Magazine July 7, 2014, Issue

Nobody @#$%&*! Loves Science

The method, the memes, and the ideological crutch

In 2013, an obscure Christian school, the Blue Ridge Academy of Greenville, S.C., administered a test to its fourth-grade students titled “Dinosaurs: Genesis and the Gospel.” The test was derived from a creationist curriculum developed by Ken Ham’s Answers in Genesis, which operates the Creation Museum, and it was more or less what you would expect: Young Earth horsepucky denying that the world is billions of years old and that dinosaurs lived millions of years ago, maintaining that Homo sap. and T. rex walked the Earth contemporaneously, helpfully answering the vexatious question of on which day the Almighty created the dinosaurs — the sixth, it turns out — and positing that the behemoth of Job 40 probably was a sauropod of some sort. A disgruntled parent uploaded the quiz to the atheism forum on Reddit and, with the help of a social-media operation called I F***ing Love Science (IFLS), the episode became instantly famous, another demerit badge on the bandolier of the fundamentalist boobs who are holding us all back from our inevitable emergence upon the sunlit uplands of enlightened reason.

The dons of the Blue Ridge Academy did not f*****g love science, nor, apparently, did they think much of fundraising: The school has since been shuttered. The Lord provides for the ravens, which neither sow nor reap, and likewise for the lily that outshines Solomon in his splendor, while the annual fundraising appeal of the Blue Ridge Academy of Greenville, S.C., apparently was on its own. The school is dead, but the meme lives on, deathless and eternal.

The irony is that such memes — indeed, the entire implicit worldview of IFLS and its millions of admirers — owe their success to precisely the same factors that quicken so-called creation science and Adam-rode-a-brontosaurus curricula: sentimentality and scientific illiteracy. In the public discourse, nobody cares about science — they care about winning cheap rhetorical points, which is what a political meme is. The Blue Ridge quiz was first brought to my attention by Mike Godwin, who, as the creator of Godwin’s law — “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1” — is himself a judan-level practitioner of the memetic martial arts. But Mr. Godwin suffers from the same cultural blind spot as the IFLS crowd in that he mistakes the argument about evolution for a discussion about science, which of course it is not: It is a discussion about Christianity and culture in which science-flavored memes are simply used as a cudgel to whack Christians holding religiously informed traditionalist views. That task is made much easier and more enjoyable for secularists by the tendency of some Christians to associate themselves with such buffoonery as that being marketed by Mr. Ham et al. I pointed out to Mr. Godwin that when Katie Couric (B.A., English) asks Sarah Palin (B.A., communications) about her views on evolution, whatever is transpiring between the two of them is not a scientific discussion. Likewise, when Bill Nye the Science Guy — who is actually Bill Nye the engineering guy (B.S., mechanical engineering) — debates Mr. Ham (B.S., environmental biology), neither the debaters nor the scientifically illiterate popular audience sitting in judgment of them are engaged in anything that comes close to meriting description as scientific discourse — they are not equipped for it. What they are engaged in is simply the flashing of cultural and political gang signs. Mr. Godwin was, I must report, intensely annoyed by this line of argument.

Approximately 99 percent of voters are intellectually unable to understand even modestly sophisticated scientific problems. But they are able to understand prestige, and the uses to which prestige may be put, which is one of the reasons we look to famous scientists for guidance about issues in which they have no particular expertise.

For example: Carl Sagan’s reputation is practically bulletproof, but he was known to step in it while stepping outside of his field. “Embryonic recapitulation” is a long-discredited 19th-century theory championed by Ernst Haeckel holding that “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny,” meaning that the developing human embryo passes through stages recreating the evolutionary descent of man from ancestral species. Professor Haeckel supported this view with anatomical drawings now known to be inaccurate, sometimes extremely so, and even considered fraudulent by his less charitable critics. His theory has been known to be erroneous for decades and was as dead as fried chicken among scientists by the middle of the 20th century, but the theory and the inaccurate drawings still crop up in science textbooks; indeed, they appeared in my own eighth-grade text. But Professor Haeckel’s pseudoscience is not being inflicted only on junior-high students with out-of-date textbooks. Professor Sagan relied upon embryonic recapitulation for a 1990 essay in that noted scientific journal Parade, in which he presented superficial Haeckelesque embryonic observations — “looks a little like a segmented worm,” “something like the gill arches of a fish or an amphibian,” “reptilian face,” “mammalian but somewhat piglike,” “the face resembles that of a primate but is still not quite human,” etc. — to argue for abortion. Drawing ethical conclusions out of good scientific knowledge is difficult enough if not impossible; drawing them out of scientific error is a cardinal intellectual sin. Professor Sagan was wrong about the science, but if the dispute is framed as Carl Sagan vs. the Bible-thumpers, that does not matter — nobody f*****g cares about science; they care about winning.

In the same essay, Professor Sagan presents clumsy mistruths about U.S. abortion law and grossly inaccurate observations about fetal brain development. This is not entirely surprising: Carl Sagan was an astronomer with no special expertise in fetal development or law. He had no special expertise in climate science, either, but that did not stop him from predicting during the 1991 Gulf War that smoke from burning Kuwaiti oil wells might “disrupt agriculture in much of South Asia.” Professor Sagan is hardly alone in this: Stephen Hawking has said some pretty boneheaded things about population growth, apparently unaware of what scholars in that field in fact expect to happen over the course of the coming years. Albert Einstein harbored some extraordinarily addlepated ideas about politics and economics.

