Saturday, November 03, 2012

Republicans hate science? How Shawn Otto jeopardizes good sense.

A couple days ago, Hiawatha, atheist, anarchist, and political-fringe polymath from Oregon, who sometimes visits us, sent me a link to an article in Scientific American about "How anti-science beliefs jeopardize US democracy."  While the author, Shawn Lawrence Otto, admitted he found a few dingy ideas on the Left (must have looked really hard!), he argued that the real threat -- a tidal wave of inanity greater than any foreign tyranny -- came from the alleged "antiscience" views of the present crop of Republicans.  (Which he tried to tie to both "fundamentalism" and "post-modernism," at one and the same time.) 

My first guess is that some in the Nerdocricy aer taking their lead from the fear-mongering of our present Narcissist-in-Chief  (motto: "no paranoia too petty to stoke for a vote.").  But Otto promises evidence to back up his claim.  Indeed, he begins by appealing to a troika of scientific methods, and the great thinkers who fostered (Otto says created) those methods: physics (Isaac Newton), inductive reasoning (Francis Bacon), and empiricism (John Locke).

This list reminds me of the following lines from Chicken Run:

Rocky: You see, flying takes three things: Hard work, perseverance and... hard work.
Fowler: You said "hard work" twice.
Rocky: That's because it takes twice as much work as perseverance.

Apparently the scientific method similarly takes twice as much gathering of data as physical study of that data.  So in what follows, let's be both empirical and inductive, and perhaps a little physical, in our analysis of Otto's take-down against the Republican Party.

First, Otto offers an overview:  

In this election cycle, some 236 years after Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence, several major party contenders for political office took positions that can only be described as “antiscience”: against evolution, human-induced climate change, vaccines, stem cell research, and more.  A former Republican governor even warned that his own political party was in danger of becoming “the antiscience party.”

Inductively, this raises the question: who said these things?  What former governor?  But a larger question prods the outer shell of our awareness: what are Otto's empirical reasons for thinking retrograde stances on stem-cell research somehow constitute a greater threat to American freedomsthan, say, an Iran with nukes, or a $16 trillion dollar debt?  (Or is it $18 trillion, now?  I blinked, and may have missed the new figures.) 

Otto makes it clear he thinks that threat to our Republic from Republicans is dire, throwing around terms like "existential crisis," "science denialism," and a turn away from the "anti-authoritarian principles of the nation's founders." 

Romney says he wants to reduce federal spending to 20% of GDP over several years, a bit above the Clinton norm, but down from the Himalayan heights to which it has ascended under Obama.  Why do the authoritarians want to decrease government power?  And why are the anti-authoritarians dramatically increasing it?  And isn't the appeal to science to establish certain givens about reality (evolution, global warming) itself an appeal to authority?  Otto deftly sidesteps all these questions, and explains his own existential angst:   

What has turned so many Americans against science—the very tool that has transformed the quality and quantity of their lives?

So far, Otto has offered no empirical evidence that they have done any such thing, and as we will see, he will offer very little. 

But in any case, we need to make a distinction, here.  A person should not be described as "anti-science" if he makes a scientific error, but only if he expresses general loathing of or opposition to science as a whole.  (Rather than the particular use of science to build atomic weapons, say, or to kill unborn babies more efficiently, which even someone who likes science may feel qualms about, I hope Otto will agree.)  If a given speaker makes scientific errors (and everyone makes some, even Einstein and Darwin), it might be better to just call him "scientifically ignorant."  Similiarly, Otto describes Republicans as "antiscience," without the habitual hyphen between "anti" and "science," but that by itself does not make him "anti-grammatical," just (one might suppose, unless they changed the rules on me) intermittently weak at grammar.  And failing to make careful distinctions between making scientific errors and wanting to shut down science labs and burn scientists at the stake, does not necessarily make Otto "anti-rational," just bad at logic (depending on how many such errors we find), or disengenuous. 

And what about Democrats who make scientific errors?  Otto offers a distinction between "science denialism" among Democrats, which is motivated by concern for health and the environment, and among Republicans, which "tends to be motivated by antiregulatory fervor and fundamentalist concerns over control of the reproductive cycle."

Presumably this latter refers to the fact that most Republicans oppose the killing of unborn babies.  Again, it seems uncharitable to frame Christian concerns as a desire to "control the reproductive cycle," rather than to save children, given the long, noble Christian history of standing up for the marginalized, and how we really explain our concern.  But we've grown used to that kind of misrepresentation from "pro-choicers." 

