14 December 2010

Talk about putting the cart before the horse

Consider the following statement:

Most jockeys are short. This is a problem. Horse racing organisations need to address this imbalance by encouraging tall people to become jockeys.

Silly, isn’t it? The reason why jockeys tend to be short has little to do with horse racing politics or managerial bickering. Simply put, short and light physiques lend themselves to riding a horse to victory better than tall and heavy ones. It’s the physics, stupid.

Now consider this statement:

Most scientists in the US are Democrats. That's a problem. Government and/or academic institutions need to address this imbalance by encouraging Republicans to become scientists.

This pretty much sums up Daniel Sarewitz’s argument in his Slate article ‘Lab Politics’. As with the jockey example, the argument’s absurdity lies in its ‘wrong direction’ logical fallacy – the idea that a person’s political persuasion determines their rational, scientific thinking instead of the other way around. It’s not that the Democratic Party’s principles tend to turn people into critical thinkers who value empirical facts. It’s that people who value facts and intellectual rigour tend to become Democrats (and scientists).

But Sarewitz fails to grasp this logical explanation (or if he does, he chooses to ignore it). He believes that it’s the scientists’ politics that determines their personal values, and thus their scientific conclusions. On the subject of climate change, he writes:

Think about it: The results of climate science, delivered by scientists who are overwhelmingly Democratic, are used over a period of decades to advance a political agenda that happens to align precisely with the ideological preferences of Democrats. Coincidence — or causation?

So Sarewitz actually suspects that Democrat scientists are conspiring to present biased data to serve a political agenda? Incredible.

One unbreakable law of existence is this: people are entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts. Objective knowledge of the world is possible, and scientists are rather good at discovering such knowledge. But for them to do what they do, scientists need to possess certain qualities: a deep respect for reason, an ability to think rationally and critically, a healthy dose of skepticism, an appreciation for nuance and complexity, and an uncompromising intellectual honesty. While these qualities may not be absent from Republicans, it wouldn’t be exaggeration to say that they exist to a markedly lesser degree among the GOP faithful.

Sarewitz is welcome to his conspiracy theories, but I think the better explanation for why most American scientists are Democrats is because sensible people tend to join sensible parties. It’s really just that simple.

Writing that a “March 2010 Gallup poll showed that 66 percent of Democrats (and 74 percent of liberals) say the effects of global warming are already occurring, as opposed to 31 percent of Republicans,” Sarewitz then asks his readers:

Does that mean that Democrats are more than twice as likely to accept and understand the scientific truth of the matter? And that Republicans are dominated by scientifically illiterate yahoos and corporate shills willing to sacrifice the planet for short-term economic and political gain?

Well, yes, it does.


No comments:

Post a Comment