about the past, but to them endlessly pointing out that these beliefs are not fundamentally historical.

In a similar vein, the argument that creation science is wrong is not nearly as compelling as the argument that it is not really science. Engaging in the tit-for-tat cedes the most important issue: that the competing ideas are on some sort of level epistemological playing field. Once that has been (implicitly) established, in the battle between Frank’s member of the “populist right” and his “liberal college professor,” the liberal has already lost.

…The real issue here, with climate change or Franklin’s quote, is not who is right about the particular fact at issue. Those who challenge scientists by saying that they disagree among themselves and that “evolution is only a theory,” are, of course, correct. What’s really important is that such flat-earthers do not subject their claims to falsifiability; peer-review; or the tests of predictive accuracy. Scientists themselves, using these procedures, have achieved a strong consensus that evolution does in fact occur, and that the world was created before 4004 B.C.E. By claiming that they believe in science and the expertise of scientists themselves, rather than that they themselves possess knowledge that conservatives don’t, liberals are making a claim that they can support: that their understanding of the scientific method and their belief in the integrity of its practitioners leads them to accept its results…

In this conception of the debate, the role of the real-live scientists is to buttress this understanding of science and, if people seriously want the evidence (which most don’t), to point them to their actual work. By way of parallel, historians would do better to educate the public about the nature of history itself…

This is still not ideal, as the attacks by populist conservative denialists tend to be on institutions themselves, in a kind of sustained ad hominem attack. This poses difficulties to non-scientists declaring simply, “I believe in science.” As the normally staid journal Nature quoted Rush Limbaugh, “The four corners of deceit: government, academia, science and media. Those institutions are now corrupt and exist by virtue of deceit. That’s how they promulgate themselves; it is how they prosper.” This kind of talk, although absurd, has been persistent, and has doubtless created a certain amount of FUD in sections of the US public. But Professor O’Connor’s suggestion that historians and scientists should publicly and straightforwardly discuss the work they do, seems helpful.


Comments (15)

  1. vel

    Unfortunately, those in the “tea party” depend much on sowing ignorance and fear to keep up their delusions. They simply *must* be the special snowflakes of their god and the world, no matter how many lies they have to tell in their attempt to make others believe it. It may be shooting fish in a barrel to counter such lies but unless someone does it and does it constantly and loudly, these lies will be passed along as the truth.

  2. Dave

    Ask Rush Limbaugh how his microphone works. He wouldn’t have a clue.

  3. Gaythia

    I think that it is a mistake to describe support of science as a “belief”. On occasions when the issue comes up and I have the time, I always go out of my way to state that I do not actually BELIEVE in evolution, and then try to give an explanation of the scientific method and the nature of evidence. It is not a matter of you believe this, I believe that. Evolution just is, the way gravity just is, and neither has anything at all to do with whether or not I believe in it.

    I do not have to know all of the details of the scientific evidence, because I can generally accept the analysis others with more knowledge than myself. I don’t have to know these people personally, I can evaluate credentials and other signs of expertise. I can understand that these credentials come with continual evaluations by others with similar expertise. I can accept that science has uncertainties, and that scientists may not always agree. I can weigh these disputes and come to see that some scientists may be flat out wrong. The fact that science, as presented at any point in time, is not always entirely correct, does not cause me to distrust science, or to distrust scientists in general. Science is a process of understanding, not a dogma with a codified end result.

    Belief is a loaded term, and I think that appeals to authority are counter productive, particularly when dealing with those who do have a strong belief in a Higher Authority. Science is very different than religious concepts of belief or authority, and I think that it helps if we don’t muddy the distinctions between the approaches to looking at the world.

  4. Aiser

    In a way Rush is quite right with that quote. And yes that includes science as well. You can blame the academic and post-modernist for this see the “sokal affair”. You just have to open up a science journal today and see what passes for 21st century academic work. Nothing but garbage. Over at “Scientific American” you have a piece titled “Osama Bin Laden: the science of his end”. We have BS genetic reports all over the place such as the “gay gene”. Or how a “study” shows that a conservative brain is smaller then a liberal brain. Or how about discovery of the “Christian Gene”? ( i guess if you inherit this gene then you can never convert to islam or agnosticism, ect? ). Or how about the report by Satoshi Kanazawa PhD evolutionary psychology on how his studies show that ” black women are considered less attractive “of course he did and still is receiving a lot of heat for this. But still he is an academic whether one likes it or not. Don’t bother asking for sources as well, you have google to looks things up.

    As for the tea party, i would have to argue that they are great people. They don’t like where the country is going, the mastermind behind the movement Ron Paul is someone in congress whom actually gets it. The Tea Party are not a monolithic group of people they come from many back grounds but share common goals. They are also hard working and knowledgeable. They are also tax payers ( something that those on left are not ). Finally TP’ers are NOT “right-wing extremist or radical conservatives or kooks in anyway. Instead they are ideologically more libertarian like.

