Aug 24, 2011

Rick Perry and science

Jon Chait and Yglesias pile on to this staggeringly boneheaded article by Kevin Williamson in NRO.  It's actually kind of postmodernist:
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.

Take the question of global warming: Jon Huntsman was quick to declare his faith in the scientific consensus on global warming, and Rick Perry has been openly skeptical of it. Again keeping in mind that nobody really ought to care what either Huntsman or Perry thinks about the relevant science, both are making an error, and a grave one, in conceding that the question at hand is scientific at all. It is not; it is political. One might be convinced that anthropogenic global warming is a real and problematic phenomenon, and still not be convinced that the policies being pushed by Al Gore et al. are wise and intelligent. (Some more thoughts on that here.)

Progressives like to cloak their policy preferences in the mantle of science, but they do not in fact give a fig about science, which for them is only a vehicle to be ridden to the precise extent that it is convenient. This is why they will ask what makes Rick Perry qualified to disagree with the scientific establishment, but never ask the equally relevant question of what makes Jon Huntsman qualified to agree with it. So long as they are getting the policies they want, they don’t care. If you want to see how dedicated a progressive is to dispassionate science, spend two minutes talking about the heritability of intelligence. You’ll be up to your neck in witchcraft and superstition and evasion in no time at all.
Yglesias has the best response, for my money:
I can only assume that Williamson has extremely stupid parents, because this is rank nonsense. How are we supposed to know which environmental policies are wise if we’re not allowed to make reference to scientific evidence about climate change? Does it make sense to treat questions about the implications of different FDA rules for the evolution of antibiotic resistant bacteria as primarily questions about the viability of the Judeo-Christian moral tradition?
Williamson continues:
I have not argued that scientific knowledge does not matter. I have argued that the scientific opinions of people who do not know the first thing about science do not matter.

Scientific disputes are highly specialized, and meaningful participation in them requires a great deal of non-generalist knowledge. I’m generally skeptical of argument from credential, but there’s a time for it. For instance, a great number of scientists have a particular view of global warming. Richard Lindzen has reservations about that view. Professor Lindzen is an atmospheric physicist a full-on professor at MIT. Your average politician is not packing the gear to get in the middle of that fight. I’m not. Chait isn’t, either. Is Lindzen not a real scientist? Is he a kook? Is Jonathan Chait going to make that case? Given two scientists with different opinions about climate forecasting, why exactly ought I to consult Jonathan Chait, or Jon Huntsman? Chait ought to think about seizing one of the many occasions for humility that come his way.
Yes, Lindzen is a kook. It's a judgment call and I'm making it. Chait makes the correct point that a survey of actual climate scientists show that 97-98 percent of working climate researchers believe humans are causing global warming. (That study, incidentally, was done in part by an old high school friend of mine who is a Ph.D candidate at Stanford. Saw him two nights ago for the first time in years, which was great.)

Stepping back a bit, I think Chait and Yglesias are making this a bit too complicated.  The reason it's important that Rick Perry doesn't believe in basic scientific results like climate change and evolution is because those things are obviously true, and denying them reveals blinkered philistine pig ignorance that is extremely disturbing in a national politician.  Unlike Williamson, I do have a degree in science, and I say those principles are not particularly hard to understand, at least in general outline.  Climate change, understood in detail, is college freshman material, and evolution is seventh-grade material at most. Denying the latter, in particular, is as grave a mistake as denying heliocentrism.  Full stop.  Alleged liberal denialism in intelligence and so forth is much more scientifically controversial than Williamson makes out, but in any case it hardly excuses Rick Perry.  The president should be open to basic scientific results.

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