Clueless Scientists?

Conservatives are said to be “anti-science,” though one ought to pause once and a while and ponder where the opposition to vaccines and genetically modified organisms comes from.  A belief in a literal six-day creation 6,000 years ago harms no one; urging parents not to vaccinate their children, as prominent liberals and celebrities have done, leads to unnecessary death and disease.

One problem for the scientific community is that much of it seems to have thrown in its lot with liberalism, but then wonders why its members experience high levels of distrust.  In 2004, Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin wrote a shocking admission in the New York Review of Books: “Most scientists are, at a minimum, liberals, although it is by no means obvious why this should be so.  Despite the fact that all of the molecular biologists of my acquaintance are shareholders in or advisers to biotechnology firms, the chief political controversy in the scientific community seems to be whether it is wise to vote for Ralph Nader this time.”  (With political judgment this bad, is it any wonder there might be doubts about the policy prescriptions of scientists?) MIT’s Kerry Emanuel, a Republican, but as mainstream as they come in climate science (Al Gore referenced his work, and in one of his books Emanuel refers to Sen. James Inhofe as a “scientific illiterate” and climate skeptics as les refusards), offers this warning to his field: “Scientists are most effective when they provide sound, impartial advice, but their reputation for impartiality is severely compromised by the shocking lack of political diversity among American academics, who suffer from the kind of group-think that develops in cloistered cultures.  Until this profound and well-documented intellectual homogeneity changes, scientists will be suspected of constituting a leftist think tank.”

Once upon a time scientists seemed to have better judgment about these things. The good folks at RealClearScience have a nice compendium up today of scientists mostly from the past who sound much more like conservatives, even though most of them were liberals obviously suffering from cognitive dissonance:

“The real question of government versus private enterprise is argued on too philosophical and abstract a basis. Theoretically, planning may be good. But nobody has ever figured out the cause of government stupidity—and until they do (and find the cure), all ideal plans will fall into quicksand.

—Richard Feynman


“Nothing is more destructive of respect for the government and the law of the land than passing laws which cannot be enforced.”

—Albert Einstein


“No government has the right to decide on the truth of scientific principles, nor to prescribe in any way the character of the questions investigated. Neither may a government determine the aesthetic values of artistic creations, nor limit the forms of literary or artistic expression. Nor should it pronounce on the validity of economic, historic, religious or philosophical doctrines. Instead it has a duty to its citizens to maintain their freedom, to let those citizens contribute to the further adventure and the development of the human race.”

—Richard Feynman


“I wish that the oath of citizenship taken by recent immigrants, and the pledge that students routinely recite, included something like ‘I promise to question everything my leaders tell me.’ I also wish that the Pledge of Allegiance were directed at the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, as it is when the President takes his oath of office, rather than to the flag and the nation.”

—Carl Sagan


“Science is more than a body of knowledge, it’s a way of thinking. A way of skeptically interrogating the universe with a fine understanding of human fallibility. If we are not able to ask skeptical questions, to interrogate those that tell us that something is true, to be skeptical of those in authority, then we’re up for grabs for the next charlatan, political or religious who comes ambling along.”

—Carl Sagan

Remember especially this last one next time someone tells you that you can’t be skeptical of “settled” climate science coming from the government.