  5. Liberalism's A Sickness

    Ask Obamatard how his teleprompter works and he would? While we’re at it, Rush Limbaugh would never pronounce corpsman, corpse man. Come to think of it, most 5th graders wouldn’t make this gaffe.

  6. “What mr. Wilders says might not be completely correct, but it is true.” – A supporter of the islamophobic PVV here in the Netherlands.

  7. giovannni da procida


    Scientific American is not a science journal. It is a popular journal. Excellent work is being done in many fields of science. Have you read the actual scientific articles related to the genetic work you are complaining about?

    As for Kanazawa, his nonsense was published in a blog post, not a peer reviewed journal.

    Wikipedia notes that “an open letter signed by sixty-eight evolutionary psychologists states that “[Kanazawa] has repeatedly been criticised by other academics in his field of research for using poor quality data, inappropriate statistical methods and consistently failing to consider alternative explanations for his results.”

  8. bob

    @Aiser: I’m socially liberal and fiscally conservative (which makes me a progressive) (and a lefty) Do you mean that all this time I’ve been paying taxes and I’m not supposed to?

  9. Go Sarah!

    No, Bob, what he meant was that it’s highly likely that 95% of the people who consistently vote democrat also pay little or no taxes at all. They know where their bread is buttered, and just which party is stealing he butter for them. Yes, taxes are legalized theft when our government becomes illegitimate – as millions of us now feel it now has.

    Moreover, the lefties who do pay taxes are likely government slugs making far more than most of us in the private sector and those in academia who for all intents and purposes are also on the “gubmint” gravy train. The “gubmint” is a great supporter of colleges and universities seeing as how this is where they spend untold billions of taxpayer funds giving grants to largely leftist groups and socialist causes. This serves to further perpetuate their stranglehold on power. So, between the ever-burgeoning welfare class, public employees and their powerful unions and the academic class sucking at the “gubmint teat,” the rest of us few remaining suckers don’t have a chance. That’s what he meant, Bob. Moreover, I believe you know it.

  10. haversham

    You do realize that much of the R&D work, much of the foundation for what makes and made this country into the powerhouse that it is today, came from grants supplied by the government and given to scientists, right?

    How much of our budget is given to the NSF currently? Do you know? Less than one percent. That less than one percent has given us the internet, space, and everything else you use on a daily basis for the most part. So please, don’t tell me scientists just use the money and give nothing in return. Without them, we as country, are sunk.

  11. Go Sarah!

    Haversham said, “You do realize that much of the R&D work, much of the foundation for what makes and made this country into the powerhouse that it is today, came from grants supplied by the government and given to scientists, right?”

    Really! Name us just a few concrete examples of how sientific grants have benefitted society at large. This means, number 1, how have they improved our standard of living? Number 2, name some examples of breakthrough discoveries and or patents/inventions made by “scientists” taking government money. Lastly, you mention R&D work. What are you even talking about? Name some of it, sir.

  12. TTT

    As for the tea party, i would have to argue that they are great people. They don’t like where the country is going, the mastermind behind the movement Ron Paul is someone in congress whom actually gets it. The Tea Party are not a monolithic group of people they come from many back grounds but share common goals.

    Yeah. Some of the teabaggers are middle-aged pro-violence racists, and the rest are older.

    I encourage you to follow your leader Ron Paul right to wherever he thinks the real truth behind 9/11 may be found.

  13. Gaythia

    @11 There are many forms of R&D work within the federal government, from military based to biology, and from that with immediate application to that which is highly theoretical.

    I believe that it is important to remember that many major corporations do research that is funded at least in part by federal contracts, and thus, the dividing line between that which is government R&D and that which is privately funded is often obscured.

    The sort of research which is, in my opinion, absolutely essential for propelling us forward into an advancing, strong and secure future is the basic research upon which technologies which we have not even conceived of yet may be based. This sort of research can’t readily be done in the private sector, where venture capital or stock ownership drives towards short term results. BOTH sorts of drive are needed for economic and social success.

    This potentially transformative work is best summarized by this statement from the NSF website:


    “Transformative research results often do not fit within established models or theories and may initially be unexpected or difficult to interpret; their transformative nature and utility might not be recognized until years later. Characteristics of transformative research are that it:

    (a) Challenges conventional wisdom,

    (b) Leads to unexpected insights that enable new techniques or methodologies, or

    (c) Redefines the boundaries of science, engineering, or education.”

  14. bob

    some amazingly vast stereotypes and generalizations here! Hard to take seriously.


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