In the religious world you will sometimes read articles or hear sermons trying to understand the mindset of unbelievers and lamenting the lure of apostasy. The funny thing is, in entirely secular venues you will also find people worrying about the power of heresy to seduce the unwary from the true path. In the secular world, that path is called “science.”
About such scientific heresy, the level of anxiety seems higher now than any time in recent memory. Republican presidential candidates continuously being probed on their scientific beliefs, ranked by media liberals on the basis of their adherence to scientifically orthodox ideas about evolution, global warming, and stem-cell research, has been the most obvious way this came out recently.
What’s wrong with Republicans, anyway? Scientists and journalists offer a variety of diagnoses. Some say a backwoods element in the population has abandoned the Enlightenment, a result of poor education or religious fundamentalism or both.
Other experts find no convincing sociological explanation and opt for a more scientific (or scientific-seeming) approach, pointing to faulty brain chemistry. A forthcoming book title by journalist Chris Mooney says it all: The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science and Reality.
I’m not aware, though, that anyone trying to explain these things has considered exactly what kind of scientific issues evoke a skeptical response from Republicans.
Doubts about natural selection may seem to be of a piece with wariness about (therapeutically questionable) embryonic-stem-cell research. Sounds like a religious thing. But where is the religious significance of believing in human-induced catastrophic global warming?
What about other scientific questions on which conservatives register their distrust? Rush Limbaugh delights listeners by mocking pronouncements that “science says” we must eat this or not eat that. Where’s the “fundamentalist” stake in tweaking liberals for using legislation to discourage unhealthy eating and smoking?
Something all these hot-button scientific topics have in common is that each has been politicized. Not by Republicans, however. The scientific issues that incite the Right all involve attempts by government to coerce behavior and spend billions in tax dollars through divisive policies on education, the environment, public health, and medical experiments.
It doesn’t reassure conservatives, either, when we happen to know something about the subject and aren’t just operating from a “gut feeling” as one social scientists tried to prove recently, in a study in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching that got some media play.
In coverage of the evolution debate, for example, Darwin defenders have convinced many journalists that only two sides exist: Darwinists themselves versus advocates of a naïve Scriptural view that insists the world is just thousands of years old.
But most Americans understand that a more credible view exists, one that accepts a history of life going back more than 3 billion years but that doubts blind Darwinian forces can account for life’s development, seeing, instead, evidence of purpose and design.
There is a persistent sense that we are being manipulated by fellow citizens who use the prestige of the word “science,” coupled with the technique of the excluded middle, to intimidate us in service to a political agenda. Not just any political agenda, but one that violates our own experience of who, as human beings, we really are.
At stake is an anthropological view that, on “scientific” grounds, equates humans with animals who climbed too high in their own estimation and need an attitude adjustment. In this picture, government plays the role of zookeeper. We need our modes of transportation and industrial production tightly constrained, our diets controlled, our claim of possessing marks of divine intention or favor firmly denied, our offspring available immediately from conception to be consumed for medical research.
Republican resistance to radicalized science is nothing new. It goes back to the founding of modern conservatism.
The book that launched the contemporary conservative movement, Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences (1948), traced man’s devolving self-image, with special attention to Darwin. A University of Chicago philosopher, Weaver outlined the cultural costs of a Darwin-directed “world picture,” and he suggested the outlines of a scientific critique of evolutionary theory. With “Darwinism… lurking in the background,” he wrote, “Politics, arts, everything, came under the rule; man was primarily a food- and shelter-finding animal.”
From this erring self-image, as he taught and many conservatives still believe, men have derived almost all the disastrous political and cultural ideas of modern times. It’s not “science” that we deny but this effort to redefine man in the name of science that we resist.