Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Evolution turns political

… followed by arithmetic

There are two general attitudes that a scientifically-minded educated person could take to the resurgence of anti-Darwinian politics in the US over the past few decades. 1) Children deserve to know the truth, as best as careful thinkers have been able to determine it. Parents have no right to withhold the truth. We need to break the cycle of ignorance. Disrespect for standards of science and objective truth in one area will undermine science universally, making it more difficult for our society to benefit, materially and intellectually, from scientific progress. 2) Evolution is a story. It is abstract. It is a belief system that lends itself at least as much to social and political abuse as an fundamentalist sect, so maybe we shouldn’t be pushing it too hard — particularly not when there’s a conflict with parental beliefs and values. There’s plenty of science to learn — even biology — that won’t run up against conflict with home values. Where it’s a problem, let’s leave these abstract matters for when they are older and more qualified to make their own value judgements. (Given the difficulty of US schools recruiting competent science teachers, we might also add the very real harm that is likely to be done by teachers who genuinely don’t understand evolution, teaching corrupted or incomprehensible versions of the key ideas.)

While I have emotionally I tend toward (1), I have tended to see a lot of practical value in (2). And my emotional belief in the moral value of the Darwinian worldview has been substantially eroded by its association with the deranged Evangelium of Darwin, as promoted by Richard Dawkins and his acolytes on atheism’s lunatic fringe.* But now I am forced to recognise that the practical benefit of (2) was an illusion: First they came for the evolutionary biologists, and not being an evolutionary biologist myself I did not protest… (Actually, I sort of am an evolutionary biologist, at least peripherally.) The evidence of history supports the claim of the indivisibility of science. The habits developed in the struggle over the teaching of evolution in schools came to be applied later to other areas of science apparently less speculative than the origin of life — climate science, environmental chemistry, epidemiology, macroeconomics — when ideology or ideological compatible business interests demand that the conclusions be altered or challenged. (One might say that the script was written in the struggle over tobacco and cancer. The whole panoply first came out there: Bankrolled experts who would undermine the appearance of scientific unanimity, casting doubts over the theoretical nature of the evidence, targeted donations to politicians and charitable organisations. “Doubt is our product,” as one infamous tobacco-industry memo proclaimed, “since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the minds of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy.” And it always struck me as odd, through the 80s and 90s, that the battle over tobacco restriction had taken on such a partisan edge, with increased restrictions on public smoking clearly a left-wing and Democratic position.) (A quick Google search found this article by historians who have authored a recent book linking the tobacco struggle with environmental denialism, under the title Merchants of Doubt.)

Anyway, arithmetic has recently come under attack from the right, at least as it regards budgets. Mitt Romney has gotten far by proposing a “budget” that covers large tax cuts by claiming back tax-deductions — raising taxes — of the wealthy by far more than 100%. A recent study by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities that pointed out this simple fact — and suggested that, since a promise of “reduction” normally would not be understood to go beyond 100%, a significant portion of the elimination of loopholes must hit the middle class — was dismissed as a partisan left-wing attack.

A recent issue along these lines that has attracted significant attention has been the struggle over the interpretation of public opinion polls related to the upcoming US presidential election. A lot of this attention has circled around the person of Nate Silver, and his 4+-year-old blog devoted to his statistical model that is intended to provide a synoptic view of the entire range of public data to produce a single probabilistic prediction of the outcome. I comment further on the specifics of Silver-ism, as a statistical approach and as a public face of statistics, here. There’s nothing fundamentally absurd about the idea that one guy with a website and a political agenda might be manipulating the figures to support his cause. It’s not crazy, like believing that the results of international collaboration by thousands of the world’s leading climate scientists is a hoax or a scam to appropriate grant money. To be sure, Silver’s results aren’t nearly complex or opaque enough to anyone with even a modest number sense to be substantially misled by. He’s made some decisions that one could question, in trying to account for some of the obvious grey areas of poll interpretation, but he’s clearly not getting results vastly different than you’d get by sitting down for a few hours with a list of the recent polls and the rules of the electoral college. The differences would be relevant if you were trying to run a gambling syndicate off his numbers, but not if you’re running an election campaign.

