Science

Why Conservatives Have Always Distrusted Science

From the Scopes trial to the "arrogant" atomic elite to climate change.

The elite created it, and stole it.

Photographer: National Archive/Newsmakers

The outrage that met President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate-change agreement overlooks how perfectly his thinking aligns with conservative ideology.

As the New York Times pointed out last week, Trump actually seemed to have learned something from the mistakes of President George W. Bush. When Bush yanked the U.S. from the Kyoto Protocols shortly after taking office in 2001, top advisers, including Secretary of State Colin Powell, were caught completely off guard. This didn’t happen with Trump. His decision fulfilled a campaign promise, and it came after debate inside the White House.

More broadly, while Trump has been roundly criticized for setting America back in key science-related areas -- overturning Obama-era regulations on business and the environment -- it is also the case that he is simply following a familiar conservative playbook, and it includes many pages attacking or dismissing mainstream science.

This is not to say it is only conservatives who distrust science. Liberals sometimes do, too -- on issues like nuclear power, the laboratory use of animals in medical testing, and genetically modified foods.

But it is usually a conservative who will say, with a hint of defiance, “I’m not a scientist…” -- and then go on to dismiss evidence of climate change, or impute sinister intentions to the American and British scientists whose emails were hacked in the “climate-gate” controversy in 2009 or, more recently, be swayed by arguments that findings on global warming are "fake science." 

The reason is that for many on the right, including high-powered writers and thinkers, science is itself a kind of fakery, especially when it comes into conflict with long-held beliefs or ideologies.

An early example was the Scopes "monkey" trial, in 1925. The defendant was a teacher in Tennessee who violated a new state law banning the teaching of evolutionary theory in public schools. The lead prosecutor was the former presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan.

"No number of experts will ever explain away or destroy the Bible," he declared in the courtroom. But at the same time, he argued that permitting the “damnable doctrine” of evolution into classrooms -- and even allowing “outside experts” to testify in the case -- would destroy belief in Christian faith and in the Bible.

"If this is a conflict between science and religion," Bryan said, "then I serve notice I’m on the side of religion, if science breeds infidelity and agnosticism in the soul of the world."

This two-sided argument, that scientific theory is at once outlandish and dangerous, has been made many times since, and not just by crowd-pleasing populists like Bryan. In the cold war it became a central tenet of high-level conservative doctrine. While the consensus in both parties held that new technology was needed to contain the Soviet Union, conservative writers and thinkers argued that making a fetish of technological progress, and of the scientific method, was a kind of surrender.

If "technology becomes the god by which we live," warned the National Review columnist Frank Meyer, then the Communists would win, because their system pursued "to its logical conclusion the positivistic glorification of control and power as the end of man’s existence."

To go down that route was to worship the false god of "scientism," the philosopher Eric Voegelin wrote, and to make mathematics and physics "substitute for the religious order of the soul." After all, it was the scientific method, what Friedrich Hayek called the "religion of the engineers," that had created the gas chambers in Nazi Germany and the planned economy and labor camps in Stalin’s Russia.   

In this period, nuclear physicists became synonymous with "eggheads" -- big-brained but soft-minded believers in world government, "the arrogant, atomic elite" hostile to American values. Many were in fact leftists. And a few were secret Communists.

The Los Alamos physicist Klaus Fuchs turned out to be a spy. His supervisor, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the “father of the atom bomb,” lost his security clearance in the 1950s, after he gave evasive testimony on his ideological history and associations. When Harvard invited him to give a series of lectures named for the philosopher William James, National Review editor William F. Buckley Jr. went on the attack. What business did the "social derelict" Oppenheimer, who had “admittedly lied and deceived the government" and even now wouldn’t disclose his Communist contacts, have lecturing anyone, anywhere on philosophy, let alone as the guest of Harvard, Buckley wrote.

Buckley and company stopped short of challenging the legitimacy of the scientific work that Oppenheimer and others did. They might not be much impressed by it, but they didn’t dispute its rigor or accuracy. That came later, when a new generation of conservatives began to combat the scientific consensus with other "science" more to their liking.

When Newt Gingrich became House speaker in 1995, he defunded the Office of Technological Assessment. The agency had been created in the Nixon years to provide lawmakers with the most up-to-date information, but conservatives were convinced it had become tainted by liberal bias. “We constantly found scientists who thought what they were saying was not correct," Gingrich said. That those scientists formed a small minority was beside the point.

In the George W. Bush years, the "Republican war on science" became a catch phrase. One example was climate-change denial. Another was bio-ethical objections to stem-cell research. A third was advocating alternatives to evolutionary theory.

There was a sweeping movement, mainly in the South, to replace "Darwinism" with teachings on creationism or the divine "fine-tuning" of "intelligent design." A highly publicized court case in Pennsylvania replayed the Scopes trial 80 years later, only in reverse. The judge ruled that intelligent design wasn’t a true alternative to evolution. There was a difference, he explained, between a creed and a theory.

Many conservatives agree, only they choose creeds over theories. And they are not altogether wrong. Conservatives got some big things right in the cold war. Spiritual values did indeed play a big part in the West's victory. But so did the material gains that came through science and technology. It was the combination of theory and creed that accounted for our advantage. It is the tension between the two that creates a dynamic society.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Sam Tanenhaus at tanenhaus.lit@gmail.com

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net

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