The Corner

Dear Hysterical Liberals: Hectoring Hurts Science

Like Andrew Walker, below, I read Charles Blow’s hysterical column in the New York Times and found it, well, fascinating. Like much of modern debate about “science,” it’s designed more to mock and browbeat than persuade, and thus it does nothing more than reinforce the trends (ideological polarization around scientific questions) the author allegedly decries.

Blow, of course, is not the only leftist to have a field  day with the Pew study showing Republicans (unsurprisingly, since Republicans are disproportionately Evangelical) are much less likely to believe in evolution than are Democrats. Pair it with the climate-change argument and — presto! — conservatives are once again ”anti-science.”

But conservatives (including Christian conservatives) aren’t anti-science as much as they’re anti-hectoring and unpersuaded by naked appeals to authority delivered with maximum condescension.

First, let’s be clear that there’s very little quality scientific education in the United States (and that applies to liberal citizens as much as conservative). How much do you remember from high-school biology? From freshman biology in college? Were your teachers even marginally competent? Americans of all stripes aren’t so much “anti-science” as scientifically ignorant and thus draw their science knowledge from the same place we draw most of our other knowledge, from the experience of daily life and from the knowledge and understandings of friends and family.

Second, daily life teaches us that public scientific declarations are uncertain, debatable, and often wrong. Parents, for example, get bombarded with competing theories over their child’s intellectual and emotional growth, their diet, and their physical health — with incompatible opinions delivered at high volume and with absolute certainty. When it comes to our own diets, how many competing scientific voices are screaming for our attention? And that of course doesn’t count every other aspect of life where scientific certainty shifts, changes, is hotly debated, then changes again. 

Third, this cacophony fatally undermines appeals to authority as a form of argument. Unless we already trust the authority, we’re persuaded by things we can experience and validate through that experience — one diet plan, for example, is embraced as “working for us” while another is discarded. Thus, belief in global warming is often affected by the real-world experience of weather (and don’t be deceived, both sides use temporary weather changes to bolster their argument, not just global-warming skeptics). When the appeal to authority rightly fails, and in the absence of experience, a scientist must take the time to educate.

Finally, we’re rightfully skeptical of science that seems to mask an agenda. Regarding evolution, the agenda of some has long been plain: Use a naturalistic explanation of life on earth to try to rebut and discredit the very existence of the supernatural. Yet this pure naturalism often runs directly in the face of people who don’t experience life as merely a naturalistic occurrence, but are instead conscious of the existence of a soul and experience otherwise unexplainable connections with the divine. In other words, deeply religious people experientially reject pure naturalism and will always be unpersuaded by those who claim it’s “settled science.” 

Regarding global warming, the “scientific consensus” has been commandeered into the cause of a host of lefty economic theories that look less like “greening” the planet and more like socialism.

Of course, one can be Christian and understand that evolution could be one method of God’s creation, and one can be conservative and completely buy the “consensus” arguments surrounding global warming, but the debate has not been fought on those terms, and the other side has made effectively zero effort to meet Christians and conservatives where they are to make the consensus case. 

Here’s my advice to the residents of consensusland: Your hectoring only alienates. If you truly care about science, then start educating. Education, of course, means opening yourselves to questioning and debate, and it might just mean tempering your love of “science” (really, your love of your conclusions) with just a dash of humility. After all, even the shortest trip down memory lane demonstrates you’re not always right.

David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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