As French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde tells the National Assembly and the French people “Enough thinking, already,” and calling on them to work harder, not smarter, we find the American anti-intellectual party warming up. Mitt Romney told a crowd:
Senator Obama is wrong if he thinks science-based sex education has any place in kindergarten.
He’s referring to a quote from Obama: “ ‘But it’s the right thing to do, to provide age-appropriate sex education, science-based sex education in schools.’ ” But note how Romney is careful to repeat the phrase “science-based.” I suspect he’s seeing political advantage in fact that Barack frames science as an inherently a good thing. It lets him, Romney, move pandering to conservatives to the next, and most horrifying, level: framing science as inherently a bad thing.
Not claiming “sound science” as the alternative to “junk science”–the previous stage of the big con. Just “science.”
As in: science = bad.
My first inclination was to change that to “science == bad,” a programmer’s joke about the difference between testing for equality (which uses “==”) and setting a value (“=”). Then it occurred to me that Perlstein’s point is that Romney is not just asking people to evaluate whether science is bad, he is trying to assign his values. If anything, he badly wants people to avoid testing that equivalence, since people tend to like science, or at least the technologies it produces.
Perlstein does err in skipping a generation of the anti-science meme. It started out with tobacco companies claiming that there was no “sound science” tying cancer to their product, an artful phrasing that let them and their ideological allies in other polluting industries redefine “sound science” to mean “science we agree with.”
More recently, the science fiction author Michael Crichton has launched an attack on the science behind global warming, claiming that “consensus science” is a bad thing (“I regard consensus science as an extremely pernicious development … Whenever you hear the consensus of scientists agrees on something or other, reach for your wallet, because you’re being had.”) Not surprisingly, creationists have jumped on that particular bandwagon.
It’s difficult to precisely identify why consensus per se should be objectionable. What should we prefer to consensus? In a world where people can still be found who claim the earth is flat, we surely can’t demand unanimity. Mere majorities are unsatisfying, since every divergent viewpoint passes through some period of minority status. Consensus means supermajority support, and results from the interplay of ideas. Once it exists, we would be fools to assume that most relevant experts are wrong. They might be, but as a heuristic for nonexperts, it’s better than the alternatives.