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Coyne and Levin on Biology and Ideology, Pt. 1

By Jeremy Manier

Most scientists hate getting drawn into political debates, but in the last decade the two spheres have overlapped more than ever. Stem-cell research and global warming are just the most visible cases; when presidential candidates are routinely asked whether they believe evolution is true, you know the subject has reached a new level of urgency.

The Obama administration intends to “make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology.” But the injection of ideology and values into science is sometimes inevitable. Facts alone can’t tell a scientist whether it’s right to do a given experiment in genetic manipulation, for example. The deeper problem is when ideology leads people to ignore facts and succumb to a brand of relativism, and a despair in science’s basic ability to discover objective truth. This is the most dangerous kind of “war on science,” whether it comes from the right or the left.

Recently I talked with evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne and Bush health policy adviser Yuval Levin about how science and ideology might interact in the post-Bush era. Jerry comes at the issue from the left and Yuval from the right, but I think it’s fair to say that they both have observed a popular suspicion of science that crosses party lines. And each author has a new book out that speaks to the subject – Jerry’s “Why Evolution Is True” and Yuval’s “Imagining the Future: Science and American Democracy.”

I’ll publish my talks with them in installments, starting today with a portion of the Coyne interview.

Q: You argued recently in The New Republic that it’s impossible to accept the facts of evolution and still be a true theist. Do you think it’s possible to accept modern biology and still be a true conservative?

Coyne: It depends. Insofar as the Republican party wants intelligent design to be part of science, insofar as they don’t think global warming is a serious threat or is caused by humans, I think that’s inconsistent because the evidence is there. You can claim as they do that there’s no evidence that global warming is real, but this stuff is directly contradicted by the evidence.

On the other hand, when you talk about issues like stem cells and abortion, I don’t know how much of that is conditioned by scientific knowledge. If you take the view that a fertilized egg is a human being, then abortion is wrong, and there’s nothing science can tell you that will change your mind. If you say a fetus only becomes a human being when it becomes conscious, and that’s a scientific question, then if you think first trimester babies aren’t sentient, it might change your mind about abortion. But I don’t think people’s moral judgments are informed by science that way.

Q: Has your scientific training and study affected your political views?

Coyne: To some extent, but only indirectly. I’ve always been a bit of a left-winger. Any candidate who’s anti-science, I kind of write off. Since that’s mostly Republicans, it’s made me maybe even more left wing than I had been before.

I think learning science can sometimes affect people’s views on politics. Clearly some conservatives have broken ranks on certain issues because they learned more about the science. Writers like George Will and Charles Krauthammer embraced evolution and denigrated creationists and the intelligent design people. They did that because they learned about evolution, but not everyone is going to change their minds when they learn the facts. It’s a subset of people whose minds are open that you’re aiming for.

Q: In some ways global warming is a stranger case. At least with abortion or creationism there’s some biblical basis for people who reject the science. But it’s not like you can find a biblical reason for rejecting the evidence on global warming.

Coyne: Well, yes you can. I’ve found that almost all creationists reject global warming. They believe that humans have stewardship of the planet, and whatever we do with the planet is OK. This brings on the rapture. If you look at the blogs of any of these intelligent design people, you find constant claims that global warming is just a big hoax. They don’t say it explicitly, but I think it’s the same reason why Ann Coulter thinks we can do anything we want to the environment. Because we were given stewardship, and we can bloody well wreck it if we want.

Q: Do you think one ideology is more susceptible than others to rejecting evidence?

Coyne: In the sense that Republicanism is more allied with religious views than left-wing politics is, I think being right-wing tends to lead to the rejection of science more than people on the left. There really isn’t a Democratic war on science. Granted, there are people like Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey who argue against vaccines, but I don’t think in this country at least the left wing is especially associated with rejection of scientific findings. I mean, most left-wingers are not anti-vaccine.

Q: But on issues like genetically modified foods and nuclear power, there are a whole set of less rigorous ways of looking at those things that are more associated with the left wing.

Coyne: Actually I didn’t think of those. But you know, we’re going to have genetically modified foods and we’re going to have nuclear power. I don’t think the left is going to block those things from happening. In terms of issues that are dire, that have real potential to hurt us, I think the most anti-scientific spirit is coming from the right.

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  1. Coyne and Levin, Pt. 2 « Science Life Blog « University of Chicago Medicine

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