Secular Right | Reality & Reason

Jan/09

31

Who’s the More Science-Hostile, Right or Left?

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Following my having said (previous post) that any political position will find some human-science results obnoxious, a reader asked me, off-line, to identify a finding — not a practice, like embryo-destructive stem cell research, but a finding — that is obnoxious to conservatives.

I think the leading candidate here is the work on child development showing that parenting styles don’t matter much, perhaps not at all above a certain very low level (locking the kids in the basement and feeding them cat food). The canonical statement was given by Judith Rich Harris in The Nurture Assumption:  “Group socialization theory makes this prediction: that children would develop into the same sort of adults if we left their lives outside the home unchanged — left them in their schools and their neighborhoods — but switched all the parents around.” That’s got to be painful for a family-values conservative to read, yet it seems to be the current consensus.

For the Left, pretty much anything to do with heritability of human characteristics, other than undeniable visible ones, is obnoxious because such things violate the “psychic unity of mankind” (in its modern reading, which seems to me not precisely congruent with Bastian’s). Most obnoxious of all to the Left is the idea that homo sap., like any other widely-distributed species, exhibits regional variations between its big, old, settled, mostly-inbred populations.

It’s an interesting question whether the Right or the Left is more science-hostile, net-net. I insist that ideologues on both sides are science-hostile; but which kind of politics is more of an obstacle to the advance of our understanding, is arguable. Since science is mostly carried out in places where Right Creationists, Geocentrists, etc.  have no influence, but blank-slate Left “culturists” and po-mo words-have-no-meaning deconstructionists have tremendous influence, I’d guess the Left has the potential to do more damage, at least in the human sciences. I’d defer to Mr. Hume on this, though, as he’s better acquainted with the situation on the ground, in actual labs and institutes.

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36 comments

  • Russell Miller · January 31, 2009 at 9:24 am

    Creationists have no influence because it has no basis in reality.

    I maintain that scientists are mostly good people and if you can prove something or show strong enough evidence for something, give them a little time to get over their ingrained biases and they’ll listen to you.

  • kevlaw · January 31, 2009 at 10:21 am

    > a reader asked me…to identify a finding…that is obnoxious to conservatives.

    * The climate is changing
    * Climate change is caused by human activities
    * Disappearing species
    * Sonar interferes with whale migration
    * Harmful effects of lead, MTBE, sulphur dioxide (etc)
    * (let’s just say environmental issues in general)
    * Abstinence education is counter-productive
    * (Let’s say reproductive issues in general)
    * Origin of the species/descent of man
    * Geological age of earth/universe
    * Findings related to the side-effects of drugs

    It’s true that not all conservatives are hostile to all these findings but I might say the same about your list wrt liberals and it’s certainly true that some very prominent conservatives are hostile to them and have been instrumental in affecting policy as a result.

  • Daniel Dare · January 31, 2009 at 11:00 am

    I am confused. Doesn’t religious belief transmit in families?

  • Ploni Almoni · January 31, 2009 at 11:02 am

    The canonical statement was given by Judith Rich Harris in The Nurture Assumption: “Group socialization theory makes this prediction: that children would develop into the same sort of adults if we left their lives outside the home unchanged — left them in their schools and their neighborhoods — but switched all the parents around.” That’s got to be painful for a family-values conservative to read, yet it seems to be the current consensus.

    Not too painful. For one thing, the above prediction does not imply that the home environment is unimportant to the children’s personalities. It’s quite possible that widespread single-parenthood, for instance, causes lots of individual and social problems, even if Harris’ assertion is true — that is, even if it doesn’t make much difference for any given family individually. That would be consistent because the variation is all within a single given environment, namely ours.

    The basic problem for conservatives on this issue, especially neoconservatives like Kay Hymowitz and others who hang out at places like City Journal and National Review, is that they love to cite studies which don’t take genetic effects into account and are therefore worthless. That’s the bad new that behavioral genetics brings: not that the conservatives’ conclusions are false, just that they’re not (yet?) supported by good evidence.

  • Author comment by Bradlaugh · January 31, 2009 at 11:48 am

    #1  Neither does blank-slatism have any basis in reality, not if you’ve ever raised kids. That isolated populations of a species will diverge is Biology 101 — it is in fact the origin of species! The Left is just as cloth-eared as the Right over things it doesn’t want to believe.

    #2  Sure, I was just trying to think of a top example.

    #3  Harris’s "sort of adults" refers to measurable qualities of personality, intelligence, etc., not to secondary characteristics like religion. How religious you end up, is included in the "sort of," but which precise confession, isn’t. It’s just a painted-on feature. My kids got a smattering of Chinese from their Mom, and seem to be carrying it into their adult lives, which would not be the case if we’d done the swap-parents-round after birth. It doesn’t really tell you anything about what kind of people they are, though.

