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 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 accepted  provisionally; 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 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 does characterize us. 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, 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 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 be better than the past, then there isn’t much point in living.

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6 thoughts on “Nerds, Science, Politics, and the Future

  1. Overall, science is a great thing.

    The problem comes when you mix science with two things:

    1. the inherent limitations of science
    2. politics

    Regarding 1, people constantly overestimate the power and faddishness of science. People don’t recognize the power of the publication bias and the weaknesses of certain scientific designs. They are not baptized in Ioannidis. For example, according to science, “fat” was bad in the 1980s. Now fat is good, or some fat is good, or actually we’re not 100% sure how much of which type of fat is good and when. The fads change. But that doesn’t stop news headlines from reporting the results of a single experiment, regardless of publication bias, as if the experiment results are now gospel.

    Regarding 2, you have to recognize that science is performed in situations (e.g., private corporations or academic universities) that create social and political pressures to reach certain conclusions. For example, private corporations can pressure companies to show that SSRI drugs work, even if they are no better than placebo. And dozens of trials that show no effect never get published, according to publication bias.

    Similarly, universities attract professors and graduate students who definitely have certain political outlooks and biases *before* seeing the outcomes of their experiments. So “politically incorrect” conclusions – like psychological differences between the sexes or skepticism about man-made global warming – have an uphill battle to climb, even if the data supports them. Notice that hostility to both of these viewpoints can be perfectly explained by the liberal’s obsession with showing that you really “care” (care about women, care about the environment), long before you look at what the data actually says.

    These two effects – overconfidence in science and its corruption by politics and wishful thinking – makes conservatives, libertarians, and independents naturally skeptical of strong reliance by liberals on “science.”

  2. I agree with Kip. Evolution, gravity, atoms, electrons, climate change, etc. are all a bunch of liberal nonsense to promote government action. Evolution is a perfect example. Anyone who thinks about it knows it can’t be true. Oh yeah, I’m related to monkeys! Silly. But many people hate religion so they major in biology. When they get to biology class, they realize that evolution can’t be true so they make up evidence that it is. They go around putting things in rocks that they call fossils or making up that you can figure this out from blood or something. All this is a way of undermining belief in god. In fact that was Darwin’s entire motivation.

    Same with climate change. There is no evidence for this as anyone who studies this knows. But liberals want the government involved in our lives. So they pay these climate scientists thousands of dollars while ExxonMobile tries to explain this is nonsense to us. If the climate were really changing rich people would stop it. that’s all you would need, a few bill gates and the koch brothers and they’d stop it. but these scientists are all liberals, that’s why they make up this climate change stuff. god i hate liberals and progressives. next thing they’ll do is say we should become robots or live forever. they think they’re so smart and want to play god.

    finally they say that this scientific method supposedly keeps bias out of thought. but that is obviously not true. if it were why would only 6% of scientists be republicans? that shows they hate republicans and thats why they make up this evolution and climate change stuff.

  3. You know…why go through the trouble of having an approval process at all for comments? What Kip is saying, god help me for trying to explain it, is nothing negative about science or the scientific method. Rather, it’s peoples cognitive biases that make it suspect. He also seems to have a problem with journalism as a profit center as that’s what leads journalists and editors to sensationalize the results of particular studies. So I don’t see how Kip has anything actually bad to say about science. Although, neither do I see how any of his comments are useful. If we agree that the problem is people…then we should be equally suspect of everything…including our own skepticism…seems like if we’re going to place a predisposition to believe a certain group of people then the scientific consensus is better than any other I can think of…expect of course libertardians. Sorry, -tarians…damn Freud.

  4. Funny comment I just read on NYT, “All libertarians were born in a log cabin that they built with their bare hands.”

  5. This is how liberals argue: with sarcasm* and censorship**.

    You wonder why conservatives don’t take you seriously.

    * “Evolution, gravity, atoms, electrons, climate change, etc. are all a bunch of liberal nonsense to promote government action.”

    ** “why go through the trouble of having an approval process at all for comments?” [encouraging the moderator to disapprove my comments]

  6. Kip, it would be a disingenuous to say that the value of your comments is approaching zero. It’s been below zero for a while and it’s trending down. You don’t have anything new to say. You present extremely selective data points (and I’m being generous when I use the word data). And you do not present and seem oblivious to conflicting data points that oppose your position.

    Consider that people actually took time out of their day to respond to your comment. The sarcasm is simply because, well, your comments are so ridiculous it actually seems like something a young sarcastic liberal would write to create a strawman hodgepodge-tinfoil-hat right-wing position. Do everyone a favor and see if you’re able to present contradictory data or try some role playing for a while where you only argue from the other side of what you believe.

    If you find that your belief system is so unassailable that it’s impossible to argue against it rationally, why are you commenting here? Either you’re a genius beyond anyone else’s understanding (in which case your comments are pointless) or you’re unable to participate in a rational discussion (in which case your comments are pointless).

    I’m not trying to be mean, though I understand this comment is harsh. I’m taking a bit of my life to suggest you seem to have missed something. At the same time I’m perfectly ok with the conclusion being that you’re smarter than everyone else and that other people are too dumb to make the intellectual leaps you’re making from pop-nutritional “science” to the issues at hand. By all means post comments when your communicative and educational abilities do better justice to your intellectual positions.

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