Monday, September 5, 2011

Evolution is being used for a cheap political stunt

Imagine this:

You're a political activist. Your side is in trouble; the sitting president you want to see re-elected failed to keep most of his campaign promises. He doesn't have any major successes to run on. The economy is still given up and at best they are too apathetic to vote.

What do you do?

In 2011, the answer from the left is to stir up as much reckless fear that any potential challengers from the GOP will turn the nation into a Christian theocracy. After all, these candidates have some associations to strange branches of Christianity and some of them support teaching Intelligent Design along with evolution.

Byron York nailed it when he said this is what running on fear looks like.

What's worse here is that my lefty friends in skeptical, secular and biological science communities are allowing themselves to be used in this political game and fearmongering.

Secular writers who already write about problems they see with mainstream Christianity are all too eager to echo these trumped-up "Dominionism" cries, possibly because of confirmation bias. Biologists like Richard Dawkins, who do a great job of defending evolution, are quick to jump to the unsupported conclusion that being wrong about evolution correlates with being wrong about other things.

Now when a Republican politician talks about science, I listen with the same anticipation of ignorance as when an older person talks about the Internet. Those talks are always a countdown to ignorance.

But compared to what? Since when has the left dedicated itself to defending evolution? It's awful that 60 percent of Republicans believe in creationism, but 38 percent of Democrats believe in it too. President Obama's pledge to "restore science to its rightful place in society" was just another empty campaign promise. As Ken from Popehat wrote on a similar incident;

You won’t find much creationism or global warming denying at the Huffington Post, but you will find it to be a cesspool of junk science and assorted twittery.
There are some major problems with the assumption that being dead-wrong about evolution disqualifies someone from holding office. Smart people can be very wrong about subjects outside of their area of expertise, and still right on the money in other cases. I don't know of any politician I've voted for that I didn't think was dead wrong on a few issues, and I doubt one will ever rise to power that I completely agree. Personally, I choose to vote for politicians who are wrong about things unrelated to the office they are running for. As David Harsanyi said in one of my favorite columns of 2010:
After all, what's more consequential than a faux pas about nature and/or nurture? Who cares that Democrat Michael Bennet was busy moralizing about the cosmic benefits of dubious economic theory and science fiction environmentalism — ideas that have already cost us trillions with nothing to show for it?
But there's one nagging question remaining. How did evolution end up on the table in the first place?

From the same Byron York piece I linked earlier:
Out on the campaign trail, Democratic activists are trying to maneuver the candidates into statements to feed the Republicans-are-religious-nuts narrative. For example, in New Hampshire a few weeks ago, a young boy approached Perry with a series of questions about science. How old is the Earth? the boy asked. As Perry answered (he said he didn't know), the boy's mother pushed her son to confront the governor. "Ask him about evolution," she ordered the boy. "Ask him why he doesn't believe in science." Perry's answer -- that evolution is a theory that has "some gaps" -- provided more material for [New York Times Executive Editor] Keller and the subject-changers.

Elsewhere on the trail, so-called "trackers" from the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, David Brock's American Bridge, and other organizations follow Republicans around, sometimes posing out-of-the-blue questions in hopes of throwing a candidate off message. "It's all about homosexuality, Islam, anything that is remotely sensitive socially," says Ellen Carmichael, spokeswoman for frequent target Herman Cain. "That's what they usually ask about."
Its clear what's going on here. The left wants to move the fight to a scientific issue the GOP will stumble on, so they are using children as puppets to throw anything they think will stick. Evolution was not selected because they think its an important subject; they just wanted a battle they know they can win.

It's telling that questions about the disproven link between vaccines and autism are not being lobbed at the Republicans. The anti-vacc movement is popular on the extreme left and extreme right, and my Google searches to find vaccine dirt on GOP contenders Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann did not return any, although I did find Perry being criticized by right wingers for supporting a mandatory HPV vaccine - a view supported by the left and medical science.

Keep in mind that Candidate Obama screwed up the vaccine issue, endorsing a pseudoscience belief of a vaccine-autism link, despite having the opposite stated on his campaign website.

I am not defending Republican ignorance of science. Despite these trolling questions being a hunt to produce gaffs, candidates like Perry willingly endorsed teaching intelligent design along with evolution. They set a trap and he was foolish enough to fall for it.

But don't pretend this was the result of the left displaying a Sagan-like love for science. This would be about Star Trek if the number polled that way. Evolution supporters are being used, plain and simple, and they will be unceremoniously dumped when the issue is over.


  1. Being wrong about evolution absolutely does correlate with being wrong about other things. As Jerry Coyne has pointed out, things like creationism are symptoms of the problem. The root cause of this bumbling of science is religion. And all these candidates (except Romney) are tripping over themselves to let everyone know just how much they love their made up god.

