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Journalist Sam Tanenhaus Assails Conservatives on Science

Tanenhaus

I’m a big fan of the journalist and historian Sam Tanenhaus, former editor of the New York Times Book Review. He wrote an amazing biography of Whittaker Chambers and is completing the definitive work on the life of William F. Buckley Jr. The latter I absolutely can’t wait to read. But Tanenhaus stumbles in an op-ed for Bloomberg.

It’s a dismissal of conservatives on science, seeking to explain “Why Conservatives Have Always Distrusted Science.” He cites the issues you’d expect, from climate change to evolution, invoking Scopes and Dover, the “Republican war on science,” and more. The language is so sweeping in some places that I was taken aback. He allows:

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. [Emphasis added.]

Actually, the last time I heard a conservative, a prominent journalist, say “I’m not a scientist…” it was as a preamble to ignorantly dismissing skeptics of Darwinian theory. I’m not a scientist, but I do listen to the scientists, and the scientists say…

And what is this? Science altogether is “a kind of fakery”? “Scientific theory is at once outlandish and dangerous,” is a view attributed by Tanenhaus to “high-level conservative doctrine” – not any particular “scientific theory,” he seems to be saying, but scientific theory as a whole. I’ve never met anyone who thinks science is “fakery,” “outlandish and dangerous.” Have you? Who does he think we are, Ted Kaczynski?

Tanenhaus goes on to recount how “conservatives began to combat the scientific consensus with other ‘science’ more to their liking.” Here it comes: “There was a sweeping movement, mainly in the South, to replace ‘Darwinism’ with teachings on creationism or the divine ‘fine-tuning’ of ‘intelligent design.’” This grossly misrepresents both ID and academic freedom legislation, as readers of Evolution News know well.

Tanenhaus on Dover:

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.

From this you would never know that the main institution advocating intelligent design, Discovery Institute, advised the Dover school board to cease and desist from trying to push ID into their science classrooms. You would never know that ID is no “creed” but a careful if controversial inference from mainstream scientific evidence. Omissions like that are rampant in popular coverage of anything to do with ID. This makes many of us suspicious of journalists.

And anyway, how does it display a proper reverence for science to cite — as authoritative on an ultimate scientific question that has stirred debate for millennia — the opinion of some Pennsylvania judge?

This is not worthy of a thoughtful man like Sam Tannenhaus, who after chronicling conservatives up close for decades should know better. Watching William Buckley debate in favor of intelligent design on an episode of Firing Line – in company with our Discovery Institute colleagues Michael Behe, David Berlinski, and Phillip Johnson – should by itself be enough to clear away a great deal of misunderstanding.

No, what many conservatives distrust is not science but attempts to abuse the prestige of science and its name. We oppose efforts to bypass normal debate, skirt messy arguments, silence opponents, and enact corrosive social change, transforming institutions and worldviews, on the basis of appeals to unquestionable authority: “Science says.”

We see how that prestige impresses intellectuals and policy makers who don’t take the time to investigate the relevant ideas for themselves. Our suspicion is aroused by far too easy dismissals – of, for example, a profound and complex theory like intelligent design as no more than “fine-tuning.”

Good gravy. Conservatives have not “always mistrusted science,” and do not now. What they and every thoughtful person should mistrust is simplistic treatments of deep and complicated questions.

Photo: Scopes trial, by Smithsonian Institution [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons.