Wednesday, December 19, 2007

We always knew they were anti-science

Conservatism has always been anti-intellectual, but for years the modern conservative movement has tried to claim the prestige of science. Lately, conservative policies and rhetoric have tarnished the credibility of this claim. Today, we have a unambiguous statement from one of the official organs of conservatism that being anti-science is now one of their articles of faith. The conservative claim to be pro-science should never have passed the laugh test, but sadly for decades was taken seriously even by the scientists who should have known better. Why scientists were fooled is the subject for another, longer, post. For the present, let's look at the claim itself.

This twist of logic was achieved by painting liberalism as an anti-science ideology and themselves, by virtue of being anti-liberal, as the defenders of science. The core of their claim about the nature of liberalism was based on the facts that New Age spiritualism is often anti-science; that New Agers, when they are political at all, tend to be liberal; and that liberals, by way of their belief in tolerance and diversity, do not condemn New Age spiritualism on an ideological basis (though many individual liberals reject and criticize it on a rational basis).

Conservatives do not value or even understand tolerance or diversity. They strive to be a homogeneous mass who all think in the one approved manner. If liberals tolerate the beliefs of New Age spiritualism, it must be because they all share those beliefs, or so the argument ran. New Age spiritualism must be the official religion of liberalism and all liberals must be anti-science woo-woos. It was a caricature, by an effective one for propaganda purposes. It told scientists, technicians, and others who valued science that the conservatives were their team. The trouble is, conservatives do not value science. At most, they value some science and they value the products of science, especially the economic products.

Science, as an intellectual project is profoundly un-conservative. Science does not value tradition. Science requires authority to continually reprove itself. Science must follow the truth wherever it goes, regardless of the political and economic implications. Science is apolitical. However, while science may not be any friendlier to liberalism than it is to conservatism, liberalism, by virtue of that tolerance thing, is friendlier to science than conservatism is.

The conservative narrative about science began to fall apart over two issues. The first, historically, was religion. Conservative religion will tolerate no competition as a path to the truth. As conservative Christians have gained power in the political conservative sphere, they have tried to use that power to silence science. Biology, reproductive knowledge, and environmental sciences were the first to fall afoul of the rising religious conservative power, but they also have their eyes on cosmology, the earth sciences, and dating technology. At the bottom of the culture war, religious conservative want to do away with the scientific method itself and silence unfettered inquisitiveness in the name of traditional authority.

The second conflict between science and the modern conservative movement has come where new scientific knowledge has threatened profitable economic practices. Medicine and environmentalism constantly make us aware of costs to ourselves, as individuals and as part of the entire planetary biosphere, that are being ignored. In many cases, the only way businesses can continue to function is by ignoring these costs and forcing them into the future. But the future is now and here in the form of lung cancer, childhood asthma, and climate change.

The modern conservative movement has begun to view science itself as the enemy. Science refuses to submit to proper authority and undermines business with inconvenient truths. From the conservative point of view, science has gone over to the other side. If science is liberal, then the only proper attitude for a loyal conservative is to become anti-science and celebrate assaults on science.

Confirmation that anti-science is now an article of faith among conservatives comes from no less an authority than the National Review. In an online review of the movie I Am Legend, Greg Pollowitz writes:
Shhhh. The end of I Am Legend is religious. And the beginning of the movie is anti-science. The military is a force for good, too. Shhhh. Our little secret. And what must be surprising to those on the Left, a movie that's anti-science, religious and pro-military earned close to $80 million over the weekend.

Got that? A good conservative movie is on that is religious, pro-military, and anti-science. As a pro-science liberal, I knew it all along, but it's nice to get a confirmation from their lips.

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