Field of Science

Middle Ages March

As far as possible I try to avoid writing about the teaching of evolution and opposition to climate change in this country because of their overly politicized nature, but this piece in the NYT is one that no one can wisely ignore. It details a growing movement to conflate rejection of evolution with rejection of climate change that many people, and sadly especially conservatives, are spearheading. States are trying to introduce bills encouraging the teaching of “all sides” of scientific issues. Conservative politicians are advocating for students to know “all the facts”. But nobody is fooled by these thinly veiled promotions of ignorance. These developments should appear ominous to anyone since they indicate a resourceful war against science and all it stands for.

A couple of years ago, journalist Chris Mooney wrote "The Republican War on Science", a laundry list of instances of systematic negligence and subversion by the Bush administration when it came to scientific matters. When Obama became President, those of us like Mooney heaved a sigh of relief, since the new President seemed to have a genuine appreciation for science and its funding and strove to "restore science to its rightful place". Sadly, what we did not fully realize is that the War on Science is not really fought in the corridors of Washington but rather on the streets and churches of states all over the country. No Presidential mandate can quell the intensity with which the foot soldiers in these quarters fight the war.

The main goal of these foot soldiers is to seed doubts about the foundational nature of scientific facts in the minds of the gullible. They want to misrepresent the tentative nature of scientific understanding as equivalent to complete lack of understanding. They don't understand or willfully neglect the simple fact that some things in science are more certain than others, and many things are so well-understood so as to be virtually certain. But by pitching the very nature of science as some kind of loose, tentative theorizing disguised as facts, these eager evangelists are destroying the very fabric of scientific inquiry and indeed, one of the essential bedrocks on which modern civilization is founded. To me their ultimate objective seems clear; convince people that most if not all of science and not just climate change and evolution consists of "just theories". Once that basic groundwork has been established, they are free to play fast and loose with each and every aspect of science that bears on public policy, which in the modern world encompasses most important spheres of political and public activity.

The anti-science crowd is too clever to call for downright subversion of science and embrace of religious dogma. Consider Tim Moore, a politician from Kentucky who claims that his motivation is not religious but it is to oppose the “distortion of scientific knowledge”. Surely Moore is intelligent enough to understand the number of religious votes he would garner if his suggestions are implemented. Moore and others are too clever to directly call for an indictment of science. Hence they are resorting to the gradual mobilization of doubt. Start with eager young minds first. The relentless movement to include "intelligent" design in textbooks as a valid "alternative" to evolution is well-known. Now they are also calling for textbooks to teach "both sides" of climate change. The time will come when they would insist that every scientific topic with which they have an issue should be accompanied by its opposite in school textbooks, simply because scientists are engaging in healthy debate about that topic. Stem cells and alternative energy are two prominent issues that come to mind. Scientists are still not sure what kind of technologies would make solar and wind power a reality? Good! Make sure you include every bit of opposition to these technologies as part of your textbook lessons. Scientists are still trying to understand how exactly stem cells would make it possible to cure or contain life-threatening disorders? Fantastic! Make that a case for including every bit of opposition to stem cell research so that you could argue against it; the religious aspects could always be smuggled in later through the back door. Lively technical disagreements taking place in the pages of scientific journals would be held up as resounding evidence that the soul of science itself is an amorphous blob devoid of certain existence. This is nothing less than the rape and rabid hijacking of the normal scientific process to portray it as some kind of fundamental structural flaw in the whole enterprise.

If this kind of descent into ignorance is terrible for schools and students, it's not at all helped by declining standards of science and math education in this country and by global competition in science and technology. What may be even more tragic is that such efforts, which started during the Reagan era but were much milder back then, would form such an ungodly and impenetrable meld of science, conservative politics and religion that it may well become impossible to ever separate the three. Sadly, one consistently finds mainly Republicans being opposed to climate change and the teaching of evolution. Those few Republicans who do support either or both of these are already keeping their mouths shut for fear of being alienated from the party. At the same time, evangelical Christians are convincing their brothers and sisters to add climate change to their list of enemies which long includes evolution. Since the Reagan era conservatism has already become synonymous with evangelical religion. Now they are also trying to make the two synonymous with anti-scientism. The effect of all this would be to downright intimidate any person with conservative sentiments who dares to have respect for the scientific process. It would also mean an exponential decline in members of the conservative coalition with any appreciation of science; after all, if evolution and climate change deniers are going to be the main recruits to the movement, the probability that these people will have any appreciation for the scientific method would already be very low to begin with.

