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How conservatives lost their faith in science

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"An analysis of 36 years' worth of polling data indicates that confidence in science as an institution has steadily declined among Americans who consider themselves conservatives, while confidence levels have been at steadier levels for other ideological groups."

Fascinating factoid: highly-educated conservatives are among the least trustful of science!

Here's the horrifying consequence:

In a political climate in which all sides do not share a basic trust in science, scientific evidence no longer is viewed as a politically neutral factor in judging whether a public policy is good or bad.

If we can't agree to common vocabulary, how can we have a conversation?

There are two basic reasons conservatives are becoming more sceptical of science.

1. This is easy: JEEEEEEEEEEEEEEZUZ!!!! Specifically, the insane idea that everything we need to know about the universe is contained in the KJV and that science, being worldly be definition, is Satanic, via the 'Anything not of God is of Satan' canard (which, unsurprisingly, appears nowhere in scripture).

2. The Little Pseudo-Scientists who called Wolf. Remember 'global cooling' in the 70s? Nuclear Winter? the Spotted Owl? ANWR? Peak Oil? 5 Million Homeless? Carter's Malaise Speech? The War on Poverty? the HMO Act? All of it crap. Over and over again fake stats used to justify new bureaucratic alphabet-soup agencies, committees, or commissions.

It doesn't matter what the question is, the answer always seems to be more socialism. Conservatives are so sick of hearing the same song and dance over and over again that if there is legitimate science involved, it gets dismissed out of hand.

So essentially, fake science hurt real science.

Because real science is ever-skeptical, always looking for better explanations, always willing to reject old theories when new observations are taken into account.

Science is compatible with God. Albert Einstein famously said that God does not play dice with the universe; science is the body of knowledge devoted to understanding the rules.

Of course, but when fake or bad science is repeatedly used as a social bludgeon to shill for a particular political ideology, then most people of other persuasions have little choice except judge all science suspiciously.

It does seem like science got as mixed up with politics as religion did.

If both science and religion were removed from politics, what would remain?


Jason, you have some good points and some kinda weird points.

First off, I'm going to leave religion out of it. I know a lot of people of faith who have a scientific worldview and very few who genuinely think scientific knowledge comes from Satan. :)

As to your bigger point about how science seems to inexorably lead to more government regulation... I too am concerned about runaway bureaucracy. Just from a cost point of view, there's no denying that things cost more today because of the need to appease the gods of process. When I read about situations like that in San Francisco where one single person with a grievance can cause multi-year multi-million dollar holdups for "further environmental review" or some other bullshit process thing... I wonder how our country can go on competing with other countries which don't have these costs.

However, I see a lot of this extra cost as being ultimately driven by frivolous and selfish lawsuits brought by individuals and trial lawyers, or by sometimes-misguided public demand (e.g. TSA, seismic retrofitting, ADA, child safety seats), rather than "socialism". In many cases it seems to me that the governmental authorities continuously try to CYA in the face of expensive lawsuits. That is the American system however: to sue our way to truth, justice, and happiness. Just compare our expensive and inefficient system with that of China -- which really IS state socialism! -- where the government can simply impose its will upon the nation without any judicial or legislative review.

Your examples of bad science are weirdly out of date and sometimes trivial. I had to actually look up almost every one of them because, although I was alive during most of them, they just didn't make the huge impression upon me that they seem to have upon you. Also, in many cases the "problem" -- nuclear weapons, wilderness protection on Federal land, healthcare certification -- is under the control of the Federal government because they own or regulate the property in question. The G has the nukes, therefore they SHOULD concern themselves with the consequences of those things going off! Plus nuclear winter was a cool SciFi idea! Where is the big abrogation of liberty caused by Jimmy Carter asking people to wear sweaters that would make you abandon science?!?!? I just don't get it.

I didn't say that science leads to more government regulation. My point is that people use bad science in order to justify more bureaucratic regulation, shoehorning their ideology into the debate as a bludgeon against their enemies.

And, I used that line of historical bad science specifically because the boy who cried wolf had an established historical precedent.... of crying wolf. Back in the day, they were each major political issues. Conservatism, as a political movement, has a fairly long memory... and that's the ultimate subject here.. time after time, decade after decade, the left using bullshit science or statistics to try to get their way... Crying Wolf!

Agree with it or not, that is the big reason conservatives are skeptical towards science.

... And bless you that you haven't come across that many religious people with the backwards attitude of science = Satanism... Travel through the rural South, or Midwest, or Appalachia, or Northern Rockies, or Texas.... your jaw will lock in the "mind blown" position...

While I understand the point of science-at-the-time is wrong often as time goes on can be upsetting. (See recent articles talking about how the best medicine of the last 10 years for menopause and prostate cancer were not effective and actually harmful.) It is as Adam said, always striving to improve. Humans are great when exploring unknown. Science is one of the only areas we continually have to not only explore but also confirm and/or challenge. I do not see that same belief of exploring and challenging in religion which prefers things to stay the same (for most churches since it keeps people coming and keeps money coming in).

A few notes I'd care to make.

If more Americans and American politicians were scientifically literate, there might be a better chance of not governing off of new science "fads". I know this is not a cure-all idea, but it would be a fun experiment to test.

Is the growth of the non-religious (atheists, agnostics, spiritual but not religious, and the no-religious-preferences people) the same thing on the different end of the spectrum? Religion has not been able to keep pace with scientific growth, so people continue to opt-out? Is that why new religions that talk about technology are making roads at the same time the throw-back to olden time extremism is also gaining? Just as American politics have taken to polarization, has American religions too?

There is a show on BBC, now also on Hulu, called Rev. that discusses the difference between the old-school doubt-filled religious beliefs versus the new-age no-doubt Jesus is the answer to everything faith.

The Alain de Botton's Atheism 2.0 is a great answer too, but I have yet to see it in action by anyone.

Finally, Jason, I am not sure the to equation: Goverment - Science - Religion = Economics. I get the idea you were going for, but our morality dictates our spending. Science and Religion both impact Americans' morality. You also left out the go-to answer of Foreign Policy a.k.a. Defense (ha!).

Jared those are excellent points.

Science is sometimes wrong, but the Scientiic Method includes the framework for correcting itself.

The goal of Science is to continually improve our understanding.

It's not Science that political and religious leaders oppose; it's the political use of Science they oppose.

The problem with the scientific method is the same as the problem with everything else discussed above: human judgement/emotion/errors/politics. :) has a good summary of some of the problems, but in general, the scientific method is really only solid if you're paying attention to the data, and you're studying something that you generally already understand. True breakthroughs are rare. The approach is generally not good for solving very hard to solve problems in the short term, e.g. why does the universe exist, what happens after we die, how can we build a practical warp engine, can we live forever, can we (and should we) stabilize our climate to prevent things from changing. Many people make the mistake of assuming if something has not been proven or discovered by the scientific method, then it is simply not real. I think this is the source of many religion vs. atheism debates. We simply don't know enough about how or why the universe exists to really discredit religion, other than to say that man's interpretation of the universe is distorted by what we understand at the time. Take any person alive today, given them today's technology and send them back 2000 years... they would be considered a god. :) The other major challenge is that beyond the basics, most scientific research is very esoteric, understood by very few people on the planet, and frankly not that easy to confirm, reproduce, or even find. Anyway, I'm rambling...

Scientists are human and many of them have human flaws: arrogance, greed, overreaching ambition, overconfidence in bad assumptions, willingness to obsess over tiny details instead of the big picture...

It doesn't mean science is bad to admit that humans are imperfect.

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