Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Dearth of Republican Scientists

There's an essay in Slate today that wins points for turning arguments completely upside-down. In "Lab Politics," author Daniel Sarewitz encapsulates pretty much his entire point in the subtitle: "most scientists in this country are Democrats, and that's a problem."

So far, so good--although my own politics aren't likely to turn Red anytime soon, I don't disagree with his observation. Problem is that he seems to think that the fault of this imbalance lies largely with the scientists themselves, rather than a Republican Party whose unequivocal anti-scientific, anti-intellectual rhetoric has driven the vast majority of scientists away.

Sarewitz spends most of his time discussing the climate change debate, and making the very slippery contention that "disagreements over climate change are essentially political--and that science is just carried along for the ride." To be fair, he doesn't quite assert this: rather, he asks it rhetorically, implying that there's more than a grain of truth to it. He explains:

For 20 years, evidence about global warming has been directly and explicitly linked to a set of policy responses demanding international governance regimes, large-scale social engineering, and the redistribution of wealth. These are the sort of things that most Democrats welcome, and most Republicans hate. No wonder the Republicans are suspicious of the science.

There are at least two misconceptions here. First is that "evidence" about global warming is directly linked to a political program by the scientists themselves--implying that scientists are working in lock-step with the Democratic political establishment to bring about policy change. This is largely nonsense, and ironically describes fairly accurately how the other party operates. Second, nobody "welcomed" climate change as an excuse to legislate "large-scale social engineering,"--whatever that means--so his whole analysis sounds like a daydream to me.

Climate change is a fact. It's extent can be debated, but not its existence. To pretend that "Republicans are suspicious of the science" is to give the Republicans far too much credit: they simply deny that there's any scientific validity to anything with which they disagree a priori. No wonder the Republicans are suspicious of the science--good grief! The Republicans don't believe in evolution! How could you expect them to believe in anything that requires scientific literacy? No Republican politician in this country can reasonably expect to gain the presidential nomination if they support the teaching of evolution in public schools. How could you expect scientists to willingly join such ranks?

There are thinkers on the public scene who are vocal enthusiasts for science and who simultaneously hold beliefs that don't dovetail with the Democratic party: author and football columnist Gregg Easterbrook is one such voice of whom Billy is fond. A generation ago, his politics would have put him squarely in the center of the Republican party. But the Republicans sold their soul to the devil around that time, and decided that the best way to deal with the fallout of unpleasant scientific facts was to attack science itself. Those intellectuals are in search of a home, neither comfortable with the Democratic party (Billy sympathizes, though he no longer finds his home there because he's fallen off the other edge) for political reasons, nor with the Republicans because of their hate-mongering anti-intellecutalism.

So please, Mr. Sarewitz, spare me the false equivalencies.

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