Politicians’ scientific beliefs, indicators, and cultural markers

Liberal bloggers have been attacking National Review’s Kevin Williamson for arguing politicians’ scientific beliefs don’t matter:

Why would anybody ask a politician about his views on a scientific question? Nobody ever asks what Sarah Palin thinks about dark matter, or what John Boehner thinks about quantum entanglement. (For that matter, I’ve never heard Keith Ellison pressed for his views on evolution.) There are lots of good reasons not to wonder what Rick Perry thinks about scientific questions, foremost amongst them that there are probably fewer than 10,000 people in the United States whose views on disputed questions regarding evolution are worth consulting, and they are not politicians; they are scientists.

Let me narrow in on a specific type of claim made Chait, Drum, and Beauchamp, where they seem to use evolution and climate change (ECC) as a kind of indicator for Rick Perry’s decision-making and governance ability writ-large. Here’s Chait (emphasis added):

Likewise, Perry’s evolution skepticism signals a strong commitment to conservative values over the conclusions of data and experts. On a deeper level, he is demonstrating social solidarity with conservatives against the intellectual elites they resent. He probably won’t have to make a presidential decision on teaching evolution, but his answers to questions about it tell you a great deal about how he would govern.

This claim is rather strange. Many practicing scientists dispute evolution and climate change. These intellectual blind-spots don’t prevent them from designing circuits, writing Matlab code, solving differential equations, or analyzing datasets. (I’m thinking of specific people I know here.) If their stance on ECC doesn’t necessarily impact decision-making in other areas of science, how can it tell you anything useful outside of science?

It’s even stranger to use ECC when we have Rick Perry’s actual record as a governor, stated political views and publications to turn to. Surely these are much better governance indicators than passing comments on evolution. I see no need to use a bad indicator when better ones are easily available. Given that Chait et al. have themselves written extensively on Perry’s record, they shouldn’t have to reference either evolution or climate change.

I suspect that liberals view ECC the way conservatives view public displays of Christian piety. Both represent cultural markers as much as they do a policy agenda. And that’s okay with me. Political leaders are more than people who advance legislation we support. By that measure we know we will often be disappointed in the end anyway. When you see yourself losing on the substance, public affirmation of your values can become even more important. Liberals want to live in an America where everyone embraces evolution and climate change. Since that won’t happen anytime soon, at the very least they’ll make damned sure our President embraces them. Put another way, liberals want politicians who believe in ECC because, well, they want politicians who believe in ECC. I wish they’d just say that.


  1. Praj. I drop by every so often, but I forget to mention that’s it’s a good blog. You’re the Eveready Bunny of philosophy of science aggregation.

    Anyway, the scenario strikes me as downright bizarre: several activists (with only second hand knowledge of science) question a politician (with only second hand knowledge) to see if his beliefs line up with their own. None of this proves anything beyond the politician’s adherence to orthodoxy. Creepy.

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