    #4  Roger on your last. This conservative, though, feels a definite twinge of pain on reading that "it takes a village …" That seems to be what the science says, though, as best I understand it.

  • Author comment by Steel Phoenix · January 31, 2009 at 12:20 pm

    It isn’t so much a question of hostility as willingness to legislate based on a specific religion.

    Stem cell research.
    Abortion
    Assisted suicide.
    Teaching of creationism and intelligent design in science classes.
    Nudity
    Reproductive education.
    Cloning

    All of these could be argued on merit, but most often are argued because of Christian uneasiness.

  • Gotchaye · January 31, 2009 at 12:50 pm

    Perhaps it’s a generational (fresh out of college) thing, but I don’t know that I’ve met many blank slaters my own age. The one friend of mine that I know was a blank slater at one point was disabused of that in the course of getting a psych degree. A lot of people find this reality regrettable, but I haven’t noticed a tendency to reject it in people my age.

    My feeling is that the left is going to tend to be friendlier to science, though that may not have anything to do with scientific facts or the actual content of their beliefs. It’s no secret that scientists lean left, and social scientists are particularly liberal. Because of that, it’s just easier for liberals to trust scientists, whereas conservatives always have the psychological option of discounting a scientific consensus as tainted by politics.

  • Tulse · January 31, 2009 at 2:56 pm

    That isolated populations of a species will diverge is Biology 101 — it is in fact the origin of species!

    Of course. What is at issue is: a) how much isolation is there in modern humans?; b) how much divergence has resulted?; c) is any such divergence in behavioural characteristics or mental capacities that are relevant to the function of society?; d) even if they exist, are such divergences larger or more intractable than those produced primarily through the developmental environment of the individual?

    Without answering these questions, the posturing about Biology 101 is just that, posturing. Let’s indeed be rationalists and get evidence for specific qualities, and not make grand, sweeping, naive statements.

  • Author comment by David Hume · January 31, 2009 at 4:38 pm

    I think these assertions are really hard to make on a general sweeping scale. Let’s just fight on an issue-by-issue basis. The fact that scientists are on average Leftish and secular means they come at issues with a built-in bias against the Right-leaning positions. OTOH, this is coupled with a perception by many Right-leaning individuals that there are grand scientific conspiracies to doctor the data (as opposed to interpretation) in a conscious manner.

  • Secular Right » Judith Rich Harris & nurture & nature · January 31, 2009 at 6:54 pm

    […] Bradlaugh & Heather have mentioned Judith Rich Harris, I would recommend both of her books, The Nurture […]

  • PFJO · January 31, 2009 at 10:55 pm

    I’m not sure that it matters which side is more hostile to science. The more important question is which sides hostility will do the most damage. It’s one thing to be dispute the big-bang… how much damage does that really do? It’s another entirely to be making public policy based on faulty sociological, economic, and genetic assumptions.

    I would argue that both sides are comparable in their anti-science position but the left has done, and will continue, to do more damage as a result.

  • Ploni Almoni · January 31, 2009 at 11:42 pm

    @Bradlaugh

    I think I understand what Harris means by “personality,” and I meant the same thing by it. Given that parental behavior may strongly affect personality indirectly through unshared environment (e.g., peer groups), the falsity of the “blank slate hypothesis” is of limited relevance to the question of the effect of widespread single parenthood etc. on children.

    On pretty much the same note, I strongly disagree with your point number 4. Conservatives, as opposed to libertarians, should be encouraged in at least one way by Harris’ “it takes a village” hypothesis. One of the main forces against cultural conservatism is social libertarianism, coming from both Libertarians and liberals. The libertarians say, “If you don’t want little Johnnie to watch what’s on TV, just turn it off.” Of course there are a million variations on this example. Conservatives reply, “Nope, turning off our TV won’t make much difference if all of Johnnie’s classmates are watching the same garbage.” Conservatives would do well to enlist Ms. Harris (willingly or not) in our fight.

  • Donna B. · January 31, 2009 at 11:45 pm

    The nitty-gritty is funding. Each side is more open with funding (when they are in charge) in areas that promote their ideology.

    My problem with most scientific findings AS PRESENTED TO THE PUBLIC is that they are ideologically slanted. The actual research may not be. The interpretation by the scientists involved might be slanted a bit, but by the time it gets to mass distributors of news, it’s sometimes unrecognizable.