What’s most notable is how passionate some on the right seem to be about this issue, as though manipulating the prediction of the election were tantamount to manipulating the outcome of the election. This seems to be a megalomania peculiar to the right. It’s not just in the US either. Right-wing parties in Europe as well as the US have been pushing austerity policies intended (or so they claim) to get the unemployed back to work not by giving them jobs, but by firing more people from government jobs, thus increasing “confidence”, and explosive growth of the economy. Faced with the universal failure of these policies, the commissars challenge the people to redouble their efforts to believe in the party’s inerrancy…

Surely I’m not the only one who remembers that California got a visit from GW Bush in the waning days of the 2000 presidential election campaign, as part of the effort to demonstrate that he was so confident of victory that he might just as well make a play for the last 54 electoral votes. The barely concealed strategy presumed that if people were convinced of an impending Bush victory they would go out and vote for the winner. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality,” a Bush aide later remarked. FDR famously opined that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. This was good rhetoric when applied to bank runs, but he didn’t literally limit his policies to targeting fear. He assumed that he would still need to objectively improve people’s prospects before fear would abate.

I don’t mean to deny that there are situations where psychological responses to news can create paradoxical effects and self-fulfilling prophecies — bank runs are the classic example — but that’s not usually the way things work. Usually a candidate who blows off a day of campaigning is just losing a valuable day of campaigning.

What I find most interesting about this is how a certain kind of relativism, denial of the very possibility of objective truth, that was endemic to the far left in my youth and early adulthood, has now become mainly a trope of the right. To be sure, it was never a good fit for the left, and I think the period of the 70s and early 80s was anomalous in this regard. The examples of “paranoid style in American politics” in Richard Hofstadter’s famous essay lean to the right, and it seems to me self-evident that left-wing politics, insofar as it is committed to undermining established hierarchical power structures, has most to gain from respect for logic and principles of objective evidence. On this, as on so many matters, Nietzsche gave the definitive formulation, even if (being Nietzsche) he couldn’t resist wrapping it in a not unflattering but dubious and irrelevant comment on the essential nature of Jews: After a disquisition on the way different types of scholars betray the mark of their upbringing, he turns to the Jewish scholars who, he says, depend more than any other on logic,

that is to say, on compelling assent through reasons. They know that they can succeed with reasons, even when racial and class prejudice works against them, even when people would rather not believe them. Because nothing is more democratic than logic. It respects no persons, and sees even the hooked nose as straight. (§348)

Putting aside the hooked nose, the principle seems sound, that those who depend upon the power of their position have little need for logic and objective evidence, whereas the revolutionary would do well to ally him- or herself with bare facts.

Of course, that’s only true when it’s about persuasion. There is also an impersonal power of facts, most obvious in business and natural science, but also in social sciences. Hence the cliché of the “double set of books”: It’s obvious that even a criminal organisation needs an accurate accounting for internal consumption. There’s increasing evidence that the American right wing has been increasingly mixing the prolefeed into the elite information trough (a point made repeatedly by Paul Krugman). They don’t just arouse the passions of hoi polloi by ranting against Darwin and Keynes. The party leaders themselves can’t benefit themselves or the country from even the most incontrovertible scientific knowledge to benefit the country, and even themselves. In addition to the obvious destructive consequences for rational public policy, a side consequence has been the abandonment of the Republican party by scientists. It’s a vicious circle, accelerating the right-wing’s rejection of science as just another left-wing special interest, though it has not yet led to open calls for quota hiring of conservative faculty at universities.

* I have to admit, I find RD himself almost amusing in his blithe absence of self-awareness, when he parrots evangelical language to promote Darwinism: “My passion is increased when I think about how much the poor fundamentalists, and those whom they influence, are missing. The truths of evolution, along with many other scientific truths, are so engrossingly fascinating and beautiful; how truly tragic to die having missed out on all that!” Praise the LORD! How tragic to have died without learning the TRUTH, because… why exactly? Humanists often speak of the inevitable tragedy of our mortality, but the belief that there is a special truth that will render ones death not a tragedy at all, that I have seen only in religious traditions, and it is particularly central to Christianity. If you will only open your hearts to the GOOD NEWS of Darwin, he will… what? I can see why an atheist would want people to know Darwinian theory, but once you’re dead, you’re dead. When worms are feeding on your brain, is it tragic for them not to be devouring the residue of neural patterns in a Darwinian form? I’m being only somewhat facetious here. I genuinely don’t get what the theory is here. But I’m probably giving too much credit here. There’s nothing in any of Dawkins’s writings that would suggest that he would rather have a coherent thought than a tasty slogan.

The childish charm of the Dawkins evaporates when his fancy lights on an adult topic. For instance, anyone with a low threshold of nausea should not click here to read his opinion that religious education is morally comparable to, but not quite as bad as, child rape.

My own more extensive mockery of RD may be found here.

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