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Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Are Conservatives Turning Against Science?

Science is the conservatives' strongest ally. If conservatives declare war on science, both will lose.

W e humans have a tendency to criticize the bearer of bad news. The Left likes to call empirical demonstrations of differences between men and women ‘junk science.’ They pretend that truth is relative and races don't exist, and they've invented dozens of highly imaginative new sexes, or ‘genders’ as they call them.

The Right has a more comfortable relationship with science. Part of this is due to their belief in absolute truth and their greater familiarity with technology. But there is also an undercurrent of anti-science on the religious right, which still feels threatened by the implications of Darwinist evolution.

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Criticism of flawed scientific results can be beneficial, as for example when activists portraying themselves as scientists try to pass off speculative computer models as proven fact. But lately the Right's dissatisfaction with scientific results has started to boil over into attacks on science itself.

C. G. Begley's destructive claim

It started with an article on NRO repeating the claim of C.G. Begley that most cancer research is not reproducible. Begley's attacks on academic cancer research were part of a long-standing disagreement between academia and industry as to how science should be conducted. The problem for Begley was that industry's definition of a meaningful result is different from academia's.

Academia can afford to let a student or technician work for years doing a single task. I've known academic technicians who have become amazingly proficient in one specific assay and achieved such accurate results that even I would have trouble matching them.

In industry the goal is to eliminate dependence on experts and individuals. Industrial labs create detailed SOPs so that, if one person leaves (or gets fired), someone else can do the same work. Industry also tries to cut costs by eliminating basic research, opting instead to scrape results out of the scientific literature. When Begley discovered that this doesn't work, he blamed academia.

If an industry lab tries to repeat a procedure from academia, they usually get the same result, but their error term is so much bigger that their statistics are blown to hell. If an industry person admitted this, they'd lose their job. So they blame the academics. I've worked in both sectors and observed this many times.

Academics rarely create a formal paper trail of validation and certification the way industry does; they get small results quickly and move on to the next thing. The culture in industry, in which every decision requires a signature, means they cannot compete with this. To academics they look like dinosaurs, big and powerful but sometimes years behind.

One approach is not necessarily better than the other, but the cultural gulf between them causes misunderstandings that Begley failed to appreciate.

The anti-sciencers resent academia because of the shenanigans on the liberal arts side. They needed some way to discredit the activists who are infiltrating science. Begley's lack of insight into the cause of his failure gave them the ammunition they wanted.

Football and other Religions

Conservatives have fewer allies in science than they used to thanks to the battle over evolution, which drove many conservative scientists underground. Attacks on science can only accelerate this process.

In an article last week on First Things, a prominent Catholic website, one writer glommed on to a junk article by John P.A. Ioannidis. Ioannidis had argued that statistically, there was an almost unlimited number of possible hypotheses, and therefore almost all conclusions in science must be false. As I discussed here, this argument is flawed and is not taken seriously. But the writer, unaware of its status, thought it was a serious critique of science and ran with it.

The First Things article was picked up by a right-wing commentator named Daniel J. Flynn. Flynn's religion is American football. In his 2013 book he claimed that there was a sinister scheme to ban football and the research linking it to traumatic brain injury, or TBI, was junk science. He also claimed that doctors are hyping the injuries because they have a financial interest in getting more patients. Flynn saw the First Things article as a way to bash science and called the findings about TBI in football ‘junk science.’

You might think if there's anything in this world that is not political, it would be football. But politics is like a disease. Once someone is bitten by the political bug, everything becomes political. Flynn's claim defies logic: if doctors were out for monetary gain, they would want more people to get injured, not fewer.


These are not isolated cases. Radical atheists, some of whom are scientists, have sparked renewed attacks on science from some members of the religious right. The creationism battles of the 1990s are heating up again.

Some atheists claim that science disproves the existence of God and that the Big Bang proves that something was created from nothing. These are personal opinions to which they are certainly entitled; but instead of trying to refute them, some on the religious Right react by treating all of science as a threat.

Scientists typically adopt an quasi-atheist approach as they search for causes of natural phenomena. This is not, as people sometimes think, opposition to religion. Scientists must be skeptical about everything in order to be successful. Even Paul Tillich acknowledged that this skepticism has helped religion immeasurably by clearing away its unsustainable illusions. From a scientist's point of view, if there is a God or some other supernatural entity out there, we cannot hope to find him until we understand the natural world; without knowing what is natural we can only opine whether something has a natural or supernatural cause.

But if someone tries to convince you that you must stop being skeptical and blindly accept their word that there is some sort of consensus of opinion, that person is not a real scientist but a fake one. If someone tells you that science has eliminated the need for God or that it has all the answers, that person does not understand what science is about.

Everyone should learn more science. To me nothing is more fun than designing experiments and learning about nature. When a non-scientist sends me a scientific article to check for errors, I am delighted to help them. It means they are trying to participate in the greatest adventure of mankind. (However, this is not an open invitation to send me four billion articles on global warming.)

Science is conservatism's greatest ally. Attacking it because of the shenanigans on campus, or because someone tells you we are secularists that threaten your religion, only forces the skeptical scientists into silence to avoid being associated with things that can't be defended scientifically.

But Flynn's claim that neurologists want to ban football is even more counterproductive. For the first time, technology is finally allowing us to measure brain injury. This represents a major breakthrough for brain science. It is the first step toward a treatment for all types of head injury. Football worshipers can't stand in the way of that.

Not every result that we don't want to hear is junk science. Not every messenger needs to be shot. The only way to deal with change is to stay out in front of it. Attacking science because we're afraid of the implications is the strategy of liberals. Rejecting it hands them a major victory—a touchdown.

Related articles

Science under siege, Part I
Bogus claims about the reprodu­cibility of scientific research will not die on their own. We must give them a push.

Science under siege, Part II
People say there are no jokes in scientific papers. But I found one.

Corrosive claims about academic research
Industry scientists often claim that academic research is not reproducible. But they never show their data.

An autopsy of the late global warming movement

How to identify bad science
Here are some tips on how to identify a scientific snowjob.

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