The Corner

RE: Conservatives and Science

I agree with Kathryn and Jonah, and I imagine Jim will too. There’s a very important point to understand about the increasing convergence around global-warming science: it is a badly needed pulling back not only from denial of all climate change claims (which some on the right have inclined toward — and some alas still do) but also from the gross exaggeration and reckless misuse of climate science that has characterized the rhetoric on the left. It is being made possible — slowly but surely — by the work of the global community of climate scientists, especially through the IPCC, whose reports have walked back from the edge of hysteria in recent years and painted a more sensible picture of facts, conjectures, risks, and plausibilities. The conservatives who are working to resist or to answer global-warming denialism (much of which was based on very genuine concerns about the accuracy of climate science and the policy implications its advocates were drawing from it) are not adopting the script of Al Gore’s movie, which is the epitome of the reckless hysteria school of climate change. They’re not talking about Manhattan under water, but about the apparent probability of a very modest increase in average temperatures over the course of the coming century and a half to which human activity appears to contribute some and which may have detrimental effects particularly on low-lying areas in the middle latitudes. There is plenty of time and space to improve our modeling and understanding, to seek some ways to mitigate and adapt, and find some creative solutions to both our energy and our environmental problems — as Jim Manzi has well argued in the pages of NR. These begin from seeing these problems realistically. Neither the right nor the left has done that squarely in the recent past, but the genuine abuses of science have been (and frankly continue to be — just listen to “rolling back the waters” Obama lately) more serious on the left in this debate than on the right. Global warming hysterics, at least as much as denialists, need to get a real grip on the science.

To take this as an instance of some kind of conservative anti-science agenda, and even to equate this with the evolution debate, is surely wrong-headed. In the evolution debate, for instance, some are inclined to deny scientific claims because they accept the notion that certain moral implications must follow from those claims, and they resist those implications. Rather than question the idea that the implications must in fact follow from the science, they dispute the science. (The evolution debate is much more complicated than that, I know, so no need for millions of e-mails, but it does exhibit this general dynamic among others.) In the global warming debate, on the other hand, we have seen a reaction (which sometimes has run to excess) against extreme and irresponsible hyping of scientific claims. Both debates are complex, but they are very very different; and the relationships between the right, the left, and science are very far from simple, as revealed in both instances and many others.

I might take the opportunity to mention that the relationship between the right, the left, and science, is one of the main subjects of a forthcoming book of mine, due out in September — Imagining the Future: Science and American Democracy. A chapter of that book (on science and the left) ran in the last issue of the New Atlantis. It is followed in the book by a chapter on science and the right, and the book takes up more generally the question of what all these science debates can teach us about American political life. (End of shameless plug).

Yuval Levin is the director of social, cultural, and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the editor of National Affairs.


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