    For example – obesity. It’s not socially attractive. But is it intrinsically unhealthy at unattractive levels? Is thinness, though popularly attractive as healthy as 25 “extra” pounds? This is an area where aesthetics may be driving interpretations of research, AND where long disproven hypotheses are hard to overcome in the popular press.

    Further, are obese people healthier before or after bariatric surgery? It’s a short term success is my guess. Five years after surgery, they may be healthier. Twenty years after surgery, they may not be. Long term results are just becoming available.

    It’s not so much right or left, as it is socially acceptable. For the moment, right and left agree that being fat is socially unacceptable. Does that agreement make the science better?

  • Daniel Dare · February 1, 2009 at 5:54 am

    It’s not that the left or the right think that some of the findings of science are obnoxious. Science is only the discoverer, the messenger.

    It’s that they find certain aspects of reality obnoxious……

    “It’s an interesting question whether the Right or the Left is more science-hostile, net-net.”

    It’s an interesting question whether the Right or the Left is more delusional.

  • Kevembuangga · February 1, 2009 at 9:24 am

    It’s an interesting question whether the Right or the Left is more delusional.

    Thank you, I am neither Right nor Left, repelled by and being repulsive to both.
    I cannot guarantee I am not delusional though…

  • Caledonian · February 1, 2009 at 11:07 am

    “Science is only the discoverer, the messenger.”

    Yeah, but people who dislike reality have a tendency to shoot the messenger.

  • Joshua Zelinsky · February 1, 2009 at 5:16 pm

    The claim that creationists do not have any influence is false. Most visibly at the state level this is clear when one sees how many states every legislative session get anti-evolution bills. And you have all the people on state educations boards.

    Moreover, anti-evolution sentiment exists and continues to exist at the federal level. The Santorum amendment is the most obvious example although there is much less federal influence than there is state influence.

    Also, in regards to whether or not the right or the left is more anti-science, there are anti-science elements in both. The most prominent anti-science element on the left is probably the anti-vaccination groups (which oddly have not been mentioned here).

    I don’t think there’s any overall natural tendencies for more left or rightward sides to be more anti-science than the other. This is connected to the issue that left and right aren’t generally very well-defined notions. However, empirically speaking, the right in the United States over the last decade has been much more anti-science. We’ve had a Republican vice-presidential candidate who repeatedly bashed scientific research and was dismissive about research into “fruit flies”. This is but one example. There are many anti-science elements in both the Republican and Democratic parties but at present the anti-science elements in the Republican party have far more influence than those in the Democratic party.

  • Argon · February 1, 2009 at 6:41 pm

    Creationists cost the Dover, PA school board a million bucks.

  • ◄Dave► · February 2, 2009 at 9:17 am

    @Argon:

    “Creationists cost the Dover, PA school board a million bucks.”

    Pocket change compared to what the Left’s AGW hoax has, is, and will cost us.

    So today we have the acceptance of carbon dioxide as the culprit of global warming. It is concluded that when we burn fossil fuels we are leaving a dastardly carbon footprint which we must pay Al Gore or the environmentalists to offset. Our governments on all levels are considering taxing the use of fossil fuels. The Federal Environmental Protection Agency is on the verge of naming CO2 as a pollutant and strictly regulating its use to protect our climate. The new President and the US congress are on board. Many state governments are moving on the same course.

    We are already suffering from this CO2 silliness in many ways. Our energy policy has been strictly hobbled by no drilling and no new refineries for decades. We pay for the shortage this has created every time we buy gas. On top of that the whole thing about corn based ethanol costs us millions of tax dollars in subsidies. That also has driven up food prices. And, all of this is a long way from over.

    And, I am totally convinced there is no scientific basis for any of it.

    Global Warming. It is the hoax. It is bad science. It is a high jacking of public policy. It is no joke. It is the greatest scam in history.

    John Coleman
    1-29-09

    I concur. This piece is very instructive regarding the genesis of the AGW hoax, and how the scientist who accidentally started it pleaded with politicians to go slow on reacting to the conjecture. If you are unaware of this well known meteorologist’s credentials and stature, Google his name. ◄Dave►

  • Argon · February 2, 2009 at 12:24 pm

    Fun source, Dave. Reading the article, what would you learn about post-’91 research? Nothing. If you really think you’ve got the entire subject sussed out, try challenging yourself by reading the rebuttals and actual reports, post-1991.

    A related book is Chris Mooney’s “Storm World” which describes the sometimes messy evolution of climate science.
    http://www.amazon.com/Storm-World-Hurricanes-Politics-Warming/dp/0151012873

  • Caledonian · February 3, 2009 at 10:00 am

    I hate to do this, but I’m left with no acceptable options.

