By Jeremy Manier
I usually disagree with Yuval Levin, but he’s one of my favorite writers about biotechnology on the right or the left. He’s thoughtful, informed and open to dialogue. He’s also fairly immune to hype about scientific advances, which ought to count as a cardinal virtue.
Yuval spent a good chunk of the Bush administration deep within the Death Star, as associate director of Bush’s domestic policy council, and before that as chief of staff for the President’s Council on Bioethics. He also did his graduate studies here at the University of Chicago with Leon Kass, former head of the bioethics council. He’s currently a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Our talk offered a chance to get Yuval’s informed take on science and ideology, and to air out some lingering disagreements we had about the Bush administration’s approach to science policy.
Q: Your new book is all about science and ideology. How would you describe the differences in how the left and the right look at science?
Levin: The book is about what we can learn about our politics from the science debate. Science is a useful clarifying lense to look at our politics because it brings to the surface things that are often implicit and under the surface. And some of them really point to deep differences between the right and the left, especially in terms of how we look at the future. The right tends to think of the future in terms of generations and maintaining continuity, and the left tends to think of the future in terms of innovations.
Q: Jerry Coyne said in our interview that the right is more hostile than the left to scientific thinking because the right is more religious. Would you consider that an oversimplification?
Levin: I think so, but it’s not simply wrong. There’s another level beneath it. I don’t think it’s being religious that explains why the right thinks a certain way about science. I think it’s an attitude the right has toward cultural continuity. That makes a big difference. It’s also why the right tends to be more open toward religion. On those issues where the right has a problem with science, it usually arises when science poses some kind of threat to what conservatives see as the imperative of cultural continuity, whether it’s at the juncture of generations or around society’s ability to present a picture of its own past, an argument about morals and values.
So it’s easy to see why a hard-line scientific worldview that doesn’t allow other kinds of questions to be asked and answered would strike the right as a problem. I don’t think religion is necessarily the reason for this.
Q: I think Coyne means there are certain scientific issues where your religious assumptions might lead you to discount evidence, and regard the scientific process as sort of irrelevant.
Levin: That begins from the premise that science and religion are asking the same questions, and that’s just not true. I mean, religion is not trying to figure out how the world began. Even though the first words of Genesis are “In the beginning,” the book is really about how to live, not what was there at the beginning.
Scientists who criticize the role of religion ironically tend to have a sort of biblical literalism. They say the Bible is about how things work and how the world started, and so is science, and we just have better data. That’s really not true – I think moral questions and scientific questions are just different questions. You arrive at different answers, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re opposed to one another.
And the same mistake is made on the right. People who react to the theory of evolution the way some creationists do are making the same mistake. They take the implications of Darwinism to relate to issues that evolution doesn’t address. So it happens on both sides. I think it’s equally a mistake on both sides though. It seems to me our moral traditions and scientific method are not addressing the same questions.
Q: I don’t agree that this is a case of equal offenders on both sides. If you were to ask the majority of weekly churchgoing Christians or Republicans in Congress whether they agree with your account of Biblical literalism – that science and the Bible are not asking same questions, that religion is about how to live, not how the world began – I don’t think they’d agree with you.
Levin: Yeah, I’m not sure they’d agree with that either. Even so, I think what they make of the religious traditions that shape their lives suggests that they take these to be books of moral teaching and not books of scientific fact. Certainly there are biblical literalists among American Christians and some American Jews too. But it seems to me it doesn’t make sense for secular scientists to be biblical literalists when they think of what the right has to say to science, and what religion has to say about science.
Q: But you know, Coyne wouldn’t be using that interpretation if he didn’t feel his adversaries were starting from a viewpoint of biblical literalism.
Levin: But the question is, why does it matter? Why is it that both side are feeling defensive? It seems to me that on the merits neither has a grievance. It seems more mysterious to me that someone like [Coyne] would feel defensive about what some Christians have to say about evolution. There’s something telling about the desire to control the cultural story. I can see why cultural conservatives would want to do that, but it’s more interesting to me why secular scientists would want to do that.
Q: You said there’s a narrow range where the right has any problem with science. Where do you see those issues, and are there other issues where the left has problems?