Accompanying this active propaganda against science is a slick publicity campaign that pits scientific issues as not really being scientific but being political dogfights between liberals and conservatives, and declares science and especially academic science to be a political liberal enterprise. It extols the folksy, down to earth demeanor of grass roots politicians and encourages derision towards "elitist", high-brow scientists educated at respectable schools along with the politicians of the Eastern Establishment who nurture them. The two-time election of George W Bush (ironically a failed member of the Eastern Establishment) demonstrated that many citizens of this country are indeed suckers for such stereotypes and are ready to fundamentally mistrust any educated intellectual or scientist. Whether we like it or not, conservatives have turned this confluence of mutually reinforcing strategies and stereotypes into a well-oiled PR machine that is set to pay its own way into hell.

Is there any silver lining at all to this precipitous slide into the Middle Ages? The article does talk about conservative Christians who seem to display a refreshing acceptance of both evolution and climate change. Their numbers are low, but their convictions seem strong. They think that earth and everything that it encompasses are God's creations and need to be taken care of. Atheists may vehemently disagree with this interpretation, but as E O Wilson says in his book ”Creation”, at least they can leave aside differences and try to find common ground for this most important of causes. No matter how powerful and influential the leaders of the war against science seem, they critically depend on the citizenry to make their voice known. They speak because their constituencies listen. They prey and thrive on the nods of their audience. Educate the audience, and the tables turn; now it’s they who decide whether the magician on stage lives or dies.

We don't know yet whether this citizenry can wake up to the wisdom of recognizing science as a value-neutral, apolitical, open-minded, independent and freedom-loving framework to improve their lives. But it is clear that to have any chance of rescuing this country from the divisive forces of ignorance which are gradually making their way from coast to coast, one must use every tactic at his or her disposal to drive home the importance of science and to try to reinforce its separation from politics and religion.

These days one regularly comes across opposite and polarized factions of "New Atheists" who are up in arms against "Accommodationists". The former faction believes that only a highly vocal effort to weed out religion from the masses can turn enough people toward science, even if it permanently alienates the hardest of the fundamentalists. The latter faction believes that a more moderate approach will work better. Both factions believe that fundamentalists will largely remain unmoved.

To me the arguments between them mainly seem to be based on degree, since many from the latter also call themselves atheists. I have never understood why the approach needs to be either/or. It is clear that insiders from the religious establishment still stand the best chance of convincing their own flock. These promising young insiders are going to be persuaded only when they are repeatedly convinced and in turn convince others that yes, they can safely practice their faith and still believe in science as a candle in the dark. Whether atheists like it or not, their support is crucial. People come in all kinds of shades, and the best bet for us to convince them about the value of science is to pitch it to them at all levels, in all forms and guises, vocally and mildly, through every possible channel. Human society is a complex organism, and it needs a complex mix of ideas to cause fundamental changes. Just like in my field of computational chemistry, when you don't know the composition of this mix, you simply try out all combinations.

It seems to be the least we can do to stop a straight downhill crash into dark ignorant oblivion.


  1. This is a great post. I really admire how you write candidly and strongly about this without being condescending toward Republicans or the religious (who, of course, do not completely overlap).

    I myself am a PhD student in the biosciences, and am totally with you on this so-called "war on science." I am also a Christian - more theologically and politically liberal than the people you are referring to, but I grew up in an evangelical church and had a more-or-less positive experience with that.

    I think that, with the right approach, religious conservatives can be reached on global warming, while evolution will be much harder. But I do firmly believe that many of the "New Atheists" are counterproductive to these efforts. Most of the major religious movements are old and on a worldwide level, quite robust. Rather then making a dent in religion, the New Atheists are just reaffirming the (mistaken) belief among many Christians that a respect for science/evolutionary theory isincompatible with religious faith.

