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On Science, Passivity or Independence? A Conversation that Needs to Happen Among Conservatives

David Klinghoffer

When it comes to questions in science with major political, cultural, or philosophical implications, are you or are you not allowed to think for yourself and draw your own conclusions? Does doing so violate norms of intellectual hygiene?

Writing today in The American Spectator, Christopher Goins analyzes a recent speech Discovery Institute’s John West gave at the Heritage Foundation on "Scientism in the Age of Obama." The topic is elaborated in the expanded version of West’s book Darwin Day in America. Goins seemingly resonates with the idea that it’s in the great classical liberal tradition not to passively go along with whatever you’re told is the majority scientific view but, rather, to weigh the evidence independently and draw your own conclusions:

One of the most profound things about the move to silence critics of scientific orthodoxy or those open to questioning it publicly is how anti-enlightenment the notion is.

As John G. West, vice president of the Discovery Institute, pointed out last week in a speech to the Heritage Foundation, thinkers such as atheist John Stuart Mill, the 19th-century utilitarian philosopher and author of On Liberty and "Utilitarianism," argued for the freedom to question science in his day.

Mill’s logic and West’s application of it is one that can be applied not only to the physical sciences, where global warming is sacrosanct under the Obama administration, but also the social sciences, where Keynesian economics reigns supreme in Washington, whenever politicians wave the authority of science over our heads to persuade us to move in the direction of their policy priorities.

After all, the policies could be based on bad science.

Kevin Williamson at National Review takes a different view. Yesterday, he replied in a series of tweets to Stephen Meyer’s article here, "What Should Politicians Say When Asked About Evolution?" Meyer concluded:

The campaign trail isn’t a science classroom, but voters naturally are curious to hear what a candidate thinks about a major scientific question, and an ultimate philosophical one, that deeply stirs the public. Every thoughtful person should have a seriously considered opinion about the origin and development of life. A man or woman seeking the Presidency, whether a Republican or a Democrat, is no exception.

But Williamson was having none of that.

Moreover:

First of all, that last is factually untrue. Darwin skeptics and advocates of intelligent design address a variety of audiences, including professionals in science and thoughtful laymen, in a variety of media. I admit that the argument for ID can be intellectually challenging, perhaps more so than many journalists are up for. NR‘s own review of Meyer’s book Darwin’s Doubt was authored by journalist John Farrell and his critique, such as it was, avoided engaging the main argument of the book and instead seized on a debatable ellipsis mark.

That aside, there seem to be several non-debatable points here.

  • The scientific literature includes significant controversy about the viability of neo-Darwinian theory as an explanation of how complex features in biology arise.
  • Scientific accounts of biological origins have important philosophical and spiritual ramifications.
  • Serious and thoughtful adults care about ultimate questions like how life and the universe arose, and whether those features of existence bear any meaning or purpose.
  • The relevant science here is difficult.
  • Journalists and politicians do not always do their homework.
  • A majority of professional scientists still accept the Darwinian account of origins. Darwin skeptics and ID advocates are an insurgent minority.
  • A thoughtful non-scientist, whether a journalist, politician, or otherwise employed, can accept what the scientific majority says without doing his homework first — or he can read up, think about it, and decide for himself what he thinks. Those are the two available alternatives.

Can there be any disagreement about the foregoing? The situation is much the same with regard to the climate change controversy. Williamson again:

From the perspective of the serious man or woman not currently employed in the field of evolutionary biology or climate science, is contemplating big controversies about science necessarily an exercise in counting heads in the scientific community and going along with whatever that majority says at the moment? Either that or throwing up your hands and saying “I don’t know the first damned thing about it”? If not when it comes to climate, why would it be otherwise with cosmic and biological origins? The stakes are high in both.

This, it seems to me, is a discussion that political conservatives have for the most part avoided.

See John West’s talk at the Heritage Foundation above.