The Right Wing’s War on Science

Scene from "Fahrenheit 451"

Scene from “Fahrenheit 451”

As an intellectual, I find one of the most disturbing developments of recent years to be right wing attacks on science. I’m not only thinking of the attacks on evolutionary science and climate science, although these have been particularly egregious. There have also been attacks on sociology, political science, economics, psychology, history—anything, indeed, that stands in the way of what ideologues proclaim as truth.

I remember first noticing this tendency when the Reagan administration commissioned a study designed to show that bringing a pregnancy to term was safer than aborting a fetus. Unfortunately for Reagan, the study showed that abortions are safer than pregnancies. That’s because there is always a significant risk in giving birth. Denied the talking point it desired, the Reagan administration simply suppressed the study.

These days we see this everywhere. Social scientists are attacked when they demonstrate that abstinence education doesn’t work. Economists are attacked when they show that trickle down economics and large tax breaks don’t stimulate the economy. North Carolina bans the state “from basing coastal policies on the latest scientific predictions of how much the sea level will rise.”

Of course, scientists seldom arrive at complete consensus, and they seldom speak with the certainty of ideologues. Rhetorically they are at a disadvantage because science is a rigorous, peer-reviewed process that must always be open to changing its theories if new countervailing data is discovered. Scientists generally come down hard on colleague who they feel are stretching the facts to fit their political predilections. Cooking the data violates what we are about.

In the eyes of ideologues, by contrast, policy comes first and science either gets in line or is dismissed. Increasingly, it seems, right wing politicians and “fair and balanced” Fox News feel free to make things up as it suits them. If proved wrong, they either ignore their critics or, if they can’t, simply move on to other talking points.

Liberals have their share of faults but they don’t have this one. The number of left-of-center columnists who have recently been writing “mea culpas” for their support of the Iraq War ten years ago suggests that the facts matter more to them than to, say, “I wouldn’t do anything differently” Cheney.

In the past, I’ve turned to Pope’s Dunciad to express my despair. (“And universal darkness covers all.”) Yesterday I found another useful passage in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, which I’m teaching at the moment. A description of Vietnam soldier Rat Kiley’s handling of truth describes fairly well much of current day right wing discourse. It also instructs us in how to be skeptical:

Among the men in Alpha Company, Rat had a reputation for exaggeration and overstatement, a compulsion to rev up the facts, and for most of us it was normal procedure to discount sixty or seventy percent of anything he had to say. If Rat told you, for example that he’d slept with four girls one night, you could figure it was about a girl and a half. It wasn’t a question of deceit. Just the opposite: he wanted to heat up the truth, to make it burn so hot that you would feel exactly what he felt. For Rat Kiley, I think, facts were formed by sensation, not the other way around, and when you listened to one of his stories, you’d find yourself performing rapid calculations in your head, subtracting superlatives, figuring the square root of an absolute and then multiplying by maybe.

“Facts were formed by sensation, not the other way around.” Yes, that pretty much sums up right wing ideologues these days.

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