Australia’s new conservative ministry has just been sworn in, and while it includes Ministers for Border Protection (that is, stopping refugees) and Sport, and even a minister for the centenary of the Anzac landings on Gallipoli in 1915, there are no longer ministers for science or higher education1.
This is part of a fairly consistent pattern. The US Republican Party recently vetoed the creation of an unpaid position of National Science Laureate. In Canada, the Harper government eliminated the position of National Science Advisor, among many other anti-science moves. All of this reflects the fact that scientific research on topics like climate change and evolution regularly reaches conclusions that conflict with the policy preferences or religious beliefs of rightwingers.
It’s striking in this context to recall that, only 20 years ago, the phrase “Science Wars” was used by the right in relation to generally leftish postmodernists in the humanities, who were seen as rejecting science and/or promoting pseudoscience (while it was easy to poke fun at some rather silly stuff, and to point out that it was a distraction from the real political needs of the left, there’s no evidence that it ever did any actual harm to science). These days postmodernist and related “science studies” critiques of science are part of the rightwing arsenal used by Steven Fuller to defend creationism and by Daniel Sarewitz to argue that climate science is inherently political. The routine assumption that the analyses put forward of innumerate bloggers are just as valid as (in fact more valid than) as those of scientists who have devoted their life to the relevant field is one aspect of this, as is the constant demand to “teach the controversy” on evolution, climate science, wind turbine health scares and so on.
In the short run, the costs of attacking science are small. Scientists aren’t that numerous, so their conversion into one of the most solidly anti-Republican voting blocs in the US has’t had much electoral impact. But, eventually the fact that conservatives are the “stupid party” gets noticed, even by rightwingers themselves2
One person who has just noticed is Frank Furedi, a leading figure in the former(UK) Revolutionary Communist Party[^3] which, over the course of the 1990s, morphed into the (rightwing libertarian) Spiked group. In retrospect, Furedi jumped ship at the high water mark of right wing intellectual confidence, symbolised by Tom Friedman’s bloviations in The Lexus and the Olive Tree. Then came the Asian crisis, successive financial crises in the US and the intellectual debacle of climate delusionism, to which Furedi and the Spiked Group contributed actively. So, having joined what seemed to be the smart set, Furedi has finally realised that he is inescapably enmeshed in stupid. The result is this cri de coeur, lamenting the way in which rightwingers are called out for saying stupid things (he name-checks Tony Abbott and Sarah Palin, along with an Australian candidate for the racist One Nation party). Furedi doesn’t deny that rightwingers embrace stupidity, in fact he concedes it, observing
Not surprisingly, many conservatives become defensive when confronted with the put-downs of their intellectual superiors. Consequently, in many societies, particularly the US, they have become self-consciously anti-intellectual and hostile to the ethos of university life. Anti-intellectualism works as the kind of counterpart to the pathologisation of conservatism. And of course, the bitter anti-intellectual reaction of the right, which sometimes seems to affirm ignorance, only reinforces the smug prejudices of the intellectuals who see themselves as being morally superior. (emphasis added)
A couple of things are interesting about Furedi’s piece. First, he erases from history the period of rightwing intellectual dominance that began with the rise of market liberalism in the mid-1970s, and reached its apogee in the mid-1990s, before declining catastrophically in the Bush era. Second, he fails to recognise the way in which the silly-clever pointscoring of rightwing apologists like himself has contributed to the anti-intellectualism he deplores on his own side.
Even now, the intellectual collapse of the right has not had much effect on political outcomes. The dead ideas of the right shamble on in zombie form, and still dominate the thinking of the political class, particularly at the level of unconscious reflex. And, even to the extent that rightwing claims about, say, climate delusionism the beneficence of the financial sector, are discredited, the political power of the interests they represent makes it difficult, if not impossible to change things. Winning the battle of ideas is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for progress.
There are also very few women, but that needs another post. I’m also planning a post with a bit more detail on Abbott’s environmental policies. ↩
Even more embarrassing is this TownHall list of “the top 25 most influential conservatives” in which the top 3 places are filled by Rush Limbaugh, Matt Drudge and Sarah Palin. According to this list, the right’s leading “intellectual” is Mark Levin, a marginally more literate version of Limbaugh. You have to go to the “also-rans”, to find Thomas Sowell, the only person on the list who could reasonably count as a serious intellectual. ↩