Sunday, November 12, 2006

The War on Science has many fronts...

Well, it seems as if for the last two months or so my work life has kept me away from most of my more constructive hobbies. That being said, I’ve finally gotten a chance to sit down with The Republican War on Science by Chris Mooney. Now, I’ve been looking forward to this book for quite some time, but now that I’ve got (the revised paperback edition of) it in front of me, I’m not as impressed as I’d hoped I would be. I suppose it takes a certain degree of polemic to sell popular books on political topics, but Mooney has made some choices in this book that don’t wash well with me, such as constantly referring to “The Right” as proper noun and brushing aside the science-related hypocrisies of the political left, that give this book a somewhat disingenuous voice that detracts from the important message that it is trying to get across.

Now keep in mind that I’m in no way a friend to much of the political right in the United States. What Mooney has set out to discuss in the book is important and very worthy of attention. Still, if the goal is to try to improve the way the public consumes the tidbits of science that we are often fed by those that want our support for one reason or another then intellectual honesty is paramount. We must remember that for every conservative activist trying to muster support for Intelligent Design, there is a leftist activist trying to, oh, I don’t know, convince the president of Zambia to let millions of people starve rather than accept “toxic” transgenic food donations from the west. (See here.) Such fears about transgenic foods are more a matter of distrust of globalization and western domination of world markets than science, but you'll find that many activists would rather make science-ish arguments than say that outright. (For those of you who want further reading on the topic, renowned scientist and humanitarian Norman Borlaug was written a passionate defense of transgenic crops here.)

In any event, it isn't simply a matter of what side of the political aisle one is on. Most people, even educated people, are scientifically illiterate. This goes for politicians and activists looking for science to back up conclusions that they have already reached ideologically, and it certainly goes for us who have to make voting decisions based on the arguments these politicians and activists make. For the most part politicians and activists at either end of the political spectrum aren't bad people, but that doesn't mean that they can't get bad ideas stuck in their heads and find convincing-sounding ways to back them up with poor science or poor readings of science. An impressive sounding science-ish argument coming from a passionate speaker can be a powerfully persuasive thing even if the logic (or science) of the argument is flawed. Most of us don't have time to read up on transgenic crops or the ramifications of the Endangered Species Act to agricultural water supplies, so there's a degree to which we are at the mercy of what we are told by those in positions of authority. What we can do, however, is work to build and apply good crtitical thinking skills, especially when it comes to examining the claims of those who reap some benefit from convincing us of one thing or another.

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