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Science Left Behind Can Teach Us about Political Tactics of Intelligent Design Critics

While Chris Mooney is of course correct in his book The Republican Brain that sometimes people don't behave rationally or don't follow the evidence, what's wrong about his thesis is his unwavering claim that liberals have some superior ability to be rational when it comes to evaluating science. He states this explicitly: "today's liberals are usually right and today's conservative usually wrong." Or again: "denying facts is not a phenomenon equally distributed across the political spectrum." (pp. 7, 4, emphases in original)

This is what is refreshing about Alex B. Berezow and Hank Campbell's book Science Left Behind: Feel-Good Fallacies and the Rise of the Anti-Scientific Left. These authors acknowledge that some conservatives believe kooky things, but they don't try to pretend that an entire political view has the monopoly on kookiness, and therefore ought to be rejected. The reality, of course, is that there's plenty of rationality and irrationality to be found within all sides of the political spectrum.

Science Left Behind doesn't try to bully people into ignoring or mocking the arguments of opponents because they're supposedly mentally deficient. Rather, this book's argument is that we need a return to unpoliticized scientific inquiry -- especially in science journalism.

Much of Berezow and Campbell's book looks at the rise of radical environmentalism, the anti-vaccine movement, or the anti-GMO movement. They conclude that denial of scientific facts is not peculiar to one particular political ideology:

The right is not more anti-science than the left; it just has terrible public relations. Progressives have mastered feel-good fallacies, and they've become so proficient at it that they are able to convince and sometimes bully the scientific community into playing along. ... Worst of all, anyone who questions them is framed as anti-science. (pp. 3-4)
If you were to substitute the word "Darwin lobby" for "progressives," and "media" for "scientific community," you'd have a reasonably good description of the debate over evolution. In fact, Berezow and Campbell appear well-aware of problems created by the media's partisan bias on scientific debates.

Here on ENV, we've documented numerous cases where the news media have unashamedly published inaccurate information biased toward Darwinian evolution. Science Left Behind's analysis of science journalism also has much to teach about the evolution debate. Berezow and Campbell conclude that science journalism has experienced its own "death," shifting "its focus from telling a news story toward opinion and even political activism, and this has hurt the credibility of the field." (p. 195) They believe "science journalism specifically has been overrun by partisan interests who do not love science as much as they hate their political opponents." (p. 195) They correctly write:

Prominent journalists and bloggers have used their platform to criticize conservatives, religion, and corporate malfeasance while turning a blind eye toward their political allies. Their ridicule of science denial has been unidirectional, and in so doing, they have helped substantiate the widespread notion that the media are biased against half the American public. (pp. 195-196)
Of course, this is exactly what we see in the debate over intelligent design. Skeptics of Darwinian evolution are routinely ridiculed in the press, and the scientific claims of Darwinian evolutionists are rarely (if ever) questioned or scrutinized. Though Science Left Behind doesn't deal much with the topic of evolution, it's analysis of the tactics of the "anti-scientific left" is highly relevant:
Have you noticed who dresses up in ridiculous animal costumes to protest medical research? Or who wears gas masks to protest nuclear power? Kooky progressives. Are journalists quick to label any of them "progressive crazies"? No, of course not. They are careful to ignore the obvious political demographic of these movements. But any conservative who is opposed to evolution is immediately labeled a "religious nut." Similarly, journalists frame progressive opponents of genetically modification as being anti-corporation rather than anti-science -- even though all the arguments they make against GM technology are anti-scientific.

And compare all that to how conservatives have been treated in regard to the human embryonic stem cell research controversy. Conservatives are, once again, called anti-science religious zealots -- and then that label is applied to the entire Republican Party as well. The double standard is truly stunning.(pp. 204-205)

This is dead right. And given that Chris Mooney styles himself as a science journalist, Berezow and Campbell might well be talking about Chris Mooney in his book Republican War on Science.

Mooney aims to win scientific debates by defining his position as the only right one, and branding his opponents as intellectually deficient. Thankfully, his tactics don't work very well: When dealing with a populace like ours full of reasonably intelligent people, you can't win a debate simply by defining your opponents as "irrational." People see through this tactic. Berezow and Campbell offer a much better way forward -- getting politics out of science:

[T]he idea that conservatives believe what they believe because their brains are malformed is political nonsense at best and dangerous at worst. To scientifically literate people, it is obvious that genes don't make us vote. Likewise, it is obvious that political beliefs and social issues should have no bearing on scientific decision making. That's why it is crucial that, with scientific excellence as our underlying goal, we move beyond these petty anti-scientific debates and address the issues that really matter. (p. 237)
What a contrast between The Republican Brain and Science Left Behind: The former book thinks it's depoliticizing science by delegitimizing scientific debate and branding people who hold certain scientific views as intellectually inferior. The latter book aims to depoliticize science by calling people back to scientific integrity where the evidence, rather than politics, settles scientific questions. Which do you think is a wiser path?