The Republican War on Science: Tierney and Bethell

by John Quiggin on March 5, 2008

One of the big problems with talking about what Chris Mooney has called The Republican War on Science is that, on the Republican side, the case against science is rarely laid out explicitly. On a whole range of issues (evolution, passive smoking, climate change, the breast-cancer abortion link, CFCs and the ozone layer and so on) Republicans attack scientists, reject the conclusions of mainstream science and promote political talking points over peer-reviewed research. But they rarely present a coherent critique that would explain why, on so many different issues, they feel its appropriate to rely on their own politically-based judgements and reject those of mainstream science. And of course many of them are unwilling to admit that they are at war with science, preferring to set up their own alternative set of scientific institutions and experts, journals and so on.
So it’s good to see a clear statement of the Republican critique of science from John Tierney in this NY Times blog piece promoting global warming “skepticism”. The core quote is

climate is so complicated, and cuts across so many scientific disciplines, that it’s impossible to know which discrepancies or which variables are really important.Considering how many false alarms have been raised previously by scientists (the “population crisis,” the “energy crisis,” the “cancer epidemic” from synthetic chemicals), I wouldn’t be surprised if the predictions of global warming turn out to be wrong or greatly exaggerated. Scientists are prone to herd thinking — informational cascades– and this danger is particularly acute when they have to rely on so many people outside their field to assess a topic as large as climate change.

Both this quote and the rest of Tierney’s article are notable for the way in which he treats science as inseparable from politics, and makes no distinction between scientific research and the kind of newspaper polemic he produces. Like most Republicans, Tierney takes a triumphalist view of the experience of the last thirty years or so, as showing that he and other Republicans have been proved right, and their opponents, including scientists, have been proved wrong (illustrated by his blithe dismissal of complicated problems like population and energy as “false alarms”). Hence, he argues, he is entitled to prefer his own political judgements to the judgements (inevitably equally political) of scientists.

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As I said the other day, I had an interesting assignment of responding to Wendy McElroy’s talk “Don’t vote: it’s a waste of time and its immoral”. When my colleague Lester Hunt asked me to respond he was a bit disappointed to find that I don’t think there is a strong obligation to vote – in fact, when I gave him the 3 minute summary of my views he said “But that’s perfectly sensible” and looked rather depressed. So, here goes with a very rough account of what I said in response to her arguments (beefed up a bit to compensate for the fact that you didn’t hear her arguments, though there are brief accounts in the college paper, here and here).

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Aspirational taste

by Henry on March 5, 2008

“Scott”: had a delightful column over at _IHE_ last week, demonstrating to tyroes like “Matt Seligman”: and “Ezra Klein”: how you _really_ show off your bookish erudition to the world (by affecting, of course not to be at all interested in what the world thinks of your erudition; see further “Chris”: on the cultural politics of ironic gnomes) .
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by Chris Bertram on March 5, 2008

Well here’s an interesting, and worrying, development. BBC2 is about to screen a series of programmes under the general title “White”, which purport to document the fact that the white working class in Britain (or just England?) feels embattled, with its “culture” under threat, and so on. The series includes a film re-examining Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech, and it looks pretty clear that other documentaries will feature not a few blokes beginning sentences “I’m not racist, but ….”

There’s an oddity about the addition of the modifier “white” to “working class”, in the British context. Historically, Britain has been a country where class has trumped ethnicity as the key dimension of social stratification for politics. Class solidarity, and Labour politics, appealed across ethnic and national divisions. Of course ethnicity mattered, but, in the end it was class that structured the institutions in an through which political compromise and conflict happened. Perhaps the prominence given to “white working-class culture” by these film-makers merely reflects the fact that class has been or is being replaced by ethnic balkanization on American lines.

The other thing worth noticing is how various people who position themselves as vaguely transgressive leftists (who spend all their time criticizing “the left”) are anticipating this series. (I’m thinking, of course, of people on the fringes of the Euston Manifesto crowd.) So, for example, John Lloyd (I’m assuming it is the same John Lloyd) has a piece in the FT making sympathetic noises, and Andrew Anthony (a kind of Nick Cohen-lite) had an article in last Sunday’s Observer. Given their leftist background, most “decents” have promoted either a class-based solidarity or an abstract universalism of citizenship in opposition to multiculturalism (which their blogs incessantly attack). But these pieces suggest something new. One possibility is that they are being drawn to the promotion of “my culture too!”, a resentment-driven demand for recognition within a multicultural system; another is that they are pushing the ethnos in the demos. Maybe they haven’t worked it out themselves yet. Either way, it gives me the creeps.