Yesterday somebody asked Governor Walker if he believes in evolution and he ducked the question. As Ramesh argued, this was a mistake, and there was a fair amount of snark directed at this. Then there was a wave of counter-snark, stemming from the same impulse as Cooke’s recent NR cover story about how the NdGT “I love science” fan club is really about mood affiliation, much of it semi-sublimated anti-clericalism, and not really very much about scientific knowledge.
I totally understand the impulse to call out the extent to which affirmation of science is 99% mood affiliation and only 1% knowledge, but I actually didn’t enjoy this whole fracas last night on Twitter, especially from Sean Davis of The Federalist (who did some good reporting a few months ago showing how NdGT basically makes stuff up), who barraged Ben White of Politico with pointed quiz questions about the mechanisms of evolution. Meanwhile Davis got many a #sickburn type compliment. I found the whole spectacle lamentable for two reasons for this:
1) Criticizing the gotcha question, and particularly asking, ok smart guy, if you “love science” then how does genetic drift work, etc, sounds very similar to the rhetorical tactics of intelligent design folks and so plays into the idea that the right are a bunch of creationists and the intellectual right are still a bunch of creationists, just ones with a list of talking points that sound like someone ran an EEB textbook through a Markov Chain word salad generator. Note that this is still the impression I get, and I would imagine many other people do, regardless of whether the people issuing the “OK smart guy” snark are actually young Earthers, ID, or totally orthodox EEB. Remember, we live in a world where you still see headlines saying “Man Bites Dog: Pope Francis Believes in Evolution” and it’s only after the jump, if at all, that there’s the caveat “just like the last half dozen or so occupants of the throne of St Peter.”
2) Specifically because I am a conservative, I believe in deference to legitimate authority and the limitations of human reason. One particular manifestation of this is that I think we should embrace scientific orthodoxy even when we don’t personally understand it. To jump on people for demanding affirmation of science but without being able to distinguish allopatric from sympatric speciation makes about as much sense, and for similar reasons, as jumping on people for affirming belief in democracy without being able to explain the Arrow impossibility theorem or the median voter theorem, or for calling themselves Christians but without being able to explain “consubstantiality” (or for that matter, for being excited about just having just learned the word “eschatology” if you recall that recent circle jerk of Christian intellectual snobbery). It’s a good thing when people embrace the consensus of legitimate experts. When people start thinking things through for themselves and bullying those who naively accept orthodoxy this is when you get anti-vaxxers, truthers, religious heresy, etc.
(For what it’s worth, I personally have a very solid working understanding of evolutionary biology and so could answer pretty much all of the Jeopardy with your host Sean Davis questions, but I am fairly ignorant of most of the other hard sciences and could not explain, for instance, the Big Bang).
Anyway, knock it off guys. Sure, it’s obnoxious that the left and/or journalists confuse mood affiliation with knowledge, but just let it go.