Politics & Policy

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.

There is a large, socially conservative, anti-evolution constituency within the Republican party, and some candidates will always arise to represent it. However a given campaign ends, the mere fact of such a debate tends to create a perception of conservatives as out of touch with contemporary America, a place where most people tell pollsters that they think God had some role in the creation of humans, but who also consider evolution as part of the scientific canon.

All the participants surely knew this, but the anti-evolution candidates had principled, even heartfelt, reasons for their stated positions. This is what makes their stance poignant rather than risible. It’s hard to believe that anyone asking or answering questions on the stage that night (or, for that matter, more than 1 percent of the voting public) really reads or cares about technical findings published in biology journals. They care about the philosophical implications of these findings. Following the debate, Senator Brownback explained his denial of evolution in a New York Times op-ed, saying:

If belief in evolution means simply assenting to microevolution . . . I believe it to be true. If, on the other hand, it means assenting to an exclusively materialistic, deterministic vision of the world that holds no place for a guiding intelligence, then I reject it.

Accepting “microevolution” is code for accepting Intelligent Design, which is to say, rejecting modern evolutionary biology. Brownback got to the heart of the matter — he believes that evolution implies atheism. But what if this is not true?

I have argued at length that the philosophical claims Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and others make on behalf of evolution are unsupported by any science. This was hardly an original observation. As early as the 19th century, Anglican theologian Aubrey Moore made the same basic point in a different way, and many, many others have made it since. Most major religious denominations in the Western world accept evolution as a scientific finding.

Evolution is a scientific paradigm of immense beauty, power, and practical significance, but it doesn’t really tell us much about the existence of God. The theory of evolution assumes pre-existing building blocks — everything evolves from something else — and therefore leaves the First Cause problem unaddressed. As far as we can tell, all scientific findings will have this problem.

Just as science can’t answer moral questions, it’s of limited use in the field of politics. Human society, at least currently, is so complex that it’s nearly impossible to predict the impacts of proposed policies. Practical judgment remains paramount in evaluating proposals.

In the debate about global warming, for example, it’s arguably possible to calculate the climate impact of the next century’s CO2 emissions. But the uncertainties are enormous, and no serious person believes we can predict the development of human society over the next couple of centuries. Contrary to what you will often hear from those who don the mantle of science in this debate, the best guess is that the costs of aggressive regulation would exceed the benefits. What’s more, these estimates are incredibly speculative, resting on predictions about the growth in human population over the next century, the odds that China would agree to such regulations, the political side-deals that would be required to implement them, the likely degree of compliance with such laws in India, and the next 200 years’ worth of technological innovation. It is therefore inappropriate to assert that “science says” we need to reduce carbon emissions radically through taxes or regulation.

As opposed to moral issues, political issues might one day be scientific questions. It is possible that we’ll eventually be able to predict the effects of public policies, but for the foreseeable future this notion remains what Hayek and Popper called scientism.

Conservatives have been suckered on these issues because they have not been willing to police the boundary between scientific findings and unsupported conclusions drawn from such findings. Partially, this is due to abandoning the academy. For at least the last 40 years, the belittlement of “pointy-headed intellectuals” has been a conscious part of Republican strategy. In a 2003 interview with The New Yorker’s Nicholas Lemann, Karl Rove listed basically every demographic group imaginable as natural members of the Republican base. Lemann asked Rove to describe the natural Democratic base, and reports that Rove’s answer began with this:

“Somebody with a doctorate.” This he said with perhaps a suggestion of a smirk. “What was Daniel Bell’s phrase? The information class.”

Skepticism is healthy, and this disdain may be one side of a trade-off that creates net votes for Republicans, but a doctorate is the standard professional qualification for practicing science in the United States. So we shouldn’t be surprised that conservatives don’t have a lot of friends in court in these debates.

Conservatives would feel a lot less threatened by science if they were more engaged with it. De-mystification of science would be a good thing for all concerned. Science is a very practical discipline. It enables the development of reliable rules that we can employ to do things like build airplanes and develop medicine. In the end, we grant science authority because airplanes generally stay up. Pretension and prestige aside, science is a first cousin to engineering, but a very distant relation to philosophy.

Conservatism was famously called (by an intellectual) the “stupid party.” But I think it is more precise to say that well-functioning conservatism from Burke onwards has been the party of “facts trump theories.” Naturally, if you are in the business of spinning theories — that is, if you are an intellectual — this can be pretty frustrating, and it will often be to your advantage in a debate to characterize this as stupid. Interestingly, though, there is another realm of inquiry in which facts trump theories: science. Empiricism is inherent to successful science and successful conservatism. It would be a shame to sacrifice it in either realm.

– Jim Manzi is the CEO of an applied artificial-intelligence software company.

Jim Manzi is CEO of Applied Predictive Technologies (APT), an applied artificial intelligence software company.


The Latest