The Corner

Hating Science

Kathryn, Jonah, Yuval: Good points all, but I can tell you from years of fielding reader e-mails in this zone, as well as numerous platform appearances, that lots of conservatives do have negative attitudes to science per se. There are two big reasons and a host of smaller ones. Top of the list:

Big reason 1:  Science has no moral content. This is simply appalling to a lot of conservatives — that a body of knowledge with so much prestige and importance can be morally empty. Human beings want to know how to live, and a mass of knowledge that contains no guidance on this is just abhorrent to many, most of them self-identifying conservatives. “If it has no moral content, it’s not true knowledge,” is apparently a thing that lots of people believe.

Big reason 2:  Scientists are irreligious. They mostly are. On the broadest definition of “scientist,” over 60 percent are unbelievers. Up at the highest levels of achievement, unbelief is wellnigh total, though there are differences between the various scientific disciplines. Details here.

Small reason 1:  Science is incomplete. Our core of scientific knowledge about topics that have been thoroughly investigated for decades or centuries — combustion, electromagnetism, gravitation, evolution — is as solid and indisputable as human knowledge can be, but there’s a lot of stuff around the edges we’re not sure about, and plenty beyond that where we just don’t have much of a clue. For reasons I don’t understand, some people find this intolerable. “If you can’t explain everything, then you’re not explaining anything,” seems to be the attitude. As I said, this seems bizarre to me, but there is undoubtedly a great hunger, especially among religious conservatives, for total explanations of everything. Science doesn’t do that. At the margins, it’s provisional and progressive; and this will always be the case. I wish I had a dollar for every creationist who has crowed to me triumphantly: “How does your Darwinism explain the Big Bang? Ha? Ha? Ha!“, as if he’d made some kind of point. “Darwinism” — evolution by natural selection — explains the origin of species. It doesn’t explain anything else, nor claim to.

Small reason 2:  Scientists are left-wing. Again, largely true. Check out the comment threads on any science blog. (GNXP is one of the very few exceptions.) This is not science’s fault. You need to distinguish between science speaking ex cathedra (as it were — I mean, the accumulated body of facts about the world that makes up consensus science) and the social, political, and metaphysical pronouncements of individual scientists, which are often toe-curlingly dumb, or trimmed to cultural and political winds for the sake of a grant, or (more often, actually) a quiet life. Here I think the science-lover needs an element of faith — faith that the truth will triumph at last over all the personal idiocies and politicking. This faith is hardest to maintain when contemplating the human sciences, but we must cling to it none the less. Magna est veritas et prævalebit … but I do admit that’s an act of faith.

Small reason 3:   …Etc. … One could go on indefinitely. I assume Yuval’s forthcoming book, which I am looking forward to, gives full coverage.

John Derbyshire — Mr. Derbyshire is a former contributing editor of National Review.

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