Science, Religion, and Politics

According to the latest issue of Scientific American, science has created high-paying and productive jobs in the United States, and science is the only way to create them in the future.  Certainly, both candidates for President seem to agree with the need for high-paying jobs… or at least pay lip service to the idea. And the Republicans, especially, are pounding on the need for more high-paying and productive jobs.

So why are so many Republicans so anti-science? Why do they deny evolution, global climate change, vaccination, the seriousness of air pollution, and other findings?  Early in 2011, Mitt  Romney made a speech in which indicated that it appeared global warming was human-caused, then quickly made an about-face after Rush Limbaugh blasted him.  John Huntsman, on the other hand, said that the Republican Party couldn’t “run from science,” and not quite coincidentally came in last among all the Republican candidates.

Science was one of the guiding principles of the Founding Fathers.  Benjamin Franklin was one of the world’s leading scientists of his time, although this aspect of his accomplishments often tends to be downplayed.  Thomas Jefferson believed deeply in scientific endeavor and even created his own inventions.  John Adams extolled the scientific method and the verification and use of facts.

So why has there been such a surge in anti-science sentiment in recent years?  And why especially among Republicans [not that Democrats are immune]?

Part of the anti-science movement may be based on the desire for quick and simple answers, and science doesn’t work that way.  Scientists set forth theories, and other scientists try to disprove them… and often they do… or often they discover that one theory is an approximation of the way something works, and a later theory gives a better explanation.  Science is, if you will, methodically messy, and this century’s “truth” often is later discredited.

For all of its messiness, science has a far better record in explaining both the world and how things work than does religion, and yet Republicans in ever-greater percentages are choosing religious rationales and explanations over science. Perhaps it’s the fact that a conservative mind-set values “certainty” in beliefs over something that changes… or maybe religion is more comforting.  Yet these same Republicans certainly wouldn’t turn in their car for a horse and buggy.  Nor would they prefer the medicine of 1850 to that of today, no matter how much they complain about the costs.  They embrace all the physical advantages of science while rejecting the methodology… and anything in science that conflicts with their religion or beliefs.

Not only is this philosophically hypocritical, but it’s a fundamental threat to the future of the United States. Interestingly enough, both candidates are campaigning for better education in the science-based disciplines of engineering, mathematics, and other hard sciences… and yet in state after state Republican lawmakers are passing anti-science laws… on the grounds, largely, that impartial science education undermines religious freedom.  John Adams would be appalled to discover that religious freedom requires the suppression of unpleasant facts and theories and that “religious” theories with no basis in fact must be given “equal time.”  He’d also be appalled to find that politicians are attempting to insert religious beliefs into law under the guise of freedom of religion.

And so should every American.



15 thoughts on “Science, Religion, and Politics”

  1. Tim says:

    Interesting that the US is adopting an increasingly religious (I assume Christian) orientation. In the UK, we are going the other way and Christianity in particular is increasingly becoming a dirty word. The likelihood is that religious charities will lose their charitable status within the next decade. No doubt at some point in the future both our countries will bounce back the other way.

  2. Thomas R. says:

    I think part of the reason is that science demands clear, logical thinking, and it is easier to believe than to think.Also, getting an education requires time and work, which many choose not to do.

  3. R. Hamilton says:

    Religion is not the opposite of science, except when it’s used, just as other things such as socialism are used, to encourage people to become followers rather than fellow travelers – to control them, in effect.

    “evolution, global climate change, vaccination, the seriousness of air pollution, and other findings”: those are NOT comparable. “seriousness of air pollution” EXCEPT for CO2 is easy to agree with – just take a deep breath and cough it out, in those locations where it applies. Vaccinations, anyone who denies that they save lives is an idiot, although there have been bad batches, and there may be one in a million sensitive to something not previously warned of, such that for thousands of lives saved, one may occasionally be lost. Compared to that, global climate change, or more precisely the degree to which it is caused by human activity, is NOT unanimously agreed-on by all applicably qualified scientists, not by any means. Too many of them are paid by governments (or occasionally corporations) with one (or occasionally the other) result preferred by their patrons, as a means of obtaining more power (or money). Nor is anyone clear on the consequences, whether it’s man-caused or man-alterable or not. For all we know, notwithstanding that any change is disruptive, conditions might be BETTER for many people if it were a few degrees warmer. Long-term history could be read to support that notion.

    There’s also been no lack of corruption and fabricated results in other areas of science. So, when something can be made reasonably understandable, read the studies and decide for yourself. If it can’t be made clear, and the case against counter-arguments and challenges can’t also be made clear, then it’s either not mature enough to talk about to non-experts (including most policy-makers), or it’s otherwise just as much of an act of faith as believing in angels or prophets or deities.