    ◄Dave► believes, among other things, that the Earth is rapidly increasing in size, that continents don’t subduct as a result of continental drift, and that oil comes from plentiful, abiotic sources that can no more run out or run low in a human timescale than geothermal energy in general.

    His beliefs about scientific matters should be actively discounted.

  • ◄Dave► · February 3, 2009 at 12:35 pm

    @Caledonian

    Good grief, how fascinating to observe how carelessly you twist words. I have said nothing about the Earth expanding “rapidly”; you are the first one I have ever encountered who suggests that “continents” subduct, rather than ocean floors; I have made no assertion regarding the production rate of abiotic oil; I don’t recall even mentioning geothermal energy; and I have repeatedly said that I do not harbor “beliefs” – especially regarding science. All I have been trying to do is point out that what we think we know isn’t always so, and that pronouncements of scientists are not infallible. I hope others have better reading comprehension than you. ◄Dave►

  • Prof Frink · February 3, 2009 at 2:47 pm

    ◄Dave► believes, among other things, that the Earth is rapidly increasing in size, that continents don’t subduct as a result of continental drift, and that oil comes from plentiful, abiotic sources that can no more run out or run low in a human timescale than geothermal energy in general.

    And he doesn’t care about oysters either.

  • ◄Dave► · February 3, 2009 at 3:54 pm

    @Prof Frink

    And he doesn’t care about oysters either.

    More calumny! I love oysters. I not only eat them raw, I enjoy eating them alive, the moment I pry one off the rocks. :) ◄Dave►

  • Caledonian · February 4, 2009 at 10:06 am

    “All I have been trying to do is point out that what we think we know isn’t always so, and that pronouncements of scientists are not infallible.”

    And you’ve been doing so, not by referencing actual scientific mistakes, but by appealing to pseudoscience.

    (If plates subduct, continents will inevitably do so as well. My reading comprehension is fine; shame about your reasoning capacities.)

  • ◄Dave► · February 4, 2009 at 11:12 am

    @Caledonian

    If plates subduct, continents will inevitably do so as well.

    Is that assertion science, because you can describe a plausible mechanism by which a four billion-year-old plate that is several miles thicker, can be forced underneath a thinner and denser one less than 100 million-years old, to remelt back into the mantle, which is denser still; or pseudoscience because it is implausible conjecture; or simply an example of your superior reasoning capacity? When you have studied this subject at least enough to understand how silly your assertion sounds, get back to me. ◄Dave►

  • Caledonian · February 4, 2009 at 11:39 am

    It will be interesting to see what happens when the subduction reaches the sections of plate on which the continents rest… just as it would be interesting to see what would happen if one of the plates disintegrated.

    Given that you actually provided links to ‘evidence’ arguing that oil doesn’t come from ancient dead stuff, your assertions don’t constitute evidence of anything.

  • Grant Canyon · February 4, 2009 at 1:12 pm

    “It will be interesting to see what happens when the subduction reaches the sections of plate on which the continents rest”

    You get Alps and Himalayas.

  • Caledonian · February 5, 2009 at 10:01 am

    That’s two continents colliding. But can they be pulled down if there’s no continent in the way?

  • ◄Dave► · February 5, 2009 at 11:22 am

    @Grant Canyon

    You get Alps and Himalayas.

    Just for fun, there are alternative hypothesises for some orogeny. What if the forces were tensional rather than compressional? Geologists have found considerable evidence for this in various places. A tectonic plate is obviously a decidedly curved item, much like a piece of eggshell. Cut a piece out of a tennis ball representative of a continent. Then try to flatten the curve by stretching it to conform to a softball sized sphere, and notice what happens. Voilà… wrinkles. :) ◄Dave►

  • Grant Canyon · February 5, 2009 at 12:19 pm

    “That’s two continents colliding. But can they be pulled down if there’s no continent in the way?”

    Sure, now it’s two continents, but, to take India/Tibet as an example, a couple dozen million years ago, they were separated by ocean floor. When the subduction of the Indo-australian plate under the Eurasian plate gobbled up the ocean floor, it was only then that it reached areas of continental crust. Some of that continental crust material will subduct, although you get all kinds of neat uplifting and thrust faulting until the plates suture.

    +++++++

    “Just for fun, there are alternative hypothesises for some orogeny. What if the forces were tensional rather than compressional? Geologists have found considerable evidence for this in various places. A tectonic plate is obviously a decidedly curved item, much like a piece of eggshell. Cut a piece out of a tennis ball representative of a continent. Then try to flatten the curve by stretching it to conform to a softball sized sphere, and notice what happens. Voilà… wrinkles.”

