In an effort to scratch up Rick Perry’s bourgeoning presidential campaign, some on the left (with the usual sort of help from some on the right) have trotted out the familiar tale of a conservative war against science. The themes are just as they were in the middle of the last decade (although the embryonic stem cell debate has yet to rear its head this year), and the arguments of the left are pretty much as you would find them in Al Gore’s 2007 book The Assault on Reason (which, despite what the title might lead you to expect, was not an autobiography).
It’s all terribly interesting, but not so much for what it tells you about the right. There are some fascinating and important tensions between science and the right, but they have basically nothing to do with the left’s “war on science” fantasies—these critics have such a poor grasp of the reality of contemporary conservatism they seem genuinely to believe that Michelle Bachmann was serious when she joked to a crowd that last week’s earthquake and hurricane were messages from God about the deficit. It is interesting, rather, for what it tells you about the left and its self-understanding. The “war on science” stuff never moved many voters, but it was a powerful rallying cry for committed liberals, affirming their understanding of themselves as the party of science and of their opponents as an army of ignorance.
Absent from that self-identification is any sense of the enormous tensions between the ethic of modern science and that of the modern left—particularly the tensions between science and the left’s brand of egalitarianism (the first of which demolishes the premises upon which the second stands), and between science and environmentalism (which draw upon roughly opposite worldviews).