Friday, July 01, 2016

Phil Plait's Biased View of Anti-Science Purveyors

Phil Plait has a Slate article that squarely takes aim at Donald Trump (A "yuge" target!) and the anti-science views of the Republican party in general.  He writes:
As an astronomer I of course have certain pet projects; I’ve taken on astrology, Moon landing deniers, cosmic doomsday promulgators, and geocentrists. But a background in science allows me to broaden that approach, and I will happily help shoulder the load to debunk the claims of climate change deniers, anti-vaxxers, homeopaths, and young-Earth creationists.

Some of these present a more pressing need than others, of course. Astrology is a minor issue compared with, say, someone who supports abstinence-only education.

But they’re all there, all the time, creating a background buzz of hogwash, an atmosphere of denial of science, evidence, and rational thinking … and that can have devastating consequences.
There are many reasons to castigate many republicans for their anti-science views and, in my experience, anti-evolutionary bills in statehouses spring almost uniformly from the minds of republican legislators. Having said that, Plait makes some very hasty judgements and omits some very critical information in his post. First, he writes:
Months ago, early on in the presidential campaign, I made light of Trump, saying that his particular candidacy would crash and burn when he inevitably said or did something so outrageous and horrific that people would flee his side.
I was wrong. I underestimated just how thoroughly the GOP had salted the Earth. Philosophical party planks of climate change denial, anti-evolution, anti-intellectualism, intolerance, and more have made it such that Trump can literally say almost anything, and it hardly affects his popularity.
First off, these aren't party planks.  No single Republican, except maybe Jeb Bush (maybe), intended to do away with science education and, in any event, it is doubtful they could.  He notes that Marco Rubio doesn't know how old the earth is.  Maybe not, but in his answer, he deferred to the scientists and said that it didn't matter in his campaign.  Political?  Yes.  Anti-science?  No.  Plait's "intolerance" link points to one Louie Gohmert, a Texas republican who wanted to be sure we don't have "gay space colonies."  I don't know any republican that thinks this way or even have this on their radar.

Second, it is easy to find one idiot out there who doesn't have anything better to do than legislate stupid things.  Try extrapolating that to the Republican party as a whole.  You can't.  It is like saying that the protests of the Westboro Baptist church represent Christianity as a whole.

He also omits some critical information that skews his argument.  As Mischa Fisher wrote in 2013, in The Atlantic, The Republican party isn't really an anti-science party. She writes:
I'm the first to admit that there are elected Republicans with a terrible understanding of science—Representative Paul Broun of Georgia, an M.D. who claims evolution and the Big Bang are “lies straight from the pit of hell” is one rather obvious example—and many more with substantial room for improvement. But Republicans, conservatives, and the religious are no more uniquely “anti-science” than any other demographic or political group. It’s just that “anti-science” has been defined using a limited set of issues that make the right wing and religious look relatively worse. (As a politically centrist atheist, this claim is not meant to be self-serving.)

Republicans, and members of the traditionally Republican coalition like conservatives and the religious, are criticized for rejecting two main areas of science: evolution and global warming. But even those critiques are overblown. Believing in God is not the same as rejecting science, contrary to an all-too-frequent caricature propagated by the secular community. Members of all faiths have contributed to our collective scientific understanding, and Christians from Gregor Mendel to Francis Collins have been intellectual leaders in their fields. Collins, head of the Human Genome Project and an evangelical Christian, wrote a New York Times bestseller reconciling his faith with his understanding of evolution and genetics.
Plait seems to be unaware of these examples. Fisher continues:
The more important question on climate change is not “how do we eliminate carbon immediately?” but “how best do we secure a cleaner environment and more prosperous world for future generations?”
It is on this subject that many on the political left deeply hold some serious anti-scientific beliefs. Set aside the fact that twice as many Democrats as Republicans believe in astrology, a pseudoscientific medieval farce. Left-wing ideologues also frequently espouse an irrational fear of nuclear power, genetic modification, and industrial and agricultural chemistry—even though all of these scientific breakthroughs have enriched lives, lengthened lifespans, and produced substantial economic growth over the last century.
As I mentioned above (and she reiterates), it is certainly easy to find Republicans promoting idiotic things, but Plait glosses over the idiocies that are promoted by Democrats, as almost all anti-vaxxers are.  He further conflates scientific issues with social ones (he is not the only one to do this).  He mentions abstinence-only education as if it were a scientific conspiracy theory, when in fact, it is a social/religious position that is disagreed on by conservatives and liberals, not on scientific but on behavioral grounds.   Put another way, the Bible teaches abstinence before marriage and many liberals think that is silly.

Plait's view of republicans is, in my experience, somewhat typical of the left's complete misunderstanding of the conservative mindset.   In his caricature of Republicans, he creates a straw man/cardboard cut-out that he then trashes. This is the viewpoint that he brings with him in his central premise: that anti-scientific tendencies are how we ended up with Donald Trump.  This premise is very debatable.  It is equally plausible that we ended up with Donald Trump because many in the electorate are tired of being told that their values and views are unimportant and insignificant.  They are also tired of federal overreach and see Trump as a (possible) alternative to this problem.  They also don't trust Hillary Clinton.  At.  All.

As governments here and abroad become increasingly plutocratic, it has not been lost on many people that they are losing their voice.  This viewpoint was brought front and center by the vote of the British people to leave the EU.  When interviewed, most of the people that voted “leave” did so because they felt they were losing their national identity and their ability to control any of their own destiny.  Donald Trump is tapping into that feeling.

Does Trump say stupid things?  Yes, he does.  Are some of his viewpoints untenable?  Yes, they are.  But his rise to power has little to do with anti-science views of his supporters. 

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