Levin: I think for the right, the problems tend to be around human biotechnology. Not in the sense of studying the human animal but acting on the human animal. Science tends to think of itself as a way of knowing, and it is, but it’s also a way of doing. And when what’s done is to human beings, I think the right gets worried. Not only with life issues, but also when we begin to address selves to juncture of generations, engineering our descendants, picking out beginnings of life. Those issues matter for conservatives, and when science enters that realm it becomes controversial.
Increasingly lot of problems between science and left will be in environmentalism. Environmentalism is built on an understanding of nature that’s very different from a scientific understanding. Science begins from an understanding of nature as a moderately hostile force, best understood as a whole made of parts. Modern ecology begins from a benevolent view of nature, that the best humans can do is stand out of way, and it understands nature as a single whole. This begins as a philosophical issue but I think it becomes a practical issue. Science is the moving force behind a lot of what most troubles environmentalists – industrial capitalism, nuclear energy, etc. I think we see hints of what’s coming from Europe, where the Greens are not generally the pro-science party.
Q: Looking back on the Bush administration, do you think there’s been any misperception about how the administration handled science?
Levin: Yes, I think there’s been a widespread misperception. There’s been a belief, spread by political opponents of the administration for understandable reasons, that the Bush administration wasn’t interested in science, didn’t support science.
I’d say it happened around a couple of areas above all – biotech and stem cells, and environmental issues. On the stem cell debate, I think there’s just a confusion of science and policy. This was a question of policy, not a question of science. And for Bush it began with his belief, and it’s one I share, that what’s fundamentally at issue is defending human life and not treating it as a resource for research. That doesn’t mean ignoring science, it means you begin from a premise about what science is for. And we developed a policy that tried to find a balance. The administration continued to explore what science is doing. It was always informed by science, but it wasn’t a science-driven policy.
On environmental questions, I think the division was between economics and ecology, not between science and politics. And that’s a real division. I think it’s true that the Bush administration prioritized ecological concerns for the most part below economics concerns. That doesn’t mean they were anti-science, but it means they had a different set of priorities than someone else might.
In general though, I think a lot of the “Republican war on science” stuff is basically just nonsense.
Q: But on climate change, there’s a legitimate charge that the administration ignored findings that were pretty firmly accepted by the scientific community.
Levin: Well, but ignored in what sense? Science doesn’t make its own policy. Science provides certain facts for policymakers, and there are certain other facts they have to think about – the consequences of different policy options. I don’t think it’s fair to say the Bush administration ignored the science on climate change. But they didn’t think what scientists saw as the policy implications of that naturally and automatically followed. I think on the whole they were right. It’s a mistake to claim that climate science simply proves the need for cap and trade.
Q: But surely there was a lot of foot-dragging in recognizing that greenhouse gases are affecting the climate, that the increase is man-made, and it will cause problems we need to worry about. The scientific consensus there is fairly tight, although as you say there’s less consensus on how to go about ameliorating it. But the Bush administration really delayed articulating what was clearly emerging from the evidence.
Levin: It’s possible. I guess I never saw that. There’s a lot of delay in any administration. I never saw anything that struck me as a deliberate effort to keep information from the public. It’s obviously not the job of the president to announce what is the scientific consensus on a given issue. I heard accusations that this report or that was held back. Some of it just wasn’t true. I don’t think there was a general effort to keep from the public scientific facts about climate change.
Q: Some of the most interesting anti-science movements are the ones that transcend ideology. For example, I found in reporting on anti-vaccine groups that they had a lot of conservatives and liberals, but they all shared an interest in more natural living and a mistrust of science in general.
Levin: I agree there is a certain suspicion of science that crosses party lines. This is something we ran into a lot in the last administration, especially around the vaccine issue. It struck me as being about mistrust of government as much as mistrust of science. There was a sense that people weren’t being told the truth, and they wouldn’t accept information from anyone that would contradict their certainty that vaccines are the cause of autism, to name the most prominent example. I found it very odd, and it had the flavor of a kind of John Birch Society, communists-putting-fluoride-in-water idea. There’s this idea that the organized scientific community is trying to put something over on them. It’s an amazingly powerful belief out there, especially among autism parents. Part of it has to be that they don’t have any other explanation for what happened to their children. This is troubling to me, and it’s certainly having an effect on immunization and public heath.