The recent resignations of two prominent experts from state government advisory panels on environmental matters and the Republican-led Congress’ refusal before it left for summer recess to appropriate additional funds to manage the Zika threat reprised a familiar theme of Democrats’ characterizations of their political opponents.
Conservatives, they say, are anti-science. Heck, it’s as if they’ve never heard of the Enlightenment.
The argument has two important extensions that those on the Left frequently lean on, both of which are constructed on faulty logic and a poor grasp of the facts. The first is that liberals and Democrats view the world objectively, building solid theory, deriving logical hypotheses from it, and then gathering information using rigorous empiricism to test their assumptions.
Conservatives, on the other hand, seem to be directed by mysticism and prejudgment, forms of inquiry that produce inconsistent and downright incorrect conclusions about the way the natural world works.
Yet, survey research reveals very mixed results on this. Conservatives, for example, correctly view nuclear power as safe and the cheapest and most environmentally sensitive of nonfossil energy sources. The science also shows their judicious approach to be right on the effects of pesticides and genetically modified organisms.
As with nuclear power, many liberals grossly exaggerate the scientifically established risks of pesticides and GMOs and, what’s more, ignore their capacity to feed the developing world — something no local organic farm could ever do. And while many on the Left think it’s all right to experiment on human embryos, they have a conniption if you start introducing laboratory-produced strains of drought-resistant wheat to a field in Pakistan.
In fact, the self-righteous way many liberals think they form their view of the natural world has imbued them with a kind of fanaticism in other fields. I can take an intellectual beating from a physicist or botanist with good humor. But as a professor who studies politics, I do resent the absolutism of many left-wing academics who, because they think they are correct on the science, are cocksure the same must be true for their social science.
The result is zealotry and attempts — through the media, on college campuses, using economic boycotts — to silence conservatives on public policy, a matter generally thought to be subject to open debate and democratic deliberation.
The second extension is itself an extension, here in the form of a syllogism: Scientists are smart, scientists are Democrats, and therefore Democrats are smart (or at least smarter than dumb Republicans).
It’s hard to disagree with the first proposition, and a 2009 Pew Research poll found that only 6 percent of scientists considered themselves Republicans. But it’s not the case that the conclusion necessarily follows. Although Democrats have been making headway with Americans who have postgraduate degrees, they still win a significant majority of those who never attended college.
The median Republican voter is materially better-educated — does that mean she’s more intelligent? — than her Democratic counterpart.
The scientific community’s allegiance to the Democrats probably is explained by distributive politics, not intellect. Most scientists’ research is financed publicly and the result of government spending — a practice that Democrats embrace particularly tightly when the costs are diffused throughout the massive federal budget.
Just imagine what Congress would be like if it were full of scientists. The collective IQ would jump dramatically, but we’d be throwing billions, possibly trillions of dollars to inhabit Mars, eradicate every disease, and construct particle colliders with little consideration of the odds of success and total expense.
The other critical functions of government would be neglected — technocrats often are incapable of understanding the tremendous breadth and integrated nature of public policy.
Even if conservative skeptics are sometimes wrong on the science, they play a critical role tempering this evangelism, ensuring deliberative and measured decision making; in fact, subjecting the process of making science policy to the same kind of rigor generally practiced when making science itself.
Nowhere is this Madisonian checking and balancing more critical than on climate change. In their zeal to silence critics and make new policies, many on the Left effectively want to shut down the global economy and strangle domestic business.
Estimates range all over the map, but the costs of global warming according to the Natural Resources Defense Council are about 3.6 percent of U.S. gross domestic product by 2100. Such figures ignore the massive economic and social costs of the policies those who calculated them pursue — the practical effects of which on trade and international freedom of movement would be positively Trumpian.
By all means, enthusiastically assert a climate-change skeptic is shaky on the science, but make sure you thank her for the commitment to protect the rich fruits of modern commerce.
Andy Taylor is a professor of political science in the School of International and Public Affairs at N.C. State University. He does not speak for the university.