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The Politicians’ War On Science

It's a war both Red and Blue.

by
Rand Simberg

Bio

November 28, 2012 - 12:00 am

As Paula Bolyard noted the other day, the “gotcha” game by the Democratic operatives with bylines to poison Republican candidates’ chances started early, with a loaded question to Marco Rubio:

To read some of the reactions to Senator Marco Rubio’s comments on the age of the earth, you’d think that he’d proposed rounding up scientists and imprisoning them in gulags. Liberals apparently think this is a plank in the vast right-wing “anti-science” conspiracy. At the very least, a man who refuses to swear a blood oath to the current orthodoxy that the earth is 4.5 billion years old is not fit to hold any job that requires any more intellectual heft beyond knowing the proper temperature for grilling burgers.

Now, in fact, I would prefer politicians who are conversant with science and its methods to those not, but even more I prefer politicians who are conversant with basic math, economics, and human nature, and have an aversion to wrecking the nation’s economy. And if they have to occasionally salute the sensibilities of people who believe that evolution is the work of the devil, I can live with that — particularly since we have a current president who does exactly the same thing, while flooring the accelerator toward the fiscal cliff:

How do these quotes stack up? It seems to me that they’re exactly in agreement on four crucial and dismaying points:

1) Both senators refuse to give an honest answer to the question. Neither deigns to mention that the Earth is 4.54 billion years old.

2) They both go so far as to disqualify themselves from even pronouncing an opinion. I’m not a scientist, says Rubio. I don’t presume to know, says Obama.

3) That’s because they both agree that the question is a tough one, and subject to vigorous debate. I think there are multiple theories out there on how this universe was created, says Rubio. I think it’s a legitimate debate within the Christian community of which I’m a part, says Obama.

4) Finally they both profess confusion over whether the Bible should be taken literally. Maybe the “days” in Genesis were actual eras, says Rubio. They might not have been standard 24-hour days, says Obama.

In light of these concordances, to call Rubio a liar or a fool would be to call our nation’s president the same, along with every other politician who might like to occupy the Oval Office. If a reporter asks a candidate to name the age of Earth, there’s only one acceptable response: Well, you know, that’s a complicated issue … and who am I to say?

Yes, as he points out, this is a problem of politicians in general, because a significant portion of the voting public does believe in a young earth, and it’s only damaging to Republicans because only Republicans are called out for it because…Democratic operatives with bylines. But as I noted over at my blog the other day, both parties are at war with different aspects of science. Ron Bailey lays it out in detail:

After analyzing both the Democratic and Republican Party platforms, it’s evident that science is secondary to politics. Politicians of both parties manage to find science that conveniently supports the policies they already favor.

As another example, recall that the Obama administration declared a moratorium on deep-water drilling in the Gulf after the BP spill, citing a scientific report that its authors later claimed had been doctored to come up with a recommendation that they never made. Now that’s what I call a “war on science.”

But getting beyond the bipartisan nature of taking science’s name in vain, I disagree with Slate’s analysis:

So Obama believes in evolution, and presumably he’d like to teach it in the nation’s public schools, while Rubio suggests that “multiple theories” should be given equal time. But even so, both men present the science as a matter of personal opinion. Obama doesn’t say, Evolution is a fact; he says, I believe in it.

Well, he shouldn’t say that, because evolution is in fact not a “fact.” It, like gravity, is a scientific theory. And it is perfectly philosophically legitimate to say [as Rubio does] that alternate theories should be taught in school, but it should be done not in a science class but in one on comparative religions (of which science is one). That there is an objective reality about which we can discover things through scientific methods is not a fact, or “truth,” but an axiomatic assumption. Science is a form of faith, but in terms of understanding the natural world, and forging new artificial creations from it, it is a very successful and powerful one.

Scientists should recognize that their role is not to dethrone God, but to understand the natural world, and part of that recognition would be the essentially religious aspects of their own beliefs. They cannot prove that there is an objective reality whose nature can be determined by asking questions of it in the form of repeatable experiments, or that the entire universe obeys the same laws throughout as in our local neighborhood. These are axioms (among others) on which their faith (and my own) rests. But their faith is not intrinsically antithetical to God; it is orthogonal to it. One can believe in both God and the scientific method (and evolution), and one can believe in neither.

Beyond that, the notions that public policy should be based on science only, or religion only, are both wrong. Despite the attempts to square that circle, ethics issues cannot be determined by science alone (or in some cases at all), while issues of technology, offspring of science, should certainly be informed by it, tempered with the needs of both liberty and public safety. The Founders, in their wisdom, recognized the role of both science and God in public affairs, but too many of their successors don’t seem to. Of course, given the democratic nature of our republic, that, in turn, is largely because their constituents won’t let them. And as long as we have public schools, there will be an ongoing political war on what is taught in them, and by whom.

Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism and Internet security. He offers occasionally biting commentary about infinity and beyond at his weblog, Transterrestrial Musings.
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