Daily Archives: August 12, 2014

Nerds, Science, Politics, and the Future

I came across a recent, disturbing National Review cover-story by Charles C.W. Cooke: “Smarter Than Thou.” It begins by attacking Neil DeGrasse Tyson as the “the fetish and totem of the extraordinarily puffed-up ‘nerd’ culture that has of late started to bloom across the United States.” Other members of the nerd menace—all of whom don’t share the politics of the National Review—include:

MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry, Rachel Maddow, Steve Kornacki, and Chris Hayes; Vox’s Ezra Klein, Dylan Matthews, and Matt Yglesias; the sabermetrician Nate Silver; the economist Paul Krugman; the atheist Richard Dawkins; former vice president Al Gore; celebrity scientist Bill Nye; and, really, anybody who conforms to the Left’s social and moral precepts while wearing glasses and babbling about statistics.

Cooke later says that “the nerds of MSNBC and beyond are not actually nerds—with scientific training and all that it entails—but the popular kids indulging in a fad.” First of all some of the people on this list do have serious scientific training. Krugman is a Nobel prize-winning economist and Dawkins is one of the most important living evolutionary biologists. (No matter what one thinks of his philosophy of religion.) But even if one isn’t a professional scientist there is nothing wrong and much right about accepting what the scientific experts say about their disciplines. We should generally defer to experts regarding scientific subjects about which we have little expertise. Why? Because they know a lot more about their subject matter than we do.

I generally defer like this. I have no formal scientific training but I am scientifically literate enough to know that gravitational, evolutionary, relativity, quantum, and atomic theories are true beyond a reasonable doubt. (Still, even the best scientific ideas are not dogmas but provisionally accepted; they will change if enough contrary evidence appears.) When I go to medical doctors I generally trust their advice because they know more about medicine than I do. It is possible that they are deceiving me, and if the Mayo Clinic website says something vastly different from what my physician tells me, then I have reason to be skeptical. In that case more research might be needed. But I won’t trust some internet thread about medical advice from non-experts. In science we do much better if we trust the experts.

Surprisingly, as Andrew Leonard noted in his Salon article, “National Review declares war against the nerds,” Cooke never mentions Silicon Valley, a bastion of left-wing progressive politics, and the quintessential nerd neighborhood. (Yes there are libertarian nerds, but they generally believe in science, even if they are politically misguided.) Leonard theorizes that Cooke omits this group for a reason.

Acknowledging that nerds—you know, the guys and gals who invented the microchip and the PC and the smartphone—actually do have a grasp of scientific fact, which leads them to take seriously the problem of historically unprecedented carbon dioxide emissions and the idiocy of rewriting school science textbooks to include dogma about creationism and intelligent design, is a disastrous dead end for conservatives.

If Cooke honestly wanted to grapple with the cultural cachet of nerd-dom, he’d have to answer questions such as why a poll by the Pew Research Service found that in 2009 that only six percent of scientists identify as Republican … He’d have to face up to the sobering reality that the majority of people who understand how the world works in terms of biology and physics and mathematics also think that our overheating globe is a serious problem.

I think Leonard is right on the mark. Rather than answer these tough questions, Cooke argues that progressives embrace the nerd worldview in order to tell the world not who they are, but who they are not: “… which is southern, politically conservative, culturally traditional, religious in some sense, patriotic, driven by principle rather than the pivot tables of Microsoft Excel, and in any way attached to the past.”

I guess this is true for some progressives. Group identity is in large part what we are. But it is hardly the fault of progressives that the Republican party has become largely a southern party in the US, or that Ken Hamm’s Creation Museum  is in the American south, or that many Republican politicians in the US have rejected the scientific consensus about evolution and climate change to court their disproportionately conservative, anti-science, racist, religious constituencies.

Interestingly though, neither of the two intellectual opponents to the scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change that Cooke offers are scientists. Both Bjorn Lomborg and Roger Pielke Jr are political scientists. But Lomborg accepts man-made climate change. He recently summarized his position thus: “Global warming is real—it is man-made and it is an important problem. But it is not the end of the world.” And Pielke has stated“The IPCC has concluded that greenhouse gas emissions resulting from human activity are an important driver of changes in climate. And on this basis alone I am personally convinced that it makes sense to take action to limit greenhouse gas emissions.”

It is telling that Cooke uses these two political scientists as his best examples of real nerds that oppose climate change. And that’s because there aren’t many informed climate change deniers. One may dislike Al Gore for whatever reason, and those reasons might be justified, but the evidence for anthropogenic climate change is still overwhelming. In the end, the science works, and it has changed human existence in its brief four-century existence. Most importantly, as a good friend says, “science is validated by reality, not echo chambers.”

But I will accept one thing Cooke says about progressives—we are not generally “attached to the past.” When I look at the past I see the torture, war, genocide, disease, superstition, barbarism, child labor, infant mortality, and the lack of dental or medical care. I see the Dark Ages, the Plague, and the Inquisition. I don’t want to go back. I want to go forward. I want to progress.

For if the future isn’t going to better than the past, then there isn’t much point in living.