    From what I have seen among religious conservatives, Francis Collins, as controversial as he is, is much more effective at opening the minds of the faithful to evolution. His approach may not be perfect, but he is both a respected scientist and a visible pro-Evolution, evangelical figure - which does wonders for young Christians who are interested in science.

    Asa Gray

  2. Frankly, reading that NYT piece left me more frustrated with climate modelers than with religious fundamentalists. When one passes off questionable science as established, and bandies about the term "scientific consensus" without reference to which scientists share the consensus, one is handing out free ammunition to fundies. Fundies don't give a lick about the truth here, so that ammo doesn't just come back to the deserving targets. It gets fired off at innocent bystanders, like evolution. If intelligent design ends up in more classrooms thanks to blowback from inflated climate claims, folks like Mann bear some responsibility for the gross miseducation those children receive.

    Wavefunction, your assessment of Moore's motives is no doubt correct, but that doesn't make it a valid criticism of his argument. I actually found myself in complete agreement on this point:

    “And with global warming especially, there has become a politically correct viewpoint among educational elites that is very different from sound science.”

    I don't know if you've noticed, but the climate skeptic group isn't solely comprised of conservative crybabies worried that big bad government is going to take away all their God-given carbon freedoms. You really need to expose yourself to the best arguments you can find on the topic, or you're not even in the game. Eliezer Yudkowsky writes:

    Someone once said, "Not all conservatives are stupid, but most stupid people are conservatives." If you cannot place yourself in a state of mind where this statement, true or false, seems completely irrelevant as a critique of conservatism, you are not ready to think rationally about politics.


    I notice you used the watered down term "religious faith" rather than the more direct "belief in God", even though your religious label clearly indicates a connection between the two. So technically, you are correct - there's no necessary contradiction between modern scientific understanding and "religious faith", in the general case.

    However, your brand of faith (that's right, I'm making assumptions about your worldview) is entirely incompatible with modern science. Your postulation of a cause (God) that is fundamentally more complex than the corresponding effect (the observable universe) is simply flawed thought.

    Perhaps you've managed the mental gymnastics necessary to cut off your "God" concept from any causal connection with reality - good for you if so, but that doesn't help the millions of other Christians suffering in the systematized intellectual tar pit that is theism. This quote comes to mind:

    We believe that promoting less than maximally accurate beliefs is an act of sabotage. Don’t do it to anyone unless you’d also slash their tires.

    "Accommodationists" don't seem to care that lying to a defenseless child about the way the world works basically amounts to mental rape. We wouldn't tolerate a parent who feeds LSD to their 3-year-old, but somehow it's okay to retard their understanding of reality with quirky delusions written down thousands of years ago, themselves probably the product of a mind-altering substance or two. So long as this practice continues, there can be no real peace between theists and rationalists.


  3. Dan,

    In commenting, I was not aiming to do the tired Christianity-atheist argument on the comments section of a science blog (do you really think that's going to go anywhere?), it was to point out that some of these New Atheists aren't helping science.

    I think we all agree that evolutionary theory and the climate models - not as done deals, but as ongoing, incomplete understandings - are needed to address some pretty big problems: parasitic diseases, ocean acidification, etc.

    Now, let's say that the scientific community as a whole (somehow) takes your approach, as I am interpreting it. Instead of being distantly respectful and skeptical of religious belief, it becomes opening hostile. All the major science publication editorial boards, Nova, Science Friday, and many others, all go on the offensive against religious faith with rhetoric about 'brights' or whatever.

    Do you seriously think this will shift the public over to atheism? Or, as it would be more likely, would it just make the science community become the antithesis to the Tea Party Movement - completely ignored by the vast majority of Americans?

    Even in your belief system, I think the "mental rape" and respect of the Accommodationalists is more ethical.

    Asa Gray

  4. Dan, one question; do you think that Asa Gray and others like him would be more convinced by your arguments or by my arguments, considering that both of us are atheists?

    If one important definition of progress is in opposite factions reaching a peaceful consensus on common problems in spite of otherwise strongly disagreeing, then I cannot see the New Atheists making much progress even if I may fundamentally agree with most of their points.


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