Among the Intellectualoids

Very Political Science

Ideology with charts and graphs and a very low tolerance threshold for disagreement.

By 4.23.12

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Academic "studies" purporting to show conservatives to be knot-heads and know-nothings are hardy perennials on campus. And the media love to whoop them up. That's why the headline in my local Tampa paper, "Faith in science wanes on right," caught my eye. And not just because science is based on evidence, not faith.

The story, taken from the Los Angeles Times, starts thus: "As the Republican presidential race has shown, the conservatives who dominate the primaries are deeply skeptical of science -- making Newt Gingrich, for one, regret he settled onto a couch with Nancy Pelosi to chat about global warming."

Wow! What a lot of nonsense and misdirection for just 39 words. First, conservatives, politicians or usefully employed, are no more skeptical of science than liberals, moderates, progressives, libertarians, royalists, or vegetarians. And there are endless reasons to regret sitting on a couch with Nancy Pelosi, which most conservatives wouldn't do on a dare.

What, more like who, conservatives have learned to be skeptical of, and folks of other philosophical persuasions should also keep an eye on, are scientists who diddle numbers, distort evidence, draw conclusions well beyond the evidence, pronounce on matters outside of their field of expertise, and cover up contrary evidence in order to retail controversial theories like global warming. And to achieve other things like tenure, promotion, media coverage, and grants without end, amen. 

We've had ample evidence from East Anglia and elsewhere to demonstrate that some scientists are not members of a truth-seeking priesthood, but ordinary sinful humanity with agendas to flog and self-interests to serve. Many erode their credibility by behaving more like activists than like scientists. Being skeptical of these individuals is prudent, and not the same thing as being skeptical of science.

Of course Gingrich did more than "chat" with Pelosi. He joined her to say that global warming is a genuine threat to the planet and government should do something about it. Neither of these things has been established, but both would be a boon to the left's agenda of taxing and regulating. Newt later said his warming warning was the stupidest thing he ever said. I'll take his word for this, though Newt-watchers know there is stiff competition for this honor.

The Times story is based on a study, published in the April issue of the American Sociological Review, by one Gordon Gauchat, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of North Carolina. The study claims that in a survey administered first in 1972 and again in 2010, self-described conservatives show a sharp drop in confidence in science, while liberals still give science the same two thumbs up they did in Tricky Dick days.

The confusion this study promotes becomes obvious when you read the survey question: to wit: "As far as the people running these institutions are concerned, would you say you have a great deal of confidence, only some confidence, or hardly any confidence at all in them [the Scientific Community]?" (Emphasis added; brackets in the original.]

By the time we get to the study's conclusions, a lack of confidence in people running the institutions of science, some of whom have not had the greatest press of late, has morphed into a lack of confidence in science itself. The two things are so obviously different it's a wonder one of Gauchat's undergraduate research assistants didn't call attention to the discrepancy before things got out of hand.

I contacted Gauchat by phone and asked about this difference between confidence in individuals and confidence in an institution. His answer was long, courteous, and earnest, but never addressed the critical difference between any group of Herr Professor Doktors and science itself.

Alert TAS readers will not be surprised, as I was not, to learn that another of Gauchat's proxies for conservative rejection of the authority of science is conservatives' greater skepticism about global warming and about Charles Darwin's explanation of how we got from there to here.

There is every reason to be skeptical of the global warming theory and the grant-sucking, alarmist, highly politicized, and intolerant industry it has spawned. Climate is one of the most complex subjects in the world. It would be very difficult to parse even if scientists, science journalists, regulatory bureaucrats, politicians, and environmentalists were playing it straight. Many of them aren't.

The studies that supposedly prove the earth is warming, that this warming is different from the warming and cooling periods the Earth has undergone since there has been an Earth, and that this is man-caused through the agency of greenhouse gases, are all based on computer models. Models that can be influenced by the assumptions built in on the front end, and by factors not controlled for. Many of the projections these models have made have been wrong.

The greenhouse theory of warming is plausible. But the history of science is full of plausible sounding explanations of things that turned out to be false. If conservatives are skeptical of what may well turn out to be the biggest science-based hoax in history, this is to their credit.

And speaking of plausible, Charles Darwin's theory might have had a surface plausibility when it was first sprung on the world in 1859. But what we know now of the mind-boggling complexity of bio-chemistry, and the continuing holes in the fossil record, make his explanation of the history of life on Earth no longer credible.

I believe I can state the gospel according to Darwin succinctly: A series of small, random mutations with survival value brought us, in four and a half billion years, from the single cell bacterium to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. 

One would have to be a pluperfect fool to believe this today. So once again conservatives have the analytical advantage of their liberal brothers and sisters, but are still labeled hayseeds by academics.

I asked Gauchat if skepticism about global warming and about Darwin's theory of evolution means that the skeptics don't trust science. All I can say about his answer is that it was long and, well, nuanced. But more than a little short on clarity. Asked if he would locate himself on the ideological spectrum, Gauchat said he didn't accept "labels," though he bandies the label conservative about in his study. He would only say that he considers himself a "pragmatist" in the tradition of John Dewey and William James, two thinkers who were firmly on the cultural left, and full of as much humbug as Gauchat's study.

Fortunately most science, at least in the hard sciences, is not as squashy and ideologically tendentious as this example. To the extent that it is, conservatives, and others, have every reason not to trust it. If Darwinists and global warmers want conservatives to accept their theories, they need to scare up some credible evidence for them. Just using faux science to define conservatives as hicks because they won't go along with the gag won't do.

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About the Author

Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.