Friday, September 10, 2010

Is there any chance of a cease-fire in the right-wing War on Science -- and knowledge and reality generally? (A: Not that I can see)


“The four corners of deceit: government, academia, science and media. Those institutions are now corrupt and exist by virtue of deceit. That's how they promulgate themselves; it is how they prosper.” It is tempting to laugh off this and other rhetoric broadcast by Rush Limbaugh, a conservative US radio host, but Limbaugh and similar voices are no laughing matter.

There is a growing anti-science streak on the American right that could have tangible societal and political impacts on many fronts — including regulation of environmental and other issues and stem-cell research. Take the surprise ousting last week of Lisa Murkowski, the incumbent Republican senator for Alaska, by political unknown Joe Miller in the Republican primary for the 2 November midterm congressional elections. Miller, who is backed by the conservative 'Tea Party movement', called his opponent's acknowledgement of the reality of global warming “exhibit 'A' for why she needs to go”.

The right-wing populism that is flourishing in the current climate of economic insecurity echoes many traditional conservative themes, such as opposition to taxes, regulation and immigration. But the Tea Party and its cheerleaders, who include Limbaugh, Fox News television host Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin (who famously decried fruitfly research as a waste of public money), are also tapping an age-old US political impulse — a suspicion of elites and expertise.

-- start of the editorial "Science scorned"
in the September 9 issue of Nature

by Ken

We've talked often enough (or maybe not enough!) about this singular feature of moderm conservatism: the war on knowledge and indeed reality in all its forms, coupled with an unabashed fetishized worship of ignorance. And in no arena is it more conspicuous or more virulent than in the ongoing War on Science. Different as the various Far Right ideological cliques may be, they seem united in their belief that "reality" is nothing more or less than the lies and delusions polluting their disused brains.

I mentioned this editorial last night, which goes on to cite "denialism over global warming," "religious oppositon to Darwinian evolution and to stem-cell and embryo research -- which Glenn Beck has equated with eugenics," aversion to science-based regulation." It notes the complication: "President Barack Obama's promise to 'restore science to its rightful place' seems to have linked science to liberal politics, making it even more of a target of the right."

I heartily urge everyone to read the editorial. The problem as I see it is that the people who read it are the ones who don't need to, and the ones who do need to appear unreachable by any appeal to reason or sense. Of course there are a lot of people -- the non-Fox Noise media, for example (and of course in reality most of the people at Fox as well; it's just in their economic interest to pretend not to know) -- who are aware of the bedrock of lies and delusions of the right-wing charlatans. They just don't do anything about it. It doesn't seem to be in their interest to.

Our energy-and-environment go-to guy A Siegel dreamed a lovely dream yesterday in his post in response to the Nature editorial: "An election about science?" He began:
When it comes to the November 2010 elections, few people identify science as the core issue. Economic concerns (JOBS! JOBS! JOBS!), fossil-foolish fueled anger at government, passions over the role of government, and otherwise are among the many reasons why the current vogue is to predict a Republican wave come November. A hidden element of the election, for most Americans, is that this election is fundamentally about science.

Very simply, while most Americans continue to hold science and scientists in high regard, an increasingly large share of the Republican Party’s elite, office holders, candidates, and mouth pieces are taking seriously anti-science positions.

I love the idea that the right-wing jihad against reality and understanding could become an election issue. I don't see any indication that it can. None of the segments of our political society which seriously influence the agenda -- the Village infrastructure, the punditocracy, the consulting class -- seems to give a damn, or at least judges the issue of truth and knowledge a political winner.

Nevertheless, I want to indulge A Siegel his little fantasy:
It is hard to understate the damage that anti-science syndrome suffering ideologues could create. The achievements of science are core to our existence, from medicine that saves our lives to analytical tools that enable speed-of-light communications to … Demonization of science fosters, in the near and long-term, a weakened economic competitiveness for the United States. And, it will lead to a much weaker nation in the decades to come due to climate chaos in addition to a weakening of America’s position in the sciences.

Few Americans put ‘respect for science’ and basic scientific knowledge at the top of the list when they go into the poll booth. Considering the stark contrast between the parties and the serious negative consequences of having a governing elite ignorant of and disdainful for science, perhaps it should make it higher up the list.

The idea has my vote. As the Nature editorial concludes:
US citizens face economic problems that are all too real, and the country's future crucially depends on education, science and technology as it faces increasing competition from China and other emerging science powers. Last month's recall of hundreds of millions of US eggs because of the risk of salmonella poisoning, and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, are timely reminders of why the US government needs to serve the people better by developing and enforcing improved science-based regulations. Yet the public often buys into anti-science, anti-regulation agendas that are orchestrated by business interests and their sponsored think tanks and front groups.

In the current poisoned political atmosphere, the defenders of science have few easy remedies. Reassuringly, polls continue to show that the overwhelming majority of the US public sees science as a force for good, and the anti-science rumblings may be ephemeral. As educators, scientists should redouble their efforts to promote rationalism, scholarship and critical thought among the young, and engage with both the media and politicians to help illuminate the pressing science-based issues of our time.

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