    Compression forces are certainly not the exclusive orogenic force, for sure. The formation of volcanic mountains in continental crust at convergent plate boundries, for example, is not exclusive compressive. Are there are places where tensional forces are shown? Sure, back-arc basin formation, for example. But the Himalayas are clearly a continental collision event, as everything from the geology, mineralogy, to GPS readings show.

    There are many problem with the expanding earth theory which make it wholly untenable and a dead letter as far as geology is concerned, not the least of which is the fact that there is no known process by which the expansion could occur. Moreover, it describes significantly less than modern plate tectonics theory and fails to account for many thing which plate tectonics explains, such as all the evidence for subduction and oceanic trenching.

  • Gestell · February 5, 2009 at 2:01 pm

    This is my first visit to this site, so I have to get used to the idea that there are conservatives who are scientifically literate. As for the question at hand, it seems to me that the Left wreaks less havoc on science than the Right. The Left is historically and philosophically “closer” to modern natural science than is the Right. Few things have disrupted the beliefs of more human beings than the discoveries of the early modern natural scientists. Religious conservatives, to speak very generally, still can’t accept evolution, and, I contend, there are good reaons why they shouldn’t even accept heliocentrism or the age of the universe or of the Earth.

    What is it in natural science that should repel conservatives? First, the very idea that long-standing views about the world around us can be false, and that natural science can provide better explanations of that world than can tradition and religion. Second, the very idea of “naturalistic” explanation: Only natural causes explain natural processes and phenomena. Nothing else can. While this principle goes back to the Greeks–consider Hippocrates’s view that there were no ‘divine’ illnesses, that all illnesses had potentially knowable causes–it impinges on the beliefs conservatives have, or should have, with regard to the sacred. I’m referring, of course, to the well-known ‘disenchantment of the world’ at the hands of science. Conservatism in its traditional (I say, its proper) sense requires an ‘enchanted’ world, one from which God has not been evicted. Third, modern natural science has technological implications from its very beginnings. While Straussians may be critical of Bacon’s idea that applied science can provide “relief of man’s estate,” neither they nor any other school of intellectual conservatism has figured out how to undo this.

    The Right–if it could–should be in favor of controlling or limiting or, if necessary, suppressing science or the fruits of science, out of concern with what conservatives believe to be the human good. The Left is vulnerable to distorting science, but science is remarkably self-correcting. Thus, the Left makes mistakes in this area, but only the Right has fundamental principles that, if thought through carefully, can require an end to science.

  • Joe Shipman · February 5, 2009 at 10:46 pm

    There are plenty of anti-science types on both the left and right. I don’t worry about them, they have little influence on public policy. What I *DO* worry about is not anti-science types, but those who claim the mantle of science to support their political agendas, twisting logic and evidence to do so.

    And THAT, my friends, at the current time happens MUCH more often on the left than on the right.

  • Gestell · February 6, 2009 at 9:30 am

    Just a clarification. I am aware of the skeptical tradition in conservatism, represented by Hume, and continued in the 20th century by people like Michael Oakeshott. However, my claim is that the central tendency, the hard political and doctrinal core, of conservatism, is and must be committed to religion. The genuine conservative cannot take a skeptical attitude toward his own doctrine. If he does so, then his conservatism is seriously compromised. The skeptical tradition resorts to something like Oakeshott’s characterization of conservatism as a “disposition” and not a doctrine. Such conservatism is politically vacuous. A “secular Right” is clearly possible, but it is unlikely, at least in the US, to amount to much in terms of political relevance.

  • David C. Lachman · February 6, 2009 at 9:33 am

    Regarding child development, the “canonical statement” by Judith Rich Harris (“Group socialization theory makes this prediction: that children would develop into the same sort of adults if we left their lives outside the home unchanged — left them in their schools and their neighborhoods — but switched all the parents around.”) may well “be painful for a family-values conservative to read, yet it seems to be the current consensus.”

    BUT being the current consensus does not make it ‘science’. Rather it seems to me to be a typical left-liberal assertion made by a professional sociologist, not one supported by any serious factual evidence. While it is utmost foolishness to assert that heritability is not crucial, in all of my experience in several countries, most children adopt lifestyles and beliefs similar to those of their parents and not those of their neighbors. Though many sociologists are pleased to think so, sociology is NOT, strictly speaking, science (i.e., it is not to be confused with physics). Even to include it uncritically in a discussion of “human-science” is unhelpful, as many of its assertions have no scientific proof, properly speaking. Perhaps Mr. Derbyshire would care to introduce an example of real (as opposed to pseudo) science which “a family-values conservative” would find painful?

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