27 August 2011

The Republican Candidates' Attacks on Science

All of the Republican presidential candidates, save John Huntsman, have positioned themselves as "skeptics" about both biological evolution and anthropogenic climate change.  And Rick Perry—perhaps the Republican frontrunner—has been particularly vociferous on these topics. 

Attacks on the teaching of biological evolution in the U.S. have historically been linked to religion, specifically to "Christian Fundamentalism."  Yet, that climate change, along with biological evolution, is now a target of these attacks suggests that religion is not the whole story. 
What, then, is it that makes attacks on "science" appealing for much of the Republican base at this time?  The answer, I think, is that in these attacks, "science" represents professional-managerial expertise and, by association, the professional-managerial classes themselves.  In this regard, it is crucial that science is generally taught in K-12 schools through appeals to authority.  Hence, specific scientific claims that have entered the public sphere, particularly those that involve phenomena that lie outside the realm of ordinary perception, can be ridiculed as a means of attacking the classes that produce, and have social control over, expert knowledge.
And why does the Republican base—incorporating, as it does, a disproportionate segment of the white working classes and white petty-bourgeoisie (particularly sole proprietors)—respond to these encoded attacks on professional-managerial expertise and professional-managerial classes?  For very good reasons, I think.
Rule by professional-managerial experts, over the last half-century, has failed these persons and has been indifferent to their hardships.  In particular, it has been responsible for, and indifferent to, their loss of jobs and the decline in their wages, as a consequence of the "globalization" and "market-deregulation" championed and managed by (a particular segment of) these professional-managerial experts.
In the realm of politics, what is needed, in order for the Democratic Party to respond effectively to Republican demagoguery, is for the Democrats to adopt policies that actually help working class persons and self-employed contractors, shopowners, and the like--rather than continue the party's pervasive loyalty to big corporate interests.  

But here, in this post, I have a different concern--which is to ask what can be done, particularly in our schools, to encourage wider public acceptance of the important scientific knowledge that the Republican candidates are trashing.
First and foremost, it does not help to blame or even bemoan the ignorance of Republican primary voters.  These persons are not unaware (or "ignorant") of either biological evolution or climate change. They have heard about both in schools.  It is just that they are not willing to take these claims on the basis of appeals to authority.  Nor should they. 
What is needed, then, is that science be taught in our schools less on the basis of authority and more through the presentation of evidence and reason.  Let me give a simple example.  It is a mainstay of early childhood education—found in kindergarten if not in pre-school—to insist that children learn that the earth is round, not flat.  It would be far better, in my view, to make this a standard part of the curriculum a few years later—in fifth or sixth grade perhaps—when children are at an age where the earth’s roundness can be demonstrated to them, using evidence and reason, so that they know that the earth is round as knowledge they themselves can produce, rather than as knowledge they have received from those in authority.  (And no "educated" reader of this blog should think Republican primary voters ignorant for doubting evolution or doubting climate change, if s/he cannot herself or himself produce a simple demonstration of the earth's roundness.)
One of Rick Perry's comments--when asked by a school-aged child about the teaching of creationism and evolution--has been that our schools should teach both, "because"--Perry said, addressing the child--"I figure you're smart enough to figure out which one is right."  This is, of course, a cynical ploy on Perry's part, but I think those of us who find evolution and climate change persuasive should embrace, rather than reject, Perry's point--and we should do so without any cynicism.  Ordinary human beings are indeed smart enough to figure out "which one is right."  And thus our schools should teach controversies and make extensive use of "the discovery method."
Perry (like other science-trashers) also repeats, almost as a mantra, that "evolution is a theory."  Of course, this too is a cynical ploy, but it is true nonetheless: evolution is a theory.  And again, rather than dismissing this point, we should insist that it is right, while also insisting that many other ideas taught in our schools, particularly many that Perry holds dear, are also "theories."
Biological evolution is a theory--and so too is the idea that capitalism is the best economic system, and the idea that we can find, and rely on, something like "the original intent" of the authors of the U.S. Constitution.  And so too, to give one more example, is the idea that the United States has been a champion of democracy in the world.   But importantly, biological evolution is a theory that rests on much evidence and reason, while the others are more dubious or, in some cases, utter nonsense.  And what is crucial is that our schools teach them all as theories--which is to say, that they should be taught in a manner that encourages crtiical thought about them--and then trust that ordinary persons will indeed be able to judge them for themselves.
Put simply, it’s time to call the cynical bluffs of the Republican candidates and promote school reform that treats our students as if they can think for themselves.  And if we do that, more people will indeed think for themselves, in useful and creative ways.  And that will be all for the good.  To start, I’d bet that it would greatly increase the percentage of citizens who accept the realness of climate change.
The slow blog movement encourages further reading.

On "authority" in school classrooms, see Bob Bain, "Rounding Up Unusual Suspects: Facing the Authority Hidden in the History Classroom," Teachers College Record, v108 n10 p2080-2114 Oct 2006.


  1. Well said.

    It occurs to me that other "theories" such as, say, supply-side economics are taught (I should say indoctrinated) based on appeals to authority (or the mustering of "facts"), but are not challenged by Perry, &al. And we could sure say that supply-side economics have not been kind to many in the Republican "base" including, I assume, those who come from similar class backgrounds as Perry's (On this score there's an important distinction between Perry and, say, Romney.) I wonder how Perry himself lives with this contradiction? I think it must be important to acknowledge the cultural issues, too, which Perry (&al.) play so effectively.

  2. This is an important essay--thank you for writing and for pointing this out in the context of your comments on the "Science in Anthropology" panel. As I summarize that panel in my post on Science in Anthropology: Humanistic science and scientific humanism, I note that the idea of responding to the stickers primarily on the "theory" point is not far from some anthropological positions in introductory readers.