    What's at issue here is that these people are rejecting sound science because it conflicts with conclusions they already have. That's the same reason so many conservatives reject the consensus on global warming. (John Shimkus has even said that global warming is not an issue based upon Genesis -

  2. Let me make clear my agreement on John Shimkus's foolishness. That is one of the worst arguments I've seen. It's stupid, and it reflects poor reasoning. I think it was Woodrow Wilson who appointed someone to his cabinet who made it a goal to burn through the world's resources, because he believed Jesus would return when the Earth runs out of trees and clean water. He wanted to speed up the process.

    As horrible as those examples are, they're still anecdotes that fail to show a pattern. My impression is that right wingers are so hostile to global warming science isn't because of the Bible, but because they don't like the proposed policy solutions and want to undermine the issue. I don't hear Shimkus's logic being endorsed elsewhere.

    What I haven't seen is hard evidence that being wrong about those scientific issues correlates with making bad policy decisions.

    I can understand why biologists like Coyne and Dawkins would get involved in this issue - evolution is important to them, and I'm glad they're defending it when it comes up. I made a similar post when some Maine gubernatorial candidates endorsed "Buy Local".

    But the left isn't making an issue out of this because they share Coyne's love for science. Sweet lord, did you see who President Obama appointed as Science Czar? John Holdren, someone who signed up for the losing side of a famous fool's bet and never learned anything from the lesson. And this was in his own area of expertise, not a side issue unrelated to a position he was seeking..

  3. Oh my god! The earth is warming? Why didn't someone say something?

    Michael, I agree with you that Mr Hawkins has made a stupid argument. While I firmly believe in evolution, I recognize that someone who doesn't believe in evolution still might believe that free market economics work better than a command economy.

    That someone who doesn't believe in evolution still might believe individuals are better at making their own health care decisions than a government bureaucracy.

    That someone who doesn't believe in evolution still might believe that possessing a strong military is better than projecting weakness to enemies and allies alike.

    That someone who doesn't believe in evolution still might think the sun has a greater influence on warming our planet than CO2 emissions.

    But other than that, Mr Hawkins has nailed it.

  4. Just to clarify. I was not calling Mr. Hawkins argument stupid, I was joining him in insulting the politician who said he knows global warming isn't real because the Bible said there will be no floods or catastrophes.

    You do need to keep your mind open that someone who believes in free markets can also believe in man-made global warming and weakening the US Military to save money.

  5. Leftism has devolved into a post-modern "anti-philosophy". They know they can't make a coherent argument for collectivist politics (especially given the history of such ideas in action), so they stick to arguing against religion. It's much easier to point out the stupidity of others than it is to make a constructive argument.

    At least religious conservatives are capable of admitting they are in favor of capitalism.


  7. Someone linked a Matt Desmond article tangentially related to this discussion? The only person who would do that would be... Matt Desmond.

  8. I did read some of the Matt Desmond stuff.

    Unfortunately, I ended up staring blankly at the screen, drooling and when I eventually came to, I felt slightly dumber than when I began.

    I have to say most of it reads like Mr. Desmond has only a cursory, read the headlines and no further, kind of understanding of the world at large.

  9. I tried posting this yesterday, but it wasn't working. Here I try again.

    My impression is that right wingers are so hostile to global warming science isn't because of the Bible, but because they don't like the proposed policy solutions and want to undermine the issue.

    I agree. As I said above, this is a group of people who reject science when it does not meet their desired conclusions. The left does it as well - Huff-Po is an excellent example of a steaming pile of dog shit - but it seems undeniable to me that it has become a part of right-wing culture to ignore scientific evidence when it becomes inconvenient.

    We can just look at statistics which show the more religious one is, the more likely one is to reject a broad array of scientific conclusions. And we can look at further polls which show the more religious a person is, the less likely that person is to go into science as a career.

    As for the left being used to promote a red herring, most of the people who latch onto issues like this are those like me. My field is biology and my graduate studies will be in evolution. Just as with Coyne and Dawkins, the topic very much matters to me. For many others, it is unimportant. And I think we all know that when it comes to the media at large, the stories they're going to ham up for more than a small bit of the news cycle are going to be broader (or more petty) issues than evolution. The people who stick with the science (as I did when LePage came out as a very confused creationist) tend to be in a niche, not the mainstream. It isn't that we're being used. If anything, our constant promotion of the issue gets the attention of the big media outlets.

  10. Michael H, I think you make a lot of great points. Let me just clarify where we diverge.

    I think people like you, Coyne and Dawkins are being sincere and are motivated by wanting to stand up for a science you care about.

    I did the same thing when I criticized LePage's opponents for parroting "Buy Local" economic claims. In both cases, we were motivated by the science.

    What I'm accusing the left of doing here is looking for any issue to scare voters away from the GOP, and they don't care what issue they choose as long as it works.

    The idea that the next Republican president is going to turn the country into a theocracy is completely absurd. They are taking some incredibly loose associations some of the candidates have had with fundamentalist Christians are a making a giant leap of faith.