Sunday, October 28, 2012

The End Of Science In America?

Paul Krugman:

Like others doing similar exercises — Drew Linzer, Sam Wang, and Pollster — Nate[ Silver]’s model continued to show an Obama edge even after Denver, and has shown that edge widening over the past couple of weeks.

This could be wrong, obviously. And we’ll find out on Election Day. But the methodology has been very clear, and all the election modelers have been faithful to their models, letting the numbers fall where they may.

Yet the right — and we’re not talking about the fringe here, we’re talking about mainstream commentators and publications — has been screaming “bias”! They know, just know, that Nate must be cooking the books. How do they know this? Well, his results look good for Obama, so it must be a cheat. Never mind the fact that Nate tells us all exactly how he does it, and that he hasn’t changed the formula at all.

This is, of course, reminiscent of the attack on the Bureau of Labor Statistics — not to mention the attacks on climate science and much more. On the right, apparently, there is no such thing as an objective calculation. Everything must have a political motive.

This is really scary. It means that if these people triumph, science — or any kind of scholarship — will become impossible. Everything must pass a political test; if it isn’t what the right wants to hear, the messenger is subjected to a smear campaign.

This strikes me as yet another manifestation of the right-wing concept of science as simply a belief system, like Catholicism or Islam or Mormonism: as though, if you don't like one "faith," you can choose another; if you are offended by one scientific theory, you can replace it, based not on whether the replacement truly describes the world we live in, but on whether it is compatible with your political outlook. It's the same situation as in any other search for truth in reality: you don't get to choose your own facts. Honest seekers across the spectrum freely acknowledge this. Right-wingers, even the ones who are not utterly nuts, do not: the facts themselves, as they see them, are subject to reshaping based on one's political philosophy.

That simply doesn't work... at all... in scientific research. You cannot "pray away" global climate change. You cannot merely assert loudly, or even pass a law in Congress, that the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe has no ongoing environmental consequences. You cannot pass a law about when human life begins, and thereby change the physiology of the process. And as Krugman reminds us, you cannot legislate underlying motivations for human economic behavior, the ones that are truly wired in, as if they were simple matters of policy. You can't make trickle-down supply-side economics "true" by fiat. You can deny Keynes until you're blue in the face, but his message will nonetheless haunt you in the real world if you ignore it.

There have always been science deniers; this is nothing new. Indeed, before a few people in 17th-century England, Italy and Germany framed the basics of how one does science, of the notion of a hypothesis to be tested, of experimental confirmation, of mathematical description, there was not a great deal of science done anywhere. (The age of Archimedes, c. 287 BC – c. 212 BC, mathematically enlightened and technologically clever as he was, was all too brief, and had no thread of historical succession directly connecting him with the beginnings of science as we know it.) For millennia, most people did not think in scientific terms; those who did often paid dearly for their troubles. Today's science deniers would take us back to that time. (Hey, the torture apparatuses are already in place, thanks to the political system!)

And that is the crux (!) of what is frightening about right-wing politics: the wingers wish to establish a new age of "truth" by fiat, not truth through research in scientific matters, not even political truth by honest debate among people of differing interests, but truth by reference to authority. Regular use of the argument from authority leads almost inexorably to more emphasis on the authority than the argument. Spare us, please!


  1. The science deniers and god's plan morons still, automatically depend on electricity, cell phones, and sophisticated technology to live their lives. Looks like we are headed for a Morlock nation.

    1. Morlock... H.G. Wells, Larry Niven "Known Space," or Marvel Comics?

  2. Duh! Todd Akin is on the science committee in Congress. Enough said.

    1. The whole bloody Tea Party has too much sugar in them, as far as I'm concerned.

  3. BTW the "prove you are not a robot" thing is a real PIA. Just saying.

    1. fallenmonk, I couldn't agree more. I face it on other Blogger blogs, and it is so obstructive that I've written note after note to the Google contact team... some fairly strongly worded, such as "Regarding your CAPTCHA: why do you hate old people so much?" ... all to no avail. My personal solution is to keep an old large rectangular magnifying glass, my parents' from years ago, next to the computer; it sometimes makes the extremely dark numbers a bit clearer. But I still end up re-entering about one out of every two. I hate that shit.

      But after two blog moves in two years, both forced by outside circumstances beyond my control (HaloScan's demise and's genuine ill-treatment of me over that link from my blogroll), I just don't have it in me to move again, or to adapt to yet a FOURTH commenting system in two years. I'm about two-thirds dead these days anyway. If I just wait a while, the problem will solve itself. :-(



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