Friday, February 13, 2015

A snapshot of the left-right fight over science

At The Federalist, David Harsanyi has a list: "Here Are The ‘Science’ Questions Reporters Should Ask Politicians." The piece is in keeping with a theme voiced by many conservatives that the recent questioning of Scott Walker about evolution was tendentious "gotcha" journalism (which it was), and that liberal/progressive journalists and politicians who hector the right about science are often ill-informed about science themselves (which is true).

I've written (a lot) about skewed science on left and right, and concluded provisionally that there's plenty wrong with the left on this score and--at the present time--even more wrong with the right. To glean some of both side's deficiencies, I recommend scrolling through recent tweets by Harsanyi's Federalist colleague Sean M. Davis, who responded to journalists' derision of Walker by pressing them about what they know about punctuated equilibrium and other topics involving evolution. Fair enough--but: Davis's amusing screed also included some statements that are misleading at best:
Me: Macroevolution is commonly defined as evolution at or above the species level, and there is debate about questions such as whether the mechanisms of microevolution (change within species) are sufficient by themselves to account for change of one species to another, and the relative importance of the mechanisms. Complicated, certainly. Controversial? Only if one means the details of how macroevolution happens. That it happens--more specifically, that  new species arise from earlier ones-- is not controversial within the scientific community. At all. Davis's implication that there is some raging scientific debate about the existence of speciation is false. Plus, using the distinction between micro- and macroevolution spuriously is a tactic from the creationist playbook.

Me:  I never went to j-school, but I have written about both the multiverse and evolution on many occasions. And to the best of my knowledge, Davis's claim here, that multiverse theories developed because of problems with Darwinian gradualism, is false. I say "to the best of my knowledge" because there's no way to rule out that some scientist somewhere may have thought along such lines, but if so that certainly was not typical of how ideas about the multiverse arose.

In saying this, let me make clear that I think one motivation--among others--for receptiveness to the multiverse (the idea that there are many universes) was to bat away a particular strand of thinking that the laws of physics give evidence of an intelligent "fine tuning." There were other and I suspect more important motivations, particularly that theories of cosmic inflation (and also cosmological natural selection) inherently imply that the creation of new universes would happen more than once; there's no clear reason why the needed conditions wouldn't happen again and again.

But even agreeing (as I do) that some scientists like the idea of a multiverse because it weakens certain claims for design, let me be clear that the claims in question are not those of Darwinian gradualism but rather those of fine-tuning (e.g., that life could not have evolved if say the strength of gravity or mass of the proton were slightly different). Importantly, the more fine-tuning in physics you have, the less reason you have to doubt that biological evolution would occur. Fine-tuning means a life-friendly universe, whereas standard creationist/Intelligent Design arguments against evolution rely, implicitly or explicitly, on the idea that the universe is not life-friendly enough for biological evolution to occur. If you're someone who (a) wants evolution to be true and (b) is worried that gradualism is improbable, positing a multiverse is at best a change in subject.

Sean M. Davis's statements about macroevolution being controversial, and about the multiverse being a response to Darwinian gradualism's improbability, suggest a weak grasp of evolution and cosmology alike, and that his perspectives on these matters are heavily influenced by creationist/Intelligent Design critiques from far outside the scientific mainstream.

Now, as I mentioned at the outset, David Harsanyi has a list of questions for politicians. Their import, I think, is that Democratic politicians will stumble over these, out of ignorance and/or a desire to not offend the liberal base by stating scientific facts that the base doesn't know or doesn't want to accept. But if the point is to denounce tendentious questions by giving examples of some, Harsanyi certainly has done so. For example:

Is nuclear power the safest energy in the world? According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, around 70 percent of scientists support nuclear power development because it is. Yet large number of liberals oppose and stand in the way of science.
Me: No. The linked poll asks whether scientists support nuclear power, not whether it's the "safest" source of energy. It would be difficult to make a scientific case that nuclear is "safest" compared to say solar or windpower (birds notwithstanding), but far more plausible to say that nuclear is or with proper regulation can be a good idea, given its risks and benefits.

The Harsanyi list is filled with questions that make little sense. Do you believe carbon dioxide is detrimental to human existence? fails to acknowledge the obvious distinction between something being detrimental in a general, let alone absolute, sense and something being detrimental at certain levels or in certain ways; it also blurs whether something is detrimental in a direct way or indirectly. But I am not entirely clear whether Harsanyi thinks Democratic politicians would stumble because these questions are so probing or because the questions are so dumb (or both). I find the questions more dumb than probing.

I'm all for pointing out when liberal/progressive/Democratic pundits and politicians purport to be "sciencey" without foundation. But in doing so, conservative writers should have a firmer grasp of the subjects they're talking about than is evident in the Harsanyi/Davis responses to the Walker kerfluffle.


Ray said...

Great topic, Ken, and just one day after Charles Darwin's 206th birthday.

I too get annoyed at journalists engaging in gotcha questions knowing that politicians are generally not scientists, that they reflect their constituencies, and are products of their own upbringing. It does seem that conservative politicians are a bit more at odds with science then those of the left, but the left leaning officials are not always standing tall on scientific matters.

I can not say I have heard much in the way of gotcha questioning from journalists (who are mainly left leaning) on science matters such as NCCAM (National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine). Senator Harkin, a Democrat was the main spark for establishing this so-called agency that spends money doing research but seems to have great difficulty in arriving at conclusions when research indicates that the alternative medicine issue at hand is bogus. One wonders if any serious research is accomplished at all.

No doubt conservatives are also involved in some questionable medical loonery (colloidal silver is one such topic) but in matters of quack cures the left reigns.

It does bug me though, that conservatives so often are anti-evolution. It makes me wonder if they truly hold that position or is it a matter of not alienating a large percentage of base voters.

By the way, NCCAM has been renamed National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH). It remains to be seen if any real research will be accomplished.

Kenneth Silber said...

Thanks Ray. Unfortunately no shortage of stuff to write about along these lines.