#page#But Professors Sagan and Hawking do not influence public discourse as scientists; they influence it in that most religious of roles: as icons. The same is broadly true for the collective contributions of their less illustrious colleagues. This is not an accident.

Consider the case of the biological roots of homosexuality. It is worth appreciating that not only does the Lady Gaga hypothesis — “Born This Way” — far exceed the current state of scientific research on the subject, it in fact precedes the existence of any scientific evidence to that effect by many, many years. But the science is and has always been beside the point. Gay-rights activists have for more than a generation attempted to present their cause as a close analogue to the civil-rights movement, and have long held that if people are born gay in the same way that they are born black, then moral objections to homosexuality are the functional equivalent of racial prejudice. Notice that the science here is subordinate to an unstated ethical proposition, i.e., that congenital features are by definition immune to moral judgment. All that was rhetorically hunky-dory until science began to catch up with and surpass political rhetoric: With the usual caveats that the issues are complex and that the evidence is not yet conclusive, there are some pretty good indicators that homosexuality has a relatively strong biological basis — and so may pedophilia, rape, violent crime, etc. Texas governor Rick Perry was lambasted for arguing that homosexuality and alcoholism were similar in that they are behaviors probably rooted in what he called “genetic coding,” but there is evidence that alcoholics are “born this way” as much as homosexuals. Racism may very well turn out to have as much biological basis as homosexuality. Answering the question of whether a particular inclination is inborn or acquired is not the same as answering the question of whether it is good or bad. Even if the scientific evidence supports the factual conclusion, nobody is going to be singing any pop anthems about how alcoholics, racists, and rapists are “born this way” — nor should they.

In the case of homosexuality, the unstated moral guideline is something like John Stuart Mill’s harm principle — “consenting adults” and all that. I happen to think that’s an excellent guideline for public policy, but it’s as much an argument against minimum-wage laws as it is against sodomy laws — it is in fact a brief for radical libertarianism — so the principle must go unstated and the issue disguised as a question of science. When the moral case is inconvenient to make, the easiest thing to do is to pretend that it isn’t there and that the question is one of science.

Consider two competing explanations for differences in human sex roles that are very common across a variety of human cultures. The orthodox feminist explanation amounts to very little more than a conspiracy theory, i.e., patriarchy, the existence of which as anything more than a rhetorical device is associated with no empirical evidence, enabled by “social constructs” and enforced by mean-spirited advertisements in Cosmopolitan magazine. The competing theory, put forward by evolution scholars, is that these differences are every bit as much the product of selection as are our thumbs and our eyes; for instance, higher levels of aggression and risk-tolerance in men probably have to do with the fact that sexual selection acts more aggressively on male primates than on female primates, not with the fact that little boys get toy guns for their birthdays. I have no idea whether that explanation is true — and, statistically speaking, it is almost certainly the case that you do not, either — but present that theory at your local university’s women’s-studies department and see how much everybody f*****g loves science.

Biology inevitably will present challenges to feminism, but feminism is nothing if not resilient, thus the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s recent creation of a postdoctoral fellowship in “feminist biology.” The fellowship, it is worth noting, is not to be hosted by the biology department or by any of the natural-sciences departments, but by the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies, which advertises its ideological commitments: “Where social justice is part of the curriculum.” Feminists have for at least 30 years been waging intellectual war on the scientific method itself, which, given their influence on higher education, is of far more consequence than what’s happening at the defunct Blue Ridge Academy.

On questions ranging from gay rights to global warming, there is a great deal of “science says” unaccompanied by any appreciation for the fact that the related questions are not scientific. Gay rights and abortion are moral questions, not scientific ones; the question of what if anything to do about global warming is mostly economic and political, not scientific. Who controls what is taught in schools is a political question, too, even when the schools teach nonsense — which they do, about a great deal more than evolution. And to the extent that science might help provide some guidance for policies, it is often in fact unwelcome, met with a great deal of hostility by the very same sort of people who get worked up about creationist hoo-haw. The implications of complexity theory for economic regulation? Nobody loves that science.

The eccentricities of a defunct Christian academy in South Carolina are of keen interest to the 16.4 million aficionados of IFLS, even though their effect on public policy — and public life — is essentially zero. In contrast, the matter of abortion is a deeply important one, but there is no popular criticism of Professor Sagan’s defective arguments about it — arguments that did not dry up and blow away with that issue of Parade magazine. Likewise, as I have reported at National Review Online, the Affordable Care Act will mandate subsidies for all manner of pseudoscientific quackery, from chiropractic to acupuncture, homeopathy, and herbalism — there is zero evidence for the effectiveness of any of those so-called therapies — at a cost known only to Him Who created dinosaurs on the sixth day, the Congressional Budget Office having wearied of estimating the costs. Superstition and pseudoscience surround us, infusing our culture and imbuing our institutions with beliefs and prejudices that are not only irrational but in fact hostile to reason. Sometimes the results are trivial, as in IFLS’s observation: “If God didn’t want us to masturbate, He would have made our arms shorter. Maybe that’s why T. rex was always so angry.” (If Who didn’t want us to masturbate?) But that same science-of-convenience attitude is why we’re having a measles outbreak in New York City and why progressives are trying to force upon the world agricultural practices that would see millions starve to death. In the long run, the price of ignorance is very high.

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