Politics & Policy

Rick Perry Pushes Their Buttons

The questions put to Governor Perry are political, not scientific.

Gov. Rick Perry, pressed for his views on evolution, characterized it as “a theory” with “some gaps” in it. He went on to say that, in Texas, both conventional evolution and creationism are taught. He told a boy whose mother asked him about the subject: “In Texas, we teach both creationism and evolution in our public schools — because I figure you’re smart enough to figure out which one is right.”

This is the sort of thing that drives a certain kind of person nuts. Likewise, Perry’s joking about secession after being asked a question about it — and explaining that “when we came into the nation in 1845, we were a republic . . . and one of the deals was, we can leave anytime we want” — has caught on as a kind of shorthand for all of the cultural friction that is going to make Perry a tough sell to suburban moderates.

I’ll get into the question of tossing around these kinds of cultural hand grenades in a second, but first, let me note something that in my view is more important: Neither of Perry’s statements is true. Texas does not, as a matter of statewide policy, teach creationism alongside evolution. The state board of education has rejected creationist materials and adopted a rather conventional curriculum on the subject. And Texas did not retain a legal right to secede from the Union in 1845, though there is a cherished myth to the contrary. Texas’s annexation was a slightly complicated affair: An annexation treaty was proposed, and the secession myth is usually traced back to it. The treaty did not in fact contain such a provision, and, in any case, it was rejected by the U.S. Senate, and Texas was brought into the Union by a joint resolution of Congress (which seems kind of flimsy to me, but it’s worked out alright). Before the governor goes wading into such troubled waters, he ought to be in full command of the facts.

The broader question, however, is: Why would anybody ask a politician about his views on a scientific question? Nobody ever asks what Sarah Palin thinks about dark matter, or what John Boehner thinks about quantum entanglement. (For that matter, I’ve never heard Keith Ellison pressed for his views on evolution.) There are lots of good reasons not to wonder what Rick Perry thinks about scientific questions, foremost amongst them that there are probably fewer than 10,000 people in the United States whose views on disputed questions regarding evolution are worth consulting, and they are not politicians; they are scientists. In reality, of course, the progressive types who want to know politicians’ views on evolution are not asking a scientific question; they are asking a religious and political question, demanding a profession of faith in a particular materialist-secularist worldview.

Take the question of global warming: Jon Huntsman was quick to declare his faith in the scientific consensus on global warming, and Rick Perry has been openly skeptical of it. Again keeping in mind that nobody really ought to care what either Huntsman or Perry thinks about the relevant science, both are making an error, and a grave one, in conceding that the question at hand is scientific at all. It is not; it is political. One might be convinced that anthropogenic global warming is a real and problematic phenomenon, and still not be convinced that the policies being pushed by Al Gore et al. are wise and intelligent. (Some more thoughts on that here.)

Progressives like to cloak their policy preferences in the mantle of science, but they do not in fact give a fig about science, which for them is only a vehicle to be ridden to the precise extent that it is convenient. This is why they will ask what makes Rick Perry qualified to disagree with the scientific establishment, but never ask the equally relevant question of what makes Jon Huntsman qualified to agree with it. So long as they are getting the policies they want, they don’t care. If you want to see how dedicated a progressive is to dispassionate science, spend two minutes talking about the heritability of intelligence. You’ll be up to your neck in witchcraft and superstition and evasion in no time at all. (If you want to test a progressive’s faith in rigorous scholarship more broadly, ask him about gains from trade and comparative advantage, realities that are as solid as anything social science has to offer.)

Perry is making an error by approaching these questions as though they were scientific disputes and not political ones. The real question about global warming isn’t whether one computer simulation or another is the better indicator of what our climate will be like a century hence, it is whether such policies as envisioned by the environmentalist-anti-capitalist green coalition are wise. They are not. Evolution is a public question not because politicians have anything intelligent to say about the science, but because the question provides a handy cudgel to those who wish to beat the Judeo-Christian moral tradition into submission in the service of managerial progressivism. Perry should talk about that, not about alleged “gaps” in the scientific evidence, about which neither he nor his questioners nor the great majority of his critics nor the great majority of his supporters knows the first thing.   

— Kevin D. Williamson is a deputy managing editor of National Review.

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