Conservatives and Science

[Jim Manzi]

Patrick Appel points to a very interesting debate about Intelligent Design at The Corner.  (To put my cards on the table, I believe ID to be pseudo-science.)

The debate about evolution is a great example of the kind of sucker play that often ensnares conservatives.  Frequently, conservatives are confronted with the assertion that scientific finding X implies political or moral conclusion Y with which they vehemently disagree.  Obvious examples include (X = the Modern Synthesis of Evolutionary biology, Y = atheism) and (X = increasing concentrations of atmospheric CO2 will lead to some increase in global temperatures, Y = we must implement a global regulatory and tax system to radically reduce carbon emissions).  Those conservatives with access to the biggest megaphones have recently developed the habit of responding to this by challenging the scientific finding X.  The same sorry spectacle of cranks, gibberish and the resulting alienation of scientists and those who respect the practical benefits of science (i.e., pretty much the whole population of the modern world) then ensues. 

In general, it would be far wiser to challenge the assertion that X implies Y.  Scientific findings almost never entail specific moral or political conclusions because the scope of application of science is rarely sufficient.  In fact, for the two examples that I provided, I have tried to show in detail that X does not come close to implying Y.

Conservatism has often been called (by intellectuals) the “stupid party”.  But I think it is more precise to say that healthy conservatism from Burke onwards has been the party of “facts trump theories”.  Naturally, if you are in the business of spinning theories – that is, if you are an intellectual – this can be pretty frustrating, and it will often be to your advantage to characterize this as “stupid”.  But this is what makes contemporary conservative ideology that refuses to engage seriously with the scientific enterprise so damaging: it sacrifices the key conservative virtue of empiricism.

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