Is progressivism the biggest threat to science?
In the latest New Scientist, Alex Berezow and Hank Campbell attempt to redress what they see as an imbalance in perceptions of how political views affect attitudes to science. It is widely held today – in the wake of books like The Republican War on Science, Christian conservative opposition to evolution and well-documented interference into science policy by successive Republican administrations for ideological reasons (not to mention recent Tea Party lunacy with regard to the biology of human fertility) – that ideological opposition to science is a right-wing affliction. Berezow and Campbell (both proud conservatives; Berezow edits RealClearScience, an offshoot of RealClearPolitics, which aims to counter “the bias in media against conservatives, religious conservatives, [and] Christian conservatives”) argue that ideological opposition to science is not restricted to the right.
They are surely right, though the primary example they give seems more to involve petty political point scoring and a failure to conduct proper cost-benefit analyses than ideological opposition to science. Knee-jerk opposition to GMOs is more common on the left than the right for instance (the qualification ‘knee-jerk’ is an important one: there are good reasons to oppose particular uses of GMOs and to be cautious about all its actual applications, though there are no good reasons for thinking that GMOs might not make significant contributions to human and non-human flourishing). In the end, though, Berezow and Campbell exemplifies the very faults they rail against: allowing ideology to trump good sense.
Once upon time, ideological opposition to science seemed more common on the left than on the right, especially in the form of a muddled relativism. Today, to many commentators, it seems that things have reversed and more, or at least more practically significant, ideological opposition to and downright distortion of science is to be found on the right than the left (after all, opposition to the science of global warming is almost exclusively to be found on the right, and there is a strong case to be made to saying that global warming is the single most significant challenge facing humanity). Berezow and Campbell will have none of this. No, for them it is ‘progressives’ that are the major problem:
Of all of today’s political philosophies, progressivism stands as the most pressing problem for science. Progressives, not conservatives, are the ones most likely to replace scientific research with unscientific ideology.
Might they be right? I doubt it very much, but were I to try to make the case, I would look for data. In God We Trust, the Americans like to say, and no one more than the Christian conservatives that RealClearPolitics represents. But everyone else must bring data. Without data, without evidence in the broadest sense of term, you’re simply expressing your political prejudices. And that, whether it comes from the left or the right, is the way in which ideology distorts reason.