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Sep
5th
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Political science: why rejecting expertise has become a campaign strategy

   

"To be clear. I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy." With that tweet, Jon Huntsman set himself apart from every other candidate in the Republican primary field. Despite his phrasing, Huntsman, who is barely registering in most polls, was clearly hoping that the public would believe most other candidates to be a bit loopy by contrast. (…)

Questions about evolution work in this manner on multiple levels. Obviously, on a scientific level, the evidence for evolution is extremely compelling. If you would rather defer to expertise than study it yourself, every scientific society out there that has voiced an opinion on evolution has supported the science and its place in the biology classroom. Finally, the US court system has determined that creationism and its milder cousin, intelligent design, are inherently religious and therefore cannot be taught as “science” in the public school system. (…)

On the climate side, a number of the candidates have never accepted the expertise of groups like the National Academies of Science; a few others have done so (Gingrich and Pawlenty have both supported policies to limit CO2 emissions) but have since disowned that position. Mitt Romney is no longer sure that the planet is warming at all. And Rick Perry has once more staked out the most extreme position, saying that it’s all just a fraudulent attempt to get grant money. “I think there are a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects,” he has said. “And I think we are seeing almost weekly, or even daily, scientists are coming forward and questioning the original idea that man-made global warming is what is causing the climate to change.”

Actually, the consensus about anthropogenic climate change doesn’t appear to be changing; the argument that scientists are in it for the money is transparently bogus.

So, what have we learned from this? With the exception of Huntsman, the candidates don’t know science, haven’t bothered to ask someone who does, and, in several cases, don’t even know anything about the settled policy issues (judicial precedent and investigation of claims about fraud). Why would we want these traits in a president?

Actually, some people do

However, the fact is that Huntsman is barely registering in most polls, and the leading candidates in the Republican party are successful in part precisely because they are voicing an opinion that runs counter to expertise. For many in the US, expertise has taken on a negative cultural value; experts are part of an elite that thinks it knows better than the average citizen. (This is accurate, for what it’s worth.) Very few object to that sort of expertise when it comes time to, say, put the space shuttle into orbit, but expertise can become a problem when the experts have reached a consensus that runs against cultural values.

And, for many in our society, scientific expertise has done just that. Abstinence-only sex education has been largely ineffective. Carbon emissions are creating a risk of climate change. Humanity originated via an evolutionary process. All of these findings have threatened various aspects of people’s cultural identity. By rejecting both the science and the expertise behind it, candidates can essentially send a signal that says, “I’m one of you, and I’m with you where it counts.”

This is not some purely partisan phenomenon. On other issues, rejection of scientific information tends to be associated with the political left—the need for animal research and the safety of genetically modified foods spring to mind. These positions, however, are anything but mainstream within the Democratic Party, so candidates have not felt compelled to pander to (or even discuss) them, in most cases. That’s created an awkward asymmetry, one where a single party has a monopoly on public rejection of scientific information and certain kinds expertise.

For Jon Huntsman, that’s a problem. In an ABC News interview, he argued that the leading candidates’ stance would make them unelectable. "The minute that the Republican Party becomes the party—the anti-science party—we have a huge problem. We lose a whole lot of people who would otherwise allow us to win the election in 2012. When we take a position that isn’t willing to embrace evolution, when we take a position that basically runs counter to what 98 of 100 climate scientists have said, what the National Academy of Science—Sciences has said about what is causing climate change and man’s contribution to it, I think we find ourselves on the wrong side of science, and, therefore, in a losing position." (…)

My biggest concern is that, ultimately, Huntsman may be wrong. We’re in an environment where economic concerns will almost certainly dominate the election. And the campaigns will be covered by a press that cares more about the strategy of what a candidate said than its accuracy, a press that thinks it achieves balance by pretending there are two sides on every issue that merit serious consideration. In that environment, it’s entirely possible that the US electorate may not recognize or care much about the implications of a few scientific questions.

Besides, a candidate who rejects science can apparently use that position to attract the support of somewhere above a quarter of the electorate. That’s not a bad start for a presidential campaign.”

John Timmer, a Bachelor of Arts in Biochemistry at Columbia University, and a Ph.D. in Molecular and Cell Biology from the University of California, Berkeley, Political science: why rejecting expertise has become a campaign strategy (and why it scares me), ars technica, Sep 5, 2011

"The universe doesn’t care what you believe. The wonderful thing about science is that it doesn’t ask for your faith, it just ask for your eyes."



xkcd, Oct 2011

See also:

☞ Chris Mooney, How liberal and conservative brains are wired differently. Liberals and conservatives don’t just vote differently, they think differently
Paul Nurse, Stamp out anti-science in US politics, New Scientist, 14 Sept 2011
☞ Chris Mooney, Why Republicans Deny Science: The Quest for a Scientific Explanation, The Huffington Post, Jan 11, 2012
☞ John Allen Paulos, Why Don’t Americans Elect Scientists?, NYTimes, Feb 13, 2012.
Study: Conservatives’ Trust in Science Has Fallen Dramatically Since Mid-1970s, American Sociological Association, March 29, 2012.

"Trust in Science Has Also Declined Among People Who Frequently Attend Church (…) While trust in science remained stable among people who self-identified as moderates and liberals in the United States between 1974 and 2010, trust in science fell among self-identified conservatives by more than 25 percent during the same period, according to new research from Gordon Gauchat, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research.

“You can see this distrust in science among conservatives reflected in the current Republican primary campaign,” said Gauchat, whose study appears in the April issue of the American Sociological Review. “When people want to define themselves as conservatives relative to moderates and liberals, you often hear them raising questions about the validity of global warming and evolution and talking about how ‘intellectual elites’ and scientists don’t necessarily have the whole truth.” (…)

“It also provides evidence that, in the United States, there is a tension between religion and science in some contexts. This tension is evident in public controversies such as that over the teaching of evolution.”

As for why self-identified conservatives were much less likely to trust science in 2010 than they were in the mid-1970s. (…)”

Republican congressman, member of House science committee Paul Broun says evolution, Big Bang theory and embryology are ‘lies straight from the pit of hell’, The Guardian, 6 Oct 2012
Why people believe in strange things, Lapidarium notes