The Unending Story

This was in the Manchester Guardian last February: Like movie monsters who keep getting killed but keep coming back for more (and more tedious) sequels, anti-science activism keeps rising from the crypt. No surprise here. This is truly the unending story. What does surprise me a bit is that it apparently took so long for the two main forces of anti-science animus–evolution denial and climate change denial–to pool their efforts. Of course, as the article notes, those who advocate one often overlap with those who advocate the other. This fact itself, however, seems prima facie odd. Why should there be a correlation? After all, the motivations behind the two species of denialism seem very disparate. The most obvious motivation behind evolution denial has always been that it is “agin the Bible.” The animus against evolution is apparently essentially religious in origin. On the other hand, the basis of the opposition to climatology could not be more secular: The findings about human caused global warming threaten the profits of big oil, big coal, and other polluting industries. “Pro-business” and anti-government ideologists, often at industry funded “think” tanks like the Heartland Institute,therefore rush to condemn the findings of climatologists. So is the cooperation between anti-evolutionists and anti-climatologists just a marriage of convenience, or is there, despite appearances, a deeper motivational link? I think that there is such a link and it is not really too hard to spot. Anti-intellectualism has always been a current in American life, but in recent years that current has become a deadly undertow that drowns rational discussion and decision making. As Charles P. Pierce shows in his hilarious and horrifying book Idiot America, the forces of militant stupidity have never been stronger. Those who inculcate stupidity do so by getting us to think with the gut, what Pierce calls the “inner idiot” that does our thinking for us when we are in the grip of strong emotions that derail rationality. Inner idiots are highly susceptible to anti-science rhetoric. Why? What are the strong emotions that make inner idiots listen to anti-science? The usual ones: fear, suspicion, and bias. Science, whether evolutionary biology or climatology, is done by smarty-pants scientists and academics who think that they are better than just plain folk. When right-wingers talk about “elites,” they do not mean the real elites–people like the Koch brothers. No, when right-wing pundits condemn “elites” that is code for intellectual elites. These are the “elites” Rick Santorum was condemning when he called Obama a “snob.” Evolution and climatology are advocated by a bunch of over-educated, pointy-headed liberals who drive Volts, wear sandals, sip Chablis, and eat argula. They think that they are so much better than us pickup drivin’, PBR drinkin’, gun-totin’, red-blooded Real Americans. As Thomas Frank Shows in What’s the Matter with Kansas, the great success of American “movement conservatism” was to get the good ol’ boys to hate the same people that the big business people despise.