Natural history of the present

Natural history of the present

The left-wing ‘War on Science’: what to do when new knowledge challenges our beliefs and interests

Is there a left-wing “War on Science”?

Influential American sceptic Michael Shermer devotes his latest column in Scientific American to arguing exactly this. Bloggers have already sent some considerable heat in Shermer’s direction, particularly because he implies that anti-science attitudes on the political left are somehow equivalent to those on the right in the contemporary USA.

Michael Shermer. Byrd Williams, from Wikimedia Commons

Much of Shermer’s scorn seems to grow out of a distrust of technology within the environmental movement:

Whereas conservatives obsess over the purity and sanctity of sex, the left’s sacred values seem fixated on the environment, leading to an almost religious fervor over the purity and sanctity of air, water and especially food. Try having a conversation with a liberal progressive about GMOs – genetically modified organisms – in which the words “Monsanto” and “profit” are not dropped like syllogistic bombs.

I am not the only one who think he draws too-long a bow. In the USA, the Republican party has turned ignorance into a virtue through its embrace of Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachman and the Tea Party. Republican politicians and their commercial and clerical backers, well aware that an educated polity and a strong research establishment threaten their vested interests, seek quite deliberately to trash both the public image once enjoyed by science and the public good it delivers.

The threat from the left seems to me far less well-coordinated and less substantial. Anti-vaccination activism remains fringe and far from confined to the left. Not all environmentalist lefties see a global conspiracy behind every GMO. And scepticism about profit motives plus a respect for evidence about the consequences of genetic modification are not necessarily a rejection of science.

Shermer, of all people, understands that political ordination doesn’t always fall on a strict left-right axis. He is possibly the world’s most prominent sceptic, an outspoken atheist who has written important books on evolution, but he is also a devoted libertarian and, until recently, a life-long gun owner. He is unusually consistent in his commitment to evidence and a sceptical view, although when he waxes positive about libertarianism I wonder if I detect a slight glow of devotion. Not a common combination of traits, and impossible to peg on a strict left-right continuum.

And yet despite some unease, I find myself in broad agreement with Shermer’s piece. Particularly it’s more modest but informative sub-heading: “How politics distorts science on both ends of the spectrum”.

Shermer’s criticism of the anti-science left is strongest when he pins the “cognitive creationists”: those who “accept the theory of evolution for the human body but not the brain”. Cognitive creationists (I prefer the label “Cultural Creationists”) come almost exclusively from the political left, and their agenda is the complete rejection of a role for biology in human affairs.

Anybody who writes about evolution and the human condition understands just how easy it is to incense both the left and right at once. I imagine if you come back to this page in a day or two, you’ll see direct evidence (although most readers of The Conversation seem to be polite and open to reasoned argument).

The threats to our only science of life - evolution by natural selection - come equally from the religious creationist right and the cultural creationist left. It is an irony in which I find some delight.

The religious right refuse to contemplate a universe that isn’t under the control of an omniscient deity. Much less a world in which everything oozes out of the bottom-up struggle among individuals. In which meaning consists in the strategies genes use to make yet more individuals and genes. I bear some grudging respect, however, for the consistency of the true believer, unwilling or unable to see that a world without supernatural top-down order goes on turning all the same.

One of my earliest intellectual heroes, the late Stephen Jay Gould. Photograph by Kathy Chapman online, from the Wikimedia commons.

I find it much harder to respect those who embrace reason and evidence, but then reject science when it comes to understanding the origins of the human psyche. Stephen Jay Gould, one of my earliest intellectual heroes, remains one of evolution’s most beloved advocates. But he also acted as the rhetorical bulldozer for the Marxist group Science for the People when they sought to kill the infant science of sociobiology.

So afraid were Gould and his accomplices like Dick Lewontin, Leon Kamin and Stephen Rose that a biological understanding of behaviour and culture would bring deterministic succour to dark reactionary forces that they sought to neuter the one idea on which their own careers depended: Darwinian evolution.

They very nearly succeed too. Human sociobiology retreated, had a good hard look at itself, and emerged stronger and more interesting for the experience (rebranded as human ethology, evolutionary psychology and human behavioural ecology). But many prominent evolutionists still obediently stay behind the line Gould and Lewontin drew in the sand back in 1979 in the most pompously overblown paper in the history of biology (The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme).

More is the pity, because evolution is building new and interesting bridges with all branches of the social sciences, most notably psychology and economics, and it would help to have the most talented evolutionists on board.

Long before Darwin sketched out his process of natural selection, rationalists and empiricists scrapped over whether traits and ideas are innate or gained through experience of the world. Too often the idea of innate tendencies has been used to substantiate the status quo. And too often the cause of social justice has been carried by those who see the power of experience and learning.

And yet it doesn’t have to be like that. Peter Singer penned a delightful little volume called “A Darwinian Left”. Despite a long-held suspicion of biological arguments, some academic feminists are beginning to see the value in evolution as we understand it in the 21st Century.

And while evolutionary psychology often catches headlines when it fuels old stereotypes about sex differences, at least as much work in this rather varied and dynamic field adds nuance to our understanding of gender and individual variation.

Anybody who thinks openly about the subject for several consecutive seconds can see that the nature-nurture dichotomy isn’t a two-horse race. It’s a single steed, rather dead to science, but still flogged unrelentingly by an under-inspired media. That’s why we can continue to expect plenty of stories containing phrases like “It’s All in Our Genes”, “Darwin was Wrong”, “Environment, not genes, makes us who we are”.

Science doesn’t belong to one political position or another. Science, or at least the image of science (visualise the lab-coat clad investigators of the fictional Ponds Institute) can be subverted to serve any commercial or ideological position in the short term. Shermer is correct that neither left nor right are immune from such distortions. But the self-correcting nature of science will eventually expose such subversion.

A respect for science balanced against a habit of questioning both the scientific results and the idea of scientific authority are essential ingredients in a healthy and productive society. The way I read the opposition to science, people are willing to abandon science when it deviates from their intuitions, ideologic reflexes or commercial interests.

It takes great strength of character not to reject science when it tells us something we don’t want to hear, and instead to work through what to do with the science. But that is when science’s great advantage over other ways of viewing the world becomes most apparent.