Ramesh noted yesterday some of the silliness of Christopher Hitchens’s attack on Sarah Palin and her supposed “war on science.” It’s worth pointing out that the particular spark that set off this latest Slate witch-burning was Palin’s criticism of a $211,000 earmark from Rep. Mike Thompson (D-CA) for a French study of fruit flies that damage olive groves—a criticism that came in the midst of a larger speech about the need for, among other things, more support for scientific research. The idea that opposing science-funding-by-earmark (i.e. in circumvention of the rigorous peer review process for federal R&D funds) is somehow anti-science is beyond absurd, and the notion that criticizing this earmark means Palin opposes or is ignorant of any use of fruit flies in scientific research is just unserious.
Researchers whose work is found not to have sufficient merit by the peer review boards at NIH or NSF or the Department of Agriculture or the other federal agencies that distribute $142 billion of research funds every year can get taxpayer funds nonetheless if they happen to know the right congressman or if their institution has a good lobbyist. That’s an example of our political system at work, not of science unfettered, and yet somehow the great Tribune of Reason takes it to be a sacred ritual, whose critics could only be retrograde anti-rationalists.
Palin has been a fascinating Rorschach test, and of all the various odd reactions to her the idea that, as Hitchens puts it, she is “a proud, boastful ignoramus” or among “those who despise science and learning,” has been one of the most common, most telling, and least well-founded.