Otto concentrates first on Global Warming and evolutionary theory:

Examples are the conviction that global warming is a hoax (billions of measurements show it is a fact) or that we should “teach the controversy” to schoolchildren over whether life on the planet was shaped by evolution over millions of years or an intelligent designer over thousands of years (scientists agree evolution is real).

Again, this is simplistic to the point of creating straw men.

Global Warming, 1880-2000
Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) theory of the Al Gore type involves four claims: (1) The atsmosphere has warmed slightly over the past century; (2) The most important cause of that warming is the artificial release of greenhouse gases like CO2 and methane by human activity, especially the use of fossil fuelds; (3) This trend is due to continue and result in catastrophic changes; (4) We should therefore take certain drastic measures to stop it. 

Otto's comment focues on just the first and, to my mind and that of many other observers, least controversial claim.  Taking all four claims en toto, one could just as easily claim that Al Gore is a charlatan and that proponents of Global Warming are "anti-science" for the many gross errors THEY commit.  (I once heard the former head of Social Sciences at Oxford University claim, among other whoppers, that CO2 was the most common greenhouse gas in the atmosphere!  And that in foggy England!) 

Otto is equally simplistic about evolution.  Yes, "scientists agree evolution is real."  But the controversy that some propose we teach has nothing to do with a young Earth, as Otto implies, nor does the other side "deny evolution" altogether.  If Otto were up on the issue (as he ought to be, writing in the Scientific American), he would know this.  If he were also honest, he should admit the matter is much more complex than this caricature.  The issue is whether there is evidence in biological entities for design, not whether "evolution occurs," which is hardly even controversial at the Discovery Institute. 

And again, what is Otto's evidence that alleged Republican "anti-science" thinking is a threat to American democracy greater than Iranian nukes, or the entitlement spending the Democrats refuse to reform? (Because they are "anti-math," perhaps?) 

Otto further claims that the Republican party has adopted an:

Authoritarian approach that demands ideological conformity, even when contradicted by scientific evidence, and ostracizes those who do not conform.

If this is so, why did the Republican Party nominate Mitt Romney, who says he believes in Global Warming? 

And couldn't one make the same argument against any political party?  How many pro-life Democrats are left?  Isn't it the tendency of all political parties, unions, even wolf packs, to lobby members to act together for better results?  Isn't social conformity to achieve a specific goal itself the result (on Otto's assumptions) of evolutionary pressures?  And couldn't one equally well say that pretending unborn children are "not human" is "antiscience?"

Is Mitt Romney anti-science? 

Answering the first question alone, Otto accuses Romney of excecuting an 'about face" on Global Warming.  Here are the two statements from Romney that Otto thinks proves this charge:

(a). I believe the world is getting warmer . . . I can't prove that, but I believe based on what I read that the world is getting warmer, and number two, I believe that humans contribute to that.

(b) My view is that we don't know what's causing climate change on this planet, and the idea of spending trillions and trillions of dollars to try and reduce CO2 emissions is not the right course for us.

Which raises the question: "Where in either of these statements does Romney voice any animis against science at all?"  Nowhere, of course.  Even if Romney is wrong, Otto has no basis for characterizing either view as "anti-science." 

One could, I suppose, characterize the first quote as "authoritarian," since Romney appeals to scientific authority ("what I read").  For some reason, Otto gives him a pass on the nascient authoritarianism he seems to be lapsing into, when the authority is one Otto approves of.   

Anyway, is there any real contradiction between these two statements? 

Not if they are read charitably.  In the first, Romney affirms AGW1, that the world is getting warmer.  He also affirms a weak form of AGW2, that humans "contribute to that." 

Contribute how much?  One percent?  Ninety-nine percent?  Personally, looking at a graph of warming over the past century (such as that above), the history of glaciers since the mid 19th Century, and the growth in worldwide output of CO2 over that period, all sets of data provided by scientists, I think it probable that human activity has contributed between about 0.3 and 0.6 degrees of the one degree or so of warming that has occurred over the past century.  Supposing Romney or his science advisers to hold a similiar view, it would be easy to reconcile (a) and (b) above to that position, and to one another.

