Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Liberal bias

My dictionary's definition of "conservatism" is "disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions, etc., or to restore traditional ones, and to resist change." To the extent that the modern Conservative movement in the U.S. (which I capitalize to refer to it specifically) really does fit that description, it is easy to see why it is likely to be in tension with science. Science is dynamic. Science exists to explore the unknown, to generate new explanations, to overturn established ideas. Scientific discovery drives technological development, which fuels social change, and forces reevaluation of philosophical and religious ideas.

Specifically, the contradictions between modern Conservativism and science are of two main kinds that grow from the two quite independent constituencies which have been stitched together in the Republican Party -- religious primitives and powerful corporate interests.

Atavistic religion is in conflict with science, not only because scientific explanations of the world contradict scriptural and traditional stories, but also because religious conservatives put deontological (rule based) ethics ahead of rationality and inquiry. So, not only do religious conservatives deny scientific findings about evolution and the age of the universe because they contradict scripture. They also insist that condoms are ineffective against the transmission of HIV, not because the Bible or traditional doctrine has anything to say about the efficacy of latex barriers, but because they don't want people to have sex, except with the intention to procreate within monogamous marriage. They promulgate scientific falsehoods in order to further this moral objective. The Bush administration has promoted this particular falsehood, and many others, such as lies about supposed adverse effects of abortion, in order to further the religious right's moral crusades.

Conservatism's business constituency deliberately undermines science in order to avoid regulation which might constrain profits. They fund ideologically driven think tanks that employ failed academics to create the appearance of scientific controversy where there is little or none in reality. They also finance considerable university-based research in ways designed to buy the opinions of less than ethical scientists and control the interpretation and dissemination of findings. Again, the present administration has firmly allied itself with the corporate anti-science campaign, on issues from global warming to mercury pollution to drug regulation.

We often hear complaints from Conservatives about the preponderance of self-described liberals among higher education faculty. They see this as proof of bias in academic hiring and promotions. But the true explanation is quite different. One can imagine that there might be one form or another of political bias in humanities or social science departments. But why would departments of physics, or geology, or mathematics, or biology, favor one or another political viewpoint? The answer is that scientists are committed to reason, and to the fair evaluation of evidence. (That includes social scientists, by the way -- at least most of them, although I am sorry to say that we went through a period a few years back where things got a little wacked.) Therefore, they are liberals, because reality has a liberal bias.

Unfortunately, unlike academia, the journalistic profession has yet to grasp the idea that balance means dispassionate evaluation of the evidence. Journalists still think that balance means giving exactly the same respect and prominence to the pronouncements of self-interested liars and raving lunatics as to people with facts and reason on their side. That interpretation of journalistic ethics is one of the most important factors behind the decline of the United States, to which Revere draws our attention below.

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