Actually, it Does Matter What Politicians Believe About Science

Kevin Williams at the National Review had a rather controversial article where he posited that it didn't really matter what Rick Perry thinks about evolution, rather science is just another front in the culture war.

"The broader question, however, is: Why would anybody ask a politician about his views on a scientific question? Nobody ever asks what Sarah Palin thinks about dark matter, or what John Boehner thinks about quantum entanglement. (For that matter, I’ve never heard Keith Ellison pressed for his views on evolution.) There are lots of good reasons not to wonder what Rick Perry thinks about scientific questions, foremost amongst them that there are probably fewer than 10,000 people in the United States whose views on disputed questions regarding evolution are worth consulting, and they are not politicians; they are scientists. In reality, of course, the progressive types who want to know politicians’ views on evolution are not asking a scientific question; they are asking a religious and political question, demanding a profession of faith in a particular materialist-secularist worldview."

Of course, this article prompted a backlash from the usual suspects in the reality-base community, (David Roberts has a good overview), but it got me thinking. Why should we care about what politicians think about science? Scientific controversies (even totally artificial ones such as creationism and climate change denial) are outside the scope of what most people, including politicians need to know. They don't know anything, so why should their opinions matter?

It matters because having an opinion on something you know very little about is almost a perfect job description for a politician. From my time as Senate Intern #16, I saw that 60-70 major issues of national importance crossed the Senator's desk every week. There's no way for any human being to express and educated, sensible, let alone correct opinion on these issues, which is why in the real world politicians rely on staffers and outside advisers. Probably the most valuable, and most underrated skill for a politician to have, is knowing which experts to trust, and when to trust them.

So what do the opinions of the GOP candidates reveal about their ability to evaluate experts?

Michele Bachmann: "I think all these issues have to be settled on the base of real science, not manufactured science."

Mitt Romney: "Do I think the world's getting hotter? Yeah, I don't know that, but I think that it is. I don't know if it's mostly caused by humans ... What I'm not willing to do is spend trillions of dollars on something I don't know the answer to."

Rick Perry: "I hear your mom was asking about evolution. That's a theory that is out there, and it's got some gaps in it ... In Texas, we teach both creationism and evolution. I figure you're smart enough to figure out which one is right."

Now, the overwhelming scientific consensus is that A) anthopogenic climate change is happening and B) evolution explains the development of life on Earth, and C) both of these theories are supported by an overwhelming mass of evidence. Now, as an STS scholar, I am more aware of most of the flaws in the institution of science, in the ways that scientific paradigms define what problems are proper, in the ways that knowledge is socially constructed, and the hazards of making judgments at the limits of understanding. But for all its flaws, science works (bitches!) As a means of producing reliable, testable knowledge about the universe, it is unparalleled. For the Republican party to believe that all scientists and all scientific advice, is part of evil conspiracy, and that the truth is somewhere out there despite a complete lack of credible thought or expertise to the contrary, shows that they can't even manage this very simple part of what called the Principle-Agent problem.

It's not about the culture war. It's not about my experts vs your experts. It's that the majority of the GOP candidates (sorry Jon Huntsman) are literally so bad at distinguishing good advice from bad advice, that they might very well hand what remains of the Treasury over to some Albanian pyramid scheme.

Mr Williams, why is it that competency fails the GOP litmus test days?

1 comment:

  1. I'm not sure I understand what you mean by how scientific paradigms determine what problems are proper. Do you have a specific example?

    I think what many of the current candidates are dangerous to the integrity of science. Here is someone in a seat of significant authority telling the masses that science is unreliable and can be ignored if it doesn't match our preconceptions of reality.

    The Truth at All Costs!