The Right Formula
Conservatives and science.


Conservatism has often had a hard time with science. One obvious reason is that many scientific findings can create technological changes, which in turn can upend traditional social arrangements. Conservatives value these arrangements, and so resist the findings. Through history, some of this resistance has been foolish (opposition to the smallpox inoculation in the 18th century), and some of it laudable (resistance to forced sterilization of anyone judged to be a “probable potential parent of socially inadequate offspring” in the early 20th century).

In such situations, we must always ask whether the science is sound. But these questions also rely upon prudential and ethical judgments that transcend science. Intellectual liberals led the charge in conflating the two, but conservatives are following suit — to their detriment.

Science has replaced religion as the pinnacle of serious knowledge in the Western world. In response, many educated people have invested scientists — and more often, popularizers of science — with the right to be taken seriously as they pontificate about morality and public policy. The argument tends to take this form: Scientific finding X implies liberal political or moral conclusion Y. Important contemporary examples include the assertions that evolution implies atheism, and the fact that CO2 is a greenhouse gas implies that we must reduce carbon emissions rapidly and aggressively.

Conservatives, for their part — especially those with access to the biggest megaphones — have recently developed the habit of responding to this by challenging scientific finding X. The standard sorry spectacle, and the resulting alienation of those who takes science seriously, ensues.

In general, it would be far wiser to accept X, but to challenge the assertion that X implies Y. Scientific findings almost never entail specific moral or political conclusions, because the scope of application of science is rarely sufficient to do so.

Consider the crucial case of evolution as an instance of the inability of science to provide moral conclusions, and the destructiveness of conservatives’ inability or unwillingness to confront this.

At a tactical political level, debating a fundamental scientific finding as if it were a political issue is off-putting to a large part of the American electorate, and appropriately so. This conflict became a serious issue in the 2008 Republican presidential primaries, and in the longer term will likely impact the ability of conservatives to build governing coalitions. When, in the first Republican presidential debate, the nine candidates were asked to stand if they believe in evolution, six of them did — including Romney, McCain, and Giuliani. Looking to the general election, these first-tier candidates surely realized that opposing the theory of evolution would be an embarrassment with moderate, disproportionately Catholic, swing voters. The three candidates who indicated that they don’t accept evolution — Huckabee, Brownback, and Tancredo — were each looking to become the social-conservative standard-bearer, and presumably needed to worry about getting into contention for the Republican nomination.