Notes From Babel

Evolution, Global Warming, and Games Partisans Play with Science

with 5 comments

A poll at Balloon Juice, designed to discern the conservative hive mind, asks:

1) Do you believe in evolution?

2) Do you believe that the average temperature on earth has increased over the past 30 years?

I’m a conservative, but these questions get very little response from me.  I don’t count science as one of my avocations.  The most rigorous science I’ve done was satisfying an undergrad requirement.  So what should I know about whether evolution or global warming are true?

Of course, that’s precisely why they’re interesting questions:  most people don’t have any particularly good, independently researched reasons for believing either way on such questions.  So the way you answer them tends to reveal what sorts of people you’re willing to believe based on some sort of predisposition or bias.

Consider some similar questions:

  • Do you believe in Keynesian economics?
  • Is high-speed rail a good idea?
  • Do you believe the individual mandate is constitutional?

Notice how these questions, like the two from the poll, are likewise politically charged.  That is, you’ll note they’re quite different from questions about whether we should send more astronauts to the moon, whether Newton or Leibniz discovered calculus, or whether Francis Bacon wrote the works attributed to Shakespeare.  The point is, the first type of question attracts the attention of a great volume of partisans and pundits, who overshadow the more scholarly research on the subjects.  What happens is a great deal of noise is stirred up over such questions, and the “findings” of the research are presented in slanted ways.  The result is that a wide array of people are tempted to form an opinion on the question in an area far from their sphere of cognition, and in order to form that opinion, they’re able to draw from the ready supply of “authority” on the subject that is designed to align with other, closely held personal views than it is with the actual truth of the scientific question itself.

So, if you’re a non-expert and take a strong position one way or another on a question legitimately debated among experts, and particularly unless you’ve got some significant independent, scholastic (non-partisan) research in support, you’ve probably been captured by pundits.

In this regard, I like what commenter Jaybird said in this thread:

In arguments with progressives, pretty much everything is a moral discussion.

It isn’t enough to agree with the proposition P. You must agree to the proposition P for the right litany of reasons… and if you don’t, you’re as immoral as those who disagree with the proposition P outright. You can even live as if you believed that proposition P was true and be immoral without the proper litany.

If you have the proper litany, however, you can live however you wish.

Just be able to recite it when called upon by your betters.

[After all that, I forgot to note: Yes, of course, I believe in evolution, though with somewhat less force than my belief in the evolution of the x086 architecture.]


Written by Tim Kowal

February 10, 2011 at 12:00 am

Posted in Politics

Tagged with ,

5 Responses

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Kevin Chen, Tim Kowal. Tim Kowal said: Evolution, Global Warming, and Games Partisans Play with Science […]

  2. Just browsing around the various WordPress blogs and I came upon this post. And I have to say, this is about the most insightful thing I’ve heard about politics and science in a while:

    Of course, that’s precisely why they’re interesting questions: most people don’t have any particularly good, independently researched reasons for believing either way on such questions. So the way you answer them tends to reveal what sorts of people you’re willing to believe based on some sort of predisposition or bias.


    February 10, 2011 at 2:11 am

  3. Nice post.

    You hit the nail on the head in noting that in regards to these questions (and the others you added) most people get their opinions from elites or authorities within their political in-group. In essence, belief in evolution and now anthropogenic climate change has become a sort of tribal signal rather than any independently researched conclusion. In fact, the way that the question is worded already reveals this to be the case, as one doesn’t “believe” in evolution or global warming. Instead, for example, one accepts that the vast majority of empirical evidence from the fossil record and genetics supports the idea that the vast number of different species of life evolved from natural selection, and so on.

    The media often makes this even worse. Whenever they discuss evolution (or many other topics), they’ll pick two extremists – a new Athiest and a young Earth creationist. After all, it doesn’t make for good television to see a scientist and theologian both say that evolution can tell you a lot about how different species came to be but that it tells you very little if anything about God. (Other than he’s enough of cosmic bad ass to have created a universe where something as beautiful as life would form spontaneously on tiny rock in the middle of nowhere)

    Aaron W

    February 10, 2011 at 11:36 pm

    • Good points. I suppose “belief” for scientists is not the proper word. Evolution, like everything else in science, is and forever will be “theory.” But as humans, we like to talk not merely in terms of what explanation best comports with our experience, but what do we believe, what is true. So when someone asks, do you “believe” in evolution, or in man-caused global warming, or in phlogiston, we’re really asking, “who’s ready to depart the limits of science and take take sides in the holy war?”

      Tim Kowal

      February 10, 2011 at 11:49 pm

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