  4. You’re still seeing what you want to in terms of global warming. The latest edition of Scientific American gives an extensive listing of all the areas in which global warming is proceeding faster than any of the proponents thought would occur. And Fred Singer — one of the “scientist” drivers of the anti-global warming movement — has been wrong on virtually every issue with which he disagreed with the scientific consensus. You’re absolutely right about the money influencing the debate — and almost all the corporate money is fighting the idea of global warming, including the massively funded and anonymous Donors Trust… not that anyone who thinks global warming isn’t happening will pay much attention to me… or the overwhelming and growing array of facts.

    1. R. Hamilton says:

      Never heard of Fred Singer, have heard of some others. Have talked to some others. Have heard raw data has been dumped. Don’t like that when the corrections needed to work with it on a common basis have at times been defective.

      I don’t want my standard of living cut by 50% or more to subsidize a massive worldwide change of behavior, pure and simple. And I’d rather not subsidize the third world with huge wealth transfers to change THEIR behavior. Doubly for both when such things always stick to the fingers of those in charge, increasing their power (if not directly their wealth).

      The premise that trillions should be spent when we don’t know it will make a difference, and don’t know that whatever difference it will make will be for the better, is crazy. If there’s an advantage to be had from alternative technology, the market ALONE will get to it probably no less effectively and without massive authoritarian wealth redistribution.

      I’d be a libertarian, except someone has to be willing to get rough with the bad guys – power vacuums are always filled, and while some aren’t worth filling, others would be a real problem if left for the nastiest nearby group to fill. We’re the worst choice for that of course, EXCEPT for everyone else.

      It would be interesting to see a list of non-change-of-where-their-money-comes-from “conversions” among qualified scientists over the last four years or so.

      Since I don’t think I’m likely to know enough to decide among known problem, known non-problem, and unknown problem (or for that matter unknown non-problem) based on my own knowledge alone (and I very much doubt that most non-experts are either), perhaps some such statistic might at least offer a little more insight than simply the size of the majority one way (or the other, if it happened to be that way). Science has reached consensus (what’s the plural of consensus?) before, only to have it shown to be at best incomplete and at worst flat wrong.

      Scientific American is _not_ a peer-reviewed professional journal; it’s a magazine for those interested in the topics it covers. It does a better-than-average job for something intended mostly for popular consumption, but it HAS injected itself into issues that have nothing obvious to do with science, and it definitely does have a bit of an editorial agenda visible.

  5. Wine Guy says:

    No one likes rigorous science when it tells them something they do not want to hear. It’s been that way since the Middle Ages – and very likely before then.

    Instead of the Catholic Church killing people who disagree with dogma, now we have a bunch of politicians who deride those who are the new Cassandras… and then bring out their own pet scientists to ‘disprove’ the information. Or, which is even cheaper, ‘review’ the study and say ‘Hmmmm. Interesting, but you don’t have enough data to make a firm conclusion.’ That way, they try to force the person/group to waste time and money.

    And, LEM, it isn’t just Republicans. Democrats use their ‘science’ to force all manner of unnecessary ecological changes in their bid to push government into every corner of US daily life. Plastic bags (most are already recyclable) from grocery stores, blocking large scale solar projects because of specious endangerment of plant/animal/etc. arguments.

    It works both ways, and they (reps and dems) know how to play to their respective audiences.

  6. You’re right about it working both ways. In fact, I should have made it clear that the greatest percentage of anti-vaccine campaigners are liberals and Democrats.

    1. R. Hamilton says:

      If it were libertarians rather than liberals, that would make sense to me – nobody has a right to stick a needle in me without my permission, period.

      But vaccination is not like healthy diet – if a critical percentage are vaccinated, _everyone’s_ odds are better.

      Which tells me that political views (doubtless on either side, but it’s the left I’d sooner see removed from the political landscape permanently, were it possible for human nature to give up the desire to sacrifice liberty for security) are about something other than internal consistency…

  7. Tim says:

    To R.Hamilton. re Sacrificing liberty for security. Your Abraham Lincoln had something to say on that.

    “Must a government, by necessity, be too strong for the liberties of its own people, or too weak to maintain its own existence?” [to Congress on 4th July 1861]

    I found this when I was spreading about the Roman Republic. Hopefully the US will not go the same way.

  8. Joe says:

    The fundamental difference between religion and science is that religion starts by positing certain things exist, such as one or more Gods, and then elaborates on this.

    Science starts by assuming nothing, and then posits as little as possible to model the behavior of large classes of phenomena.

    In this sense Religion and Science are opposites.

    I believe Mr Hamilton’s reasons for disagreeing with climate change are because he does not want to “sacrifice his lifestyle”, not because of any well-founded disagreement with the science itself. This is quite common and was discussed in some detail by the Analysis program on the BBC:

    The US is a funny place. In recent years it has surpassed Europe in the number of Nobel prizes it has been awarded. Yet many Americans distrust science. Indeed it seems to me that many of the discoveries being rewarded come from seeds planted at an earlier time, when Americans still believed in “the miracle of science”. Now most PhD students in the sciences are foreign, as are many of the professors. Americans prefer becoming lawyers, doctors or bankers.

    I wonder whether the current anti-rational backlash does not have its roots in the 1980s with the Evangelical Christians who entered politics to, as they would see it, defend their values against the Supreme Court. I believe it was then that it became fashionable to restrict one’s children’s education to topics one does not find distasteful. Those children have now grown up, vote, and have children of their own. I have spoken to teachers in rural areas who told me that they for instance avoid teaching evolution because it is too “controversial” and the community would reward them by making their life miserable if they did. It is unlikely that these children will be any more convinced by science than their parents were. And yes, this portends badly for USA Inc.

    1. Nate says:

      Joe, if you will please forgive the correction, science does actually have a set of assumptions. It’s a short list and very basic, but science assumes that the physical world is real and consistent and measurable. Very basic assumptions that I certainly agree ought to be assumed. But there are religions (Hinduism springs to mind) that do not hold with the idea of the physical world as the true reality.

      1. Joe says:

        @Nate: Thanks for your comment. However I don’t actually believe that Science assumes the physical world is real.

        I agree that people assume that there is an external reality. Indeed this assumption is necessary to survive. And indeed it is quite entwined with the history of Science, from the Greek atomists on. But it is unfounded. In particular it slowed down progress in Quantum Mechanics. Tunneling, Wave-particle duality, Entanglement all gnaw at our conception of external reality. if you are correct that Hinduism posits true reality to be some other specific thing, that too is an unfounded assumption.

        As a scientist, I’ve found certain forms of Buddhism quite fascinating. They point out that we perceive appearances, but that any solidity we assign to them is a fabrication of our own mind. Working in Artificial Intelligence, I am well aware that I am trying to make my computer distinguish things — discover useful classes of things — so that it may behave appropriately when encountering those things. The classes are artificial but there is information there: if the classes did not reflect some discontinuity in that with which the robot is interacting there would be no useful behavior.

        Science is really about the nature of information. Frankly it boils down to the practical application of Ockham’s rule: do not multiply entities without necessity. A rule about the behavior of appearances should always apply. If it doesn’t, it’s not useful: either the rule is incorrect (the theory of the four humors for instance) or it’s incomplete (Newtonian mechanics break down at small scales).

        1. Nate says:

          Joe, I absolutely agree with you that the assumptions of Hinduism are unfounded. Really I agree with almost the entirety of you post. But Coming from a background in Philosophy any discussion is going to be based on a series of assumptions. Not all assumptions are equal and the assumptions of science are both some of the simplest and most reasonable of any worldview out there. But without using inductive reasoning, you cannot prove that you are the lone being living an illusory existence. That is what I mean by the assumptions of science (and these assumptions are indeed necessary to survival, but Hinduism actually explains the rewards for right living as the escape from the painful illusion that the physical world is).

  9. Mayhem says:

    There is also the issue that many of the people in power grew up in a time of frenetic discovery – from ~1880 to 1970 there was a tremendous increase in scientific knowledge in how the world works.

    The problem is for many of the areas that people are familiar with – engineering and medicine for example – the low hanging fruit has been well and truly picked. This is not to say that new discoveries will be made, rather that most will be incremental improvements instead of drastic changes. And the costs to do make those discoveries have become more and more extortionate, with returns becoming more and more modest.

    But the Republican movement – and to a lesser extent the Democrats – appears to be on a quest to ensure the masses are fed a steady diet of simple narratives, a world of black and white. They deny that shades of grey exist, they espouse a faith based wholesome creed, while practicing the opposite in private.
    Hypocrisy is rife in politics today, the obsession with soundbites means few quotes are properly analysed, and any word not chosen carefully will by siezed upon and used mercilessly to promote an agenda.
    It is deeply depressing.

    A case in point – Gaddafi and Libya. For thirty years, I knew him as the evil dictator of Africa, funnelling arms to terrorist organisations everywhere, and being the nexus of the whole “Axis of Evil” before Bush made it popular. Yet look behind the curtain, and all sides considered him a convenient buffoon, one whose weapons programs were a joke with “scientists” barely able to unpack the boxes. Yet the true story was never told, as his presence became a highly convenient way to divert attention from the end of the Cold War to a new more uncertain world. For more information, check out some of the archival footage from Adam Curtis

  10. Joe says:

    Earlier this year a study on how Conservatives lost their faith in science was published

    I quote: “To summarize the main empirical findings, this study shows that public trust in science has not declined since the 1970s except among conservatives and those who frequently attend church.” It also says that “conservatives were far more likely to define science as knowledge that should conform to common sense and religious tradition.” (versus other interpretations such as Science being the application of the Scientific method).

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