The second quote is mainly directed at AGW3 (the threat of further Global Warming) and especially AGW4 (what to do about it).  Charitably, one could read Romney as saying, "My view is that we don't know what's causing most or all this climate change, or if it is really that much of a crisis, or if these expensive plans that have been proposed are really wise right now, with our economy in a ditch. Yes, the world is getting slightly warming, and yes, human beings do seem to be contributing something to that, but scientists may not be able to specify exactly how much, and what all the drivers of warming have been, and how they relate to one another, exactly.  It would be foolish in the extreme to spend "trillions and trillions" of dollars in a vane attempt to reverse that slight warming, especially when there may be cheaper options, and it is not clear yet that the threat is all that dangerous." 

Far from being "anti-scientific," or even wrong (two very different things), that would seem to me a sensible and supportable position, and I think many informed scientists (some of whom I have met) agree with it. 

Otto's accusation then is shallow, one-sided, inconsistent with itself, and even "unscientific" (the word "antiscience" still sticks in my craw as overkill). 

Smaller and smaller "anti-scientific" Republicans

Otto now throws down his Jack of Spades:  

House Speaker John A. Boehner, who controls the flow of much legislation through Congress, once argued for teaching creationism in science classes and asserted on national television that climate scientists are suggesting that carbon dioxide is a carcinogen.

The term "creationism" is as wiggly as "evolution" and "global warming," and again, without direct, in-context quotes (the link goes nowhere helpful), these vague attributions are just hot air, as I think any climate scientist would recognize.   

Probably Otto does not know whether any climate scientists have ever suggested that carbon dioxide causes cancer.  It would be a lot easier to evaluate Otto's claim, if he had furnished a direct quote and a source.  Especially considering how slippery his representations of opposing views have proven so far. 

Otto does cite an individual House member directly, however:  

Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota warned in 2011 during a Florida presidential primary debate that “innocent little 12-year-old girls” were being “forced to have a government injection” to prevent infection with human papillomavirus (HPV) and later said the vaccine caused “mental retardation.” HPV vaccine prevents the main cause of cervical cancer. Religious conservatives believe this encourages promiscuity. There is no evidence of a link to mental retardation.

I remember that incident well.  Notice, first, that Bachmann's initial claim would be historical, not scientific per se, and second that Otto does not contradict it.  Why does he quote it, then? 

Secondly, in fact Bachmann did NOT say the vaccine causes mental retardation.  It is sad when so respected a magazine as Scientific American prints tendentious misrepresentation of a public official's words in an effort to score cheap political points. 

Here's what Bachmann actually said:

"There’s a woman who came up crying to me tonight after the debate. She said her daughter was given that vaccine,” Bachmann said on Fox News. “She told me her daughter suffered mental retardation as a result. There are very dangerous consequences.

This is, admittedly, a terrible argument, and Bachmann later backtracked on it.  Indeed, she was called on this bad anecdotal argument by non other than Rush Limbaugh, whom Otto has already impugned as "anti-science."  She was also called on it by her Republican competitors.  But she did not say the vaccine causes mental retardation, she says a woman reported that it did.  Otto's error in this case is the greater, since Bachmann was speaking off-the-cuff, while Otto had plenty of time to read the real story before getting his false version published in Scientific American, a magazine that apparently now vies to compete with MSNBC News for salatious slander. 

Such gaffs are common coin in politics, and one way to weed out competitors who cannot control their tongues.  One of the most gaff-ridden politicians in the history of the planet is the present Vice President.  Just yesterday Joe Biden said, "There's never been a day in the last four years that I've been proud to be his [Obama's] vice president. Not one single day."  Last I checked, Joe Biden was a Democrat.  So which is more visible on the chessboard of American politics: a representative from the far north, or the Vice President?  Are a few 4.0 Richter-scale gaffs really equal to the ;ong series of 8.5 gaffs this VP has steadily let loose?

And do gaffs (repudiated by the Republican Party) really constitute an "anti-science" position, or an "existential" threat to the American Republic? 

If so, what about Mr. Otto's own, more considered, bloopers, including his miscitation of Bachmann? 

Perhaps in that case, he really does have a point.  Dishonest journalism, supported by important magazines like Scientific American, can indeed hurt society in grave ways. 

Then Otto reaches back in his glove, and pulls out a former Speaker of the House, then an obscure senator, and throws them towards the plate:  

Newt Gingrich, who supported doubling the budget of the National Institutes of Health and who is also a supporter of, began describing stem cell research as “killing children in order to get research material.”

Otto may support abortion rights, and he may find it a stretch to call an infant a "child" at such an early stage, but what does this have to do with Gingrich's views on science? 

Todd Akin, who is running in Missouri against Claire McCaskill, said that from what he understood from doctors, pregnancy from rape is extremely rare because “if it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” Akin sits on the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, which is responsible for much of the U.S. federal science enterprise, so he should be aware of what science actually says about key policy issues.

I have caught Richard Dawkins and other leading scientists in blatant scientific errors in their published works, from time to time.  Why should we hold politicians to so much higher standards of scientific accuracy than actual scientists, not in their published works, but in oral comments? 

As Otto, or any journalist worth his salt, ought to know, the Republican Party not only disavowed that statement, but actually went to the extreme of asking Akin to quit the race.  That seemed like going too far to me.  So what if Akin bought into this urban myth?  On the face of it, it would seem less likely that a woman would conceive from a rapist than from a lover: there would even seem to be an evolutionary advantage to bearing a child with a supportive male.  Otto claims it's actually the other way around, and maybe it is.  But I see nothing at all shocking about a senator not knowing that arcane fact, which I have never heard before.  Nor, for that matter, had I ever heard of Akin. 

Which brings up a bigger question.  Why is Otto quoting this obscure candidate, saying a dumb thing in an obscure forum, in the first place?  Does he imagine that Democratic candidates for senator never have to eat crow? 

Imagine if you recorded everything that Democratic senators and representatives have said over the past four years in public.  Suppose you had the manpower of the whole Journalistic-Industrial Complex to sift through all that verbiage, and preserve whatever minority of their comments that were absurd, obscene, unfair, or politically-stupid. 

How many shelves in your local library could you fill with transcripts? 

Finally, we descend to state politics, and Otto offers his first actual piece of legislation, to justify his fears of the Republican Apocalypse: 

In North Carolina this year the state legislature considered House Bill No. 819, which prohibited using estimates of future sea-level rise made by most scientists when planning to protect low-lying areas. (Increasing sea level is a predicted consequence of global warming.) The proposed law would have permitted planning only for a politically correct rise of eight inches instead of the three to four feet that scientists predict for the area by 2100.

Here's the wording the North Carolina legislature actually passed, and its Democratic governor allowed to pass into law (another fact conveniently ommitted by Otto -- did he even bother to google his favorite news stories before writing this article?):  

The Commission shall direct the Science Panel to include in its five-year updated assessment a comprehensive review and summary of peer-reviewed scientific literature that address the full range of global, regional, and North Carolina-specific sea-level change data and hypotheses, including sea-level fall, no movement in sea level, deceleration of sea-level rise, and acceleration of sea-level rise. When summarizing research dealing with sea level, the Commission and the Science Panel shall define the assumptions and limitations of predictive modeling used to predict future sea-level scenarios. The Commission shall make this report available to the general public and allow for submittal of public comments including a public hearing at the first regularly scheduled meeting after March 31, 2015. Prior to and upon receipt of this report, the Commission shall study the economic and environmental costs and benefits to the North Carolina coastal region of developing, or not developing, sea-level regulations and policies. The Commission shall also compare the determination of sea level based on historical calculations versus predictive models.

Now I realize that, aside from Scientific American, the great Stephen Colbert has scoffed at this piece of legislation.  That is, of course, how Colbert earns the fruited Granola bars in which his biweekly salary arrives. 

But to read some sort of dire "AntiScience Apocalypse" into this mild piece of legislation, overshoots hysteria on an Olympic Luge ride down into paranoia.  Maybe if, instead, it had stipulated:

The Commission shall direct the Science Panel to strip their white smocks and bare their necks for the sharp blade of the National Razor . . .

I could see justification for getting so worked up over it.  As is, "Build on slightly higher ground, but if you believe in AGW, then only buy the houses on even higher ground while we examine the new reports our scientific experts are directed to produce every few years" is not going to replace the Zombie Apocalypse as a screen play for Halloween horror flicks any time soon.  At least not as long as we have Harry Reid as Senate Majority Leader.      

Otto then offers a history of "anti-scientific views in the US," which I will skip, to the point at which he veers (finally) into philosophy.  At that point things get a bit more interesting.  

"An Antiscience Philosophy"

If both Democrats and Republicans have worn the antiscience mantle, why not just wait until the pendulum swings again and denialism loses its political potency? The case for action rests on the realization that for the first time since the beginning of the Enlightenment era in the mid-17th century . . .

The alleged Enlightenment (a dubious historical category) had almost nothing to do with the rise of science, which had been under way long before it supposedly began.  The beginning of the alleged  Enlightenment is usually dated to the 18th, not the 17th, Century.  Is Otto pushing it back a century to make the Science-Enlightenment link seem credible?  If so, does this make Otto "antihistory?," too?

The very idea of science as a way to establish a common book of knowledge about the world is being broadly called into question by heavily financed public relations campaigns.

At first I responded, "Not well enough financed for me to have ever heard of them."  But then Otto traced the infection to "postmodernism," and a light went on:

Acceptance of this relativistic worldview undermines democracy and leads not to tolerance but to authoritarianism.  John Locke, one of Jefferson's “trinity of three greatest men,” showed why almost three centuries ago.  Locke watched the arguing factions of Protestantism, each claiming to be the one true religion, and asked: How do we know something to be true? What is the basis of knowledge?  In 1689 he defined what knowledge is and how it is grounded in observations of the physical world in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Any claim that fails this test is “but faith, or opinion, but not knowledge.” It was this idea—that the world is knowable and that objective, empirical knowledge is the most equitable basis for public policy—that stood as Jefferson's foundational argument for democracy.

I won't pretend to know Jefferson's thinking, or even that of Locke, of whose work I have read a little, well enough to judge Otto's specific claim, here.

Locke was a student and friend of some of the leading scientists of the Scientific Revolution in England: John Wilkins, Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton.  All three (overlapping with Jefferson's earlier trio) were zealous Christians.  Boyle funded a lecture series defending the truth of Christianity in his will, also the translation of the Bible into new languages.  Locke wrote a book called The Reasonableness of the Christianity, as Delivered in the Scriptures.  So whatever Otto means by the "Enlightenment," the heroes he is appealing to found Christianity intellectually plausible.   

Following the methods of Bacon and Locke, one must ask empirically whether the modern Christians Otto is rebuking, are more like Boyle, Newton, and Locke who argued for their faith, or like post-modernists, who presumably do not.  The answer for someone like me, who grew up in evangelical churches, is obvious.  Conservative Christians overwhelmingly take their faith to be objectively true, and sargue that it is supported by a rich panoply of evidence.  Long before physicist Alan Sokal fooled the postmodern journal Social Text into publishing his satire "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutic of Quantum Gravity," Christian teachers I grew up on, like C. S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer, were insisting on what Schaeffer called "true truth," body-slamming what is now called post-modernism, at least in its representations of truth.  (There may be something to be said for other aspects of post-modernism, such as its love of stories, and suspicion of human motives, for examples.) 

Otto simplistically casts his own story as Modernist vs. Post-Modernist, assigning conservative Christians to the "postmodernist" camp simply because he disagrees with them:

By falsely equating knowledge with opinion, postmodernists and antiscience conservatives alike collapse our thinking back to a pre-Enlightenment era, leaving no common basis for public policy. Public discourse is reduced to endless warring opinions, none seen as more valid than another. Policy is determined by the loudest voices, reducing us to a world in which might makes right—the classic definition of authoritarianism.

But what did we have before the much ballyhooed "Enlightenment?"  Not post-modernism, by any means.  That is an absurd description of the great civilization that gave birth (not the "Enlightenment") to modern science itself, along with many other wonderful things. 

The Christian view of truth goes back to the New Testament itself, then was developed by thinkers like Augustine, Anselm, and Thomas Aquinas, producing the elaborate, yet intellectually coherent Medieval synthesis that gave birth to the modern world.

Michael Behe may be wrong, but he is no post-modernist.  Darwin's Black Box and Edge of Evolution are highly empirical arguments. 

In general, Otto's focus on the so-called "Enlightenment" is provincial "antihistory:"

Facts ARE stubborn things.
“Facts,” John Adams argued, “are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” When facts become opinions, the collective policymaking process of democracy begins to break down.  Gone is the common denominator—knowledge—that can bring opposing sides together. Government becomes reactive, expensive and late at solving problems, and the national dialogue becomes mired in warring opinions.

But in fact, Christianity has always appealed to facts, and continues to do so today. Religious conservatives don't argue that we should ignore facts, but that Otto and his ilk get too many facts wrong.   Otto makes it easier for us to make that argument, simply by bungling so many facts -- facts that are public record, and he ought to get right -- in the course of rebuking his political opponents. 

The deeper problem here is not science, though, but bad history, bad philosophy, or perhaps bad journalism.  Otto simply needs to reconcile himself to doing even-handed and honest research, and then reporting it fairly.  The Internet has enough quote-miners and small-minded slanderers as it is. 

1 comment:

Doug said...

"How anti-sense thinking jeopardizes US journalism"?