(VANCOUVER ISLAND) As western politics become increasingly polarised, and the liberal vs. conservative battle lines are drawn ever more far apart, one feature of the conflict becomes particularly bemusing: questions of scientific fact have become politicised.
In the 21st Century, issues that are clearly susceptible to empirical investigation and rational analysis have become litmus tests for one’s political persuasion, despite the salient fact that, on the surface at least, there is nothing whatever political about the subjects. At what moment does human life start? At birth? At viability? At quickening? At conception? At erection? Scientific questions, certainly, but the religious implications are clear; and where issues of religion and legislation collide, politics becomes the battlefield. But then there are other clearly scientific subjects that have even more tenuous connections to politics.
Anthropogenic climate change is simply and obviously a question that falls squarely within the realm of scientific analysis. And yet its acceptance or rejection is an indicator of one’s political leanings. Ditto for the purely scientific discussion of evolution and the part it plays in human and other organisms’ development over Earth’s history. Nevertheless, both of those subjects, within the political world at least, are deeply divisive. In the scientific world, there is no genuine controversy over either scientific theory; climate change is real and it is caused by human activity; evolution is real and it is the explanation for the origin and development of species.
The interesting thing, though, about the politicisation of those scientific theories is that their acceptance is virtually universal by the political left, while their rejection is comparably pervasive by the right. How does it happen that the conservative political stance has come to include a contemptuous disdain for science, for expertise, education, and knowledge on the one hand, and an enthusiastic embrace of gut feeling, of unsupported dogma, and of belief over knowledge? And why is the left more predisposed to accept science and rational analysis as their decision-making criteria than the right?
The short answer is that the conservative viewpoint tends to be shared, in North America particularly, by those who self-define as Christian, evangelical, fundamentalist, or born again; it is the religious conviction of conservatives that makes scientific questions political. Politics, as such, has no disagreement with science; but the religion of political conservatives most certainly does. Religion, particularly Christianity, has a long and chequered history of butting heads with science. Scientists, Galileo perhaps most famously, have put their lives at risk to express scientific discoveries that met with the disapproval of the Christian church leaders.
Stephen J Gould proposed the notion of “non-overlapping magisteria”. The idea was to separate the realms of science and religion and accord each the respect they deserve, while accepting that their intellectual content did not intrude on each other’s; that their areas – magisteria – of subject matter did not overlap. Science, according to Gould’s doctrine of NOM, would deal with questions susceptible to empirical and rational observation and investigation, while religion would deal with matters of revealed knowledge, the supernatural, and faith-based belief. Unfortunately, Professor Gould’s elegant and simple solution to the conflict between religious belief and science couldn’t stand up to real life testing.
The main problem with the NOM doctrine with respect to the political realm is that Christian activists are dedicated to the elimination of the separation of church and state; activist Christian groups are explicitly working to bring about a Christian theocracy in the United States. And, given that their brand of Christianity is largely based on the view that every word of their Bible is literally true, they read the bible as a scientific and historical text as well as a theological text.
Thus, the US conservative movement is comprised of those who adhere to the scientifically ludicrous “young Earth” dogma. The notion that every genuine scientist is simply wrong in the assertion the Earth formed some four and a half billion years ago and that life arose eons later and through a process of natural selection evolved into what we see around us today, is part of their religious belief. Therefore, their religious dogma that the Earth was created in seven twenty-four hour days some six thousand years ago, that mankind shared the planet with dinosaurs, that Noah’s flood somehow explains the stratification of the Grand Canyon, etc. etc. has become their political position as well as their scientific assertion and historical understanding.
As their religious-political-scientific-historical worldview is rejected by the majority of people who are less extreme in their beliefs and agendas, the religious right has for more than a decade employed a strategy they openly call “the wedge”. The idea is to demonise and ultimately eliminate Darwinian evolution from the classroom. Their technique is Machiavellian and has been frighteningly successful in The US. Since the US Supreme Court has declared that teaching creationism as science violates the constitutional prohibition of the establishment of a state religion, they propose a modified version they call “intelligent design”. Then they argue that since evolution is merely a theory, alternative theories, ought to be on the curriculum.
Court after court has ruled that IT or intelligent design is nothing more than a tarted up version of creationism, and that it doesn’t come close to meeting the criteria to be called a scientific theory. Nevertheless, its supporters are indefatigable; they just keep on trying. After all, they are on a holy mission. And from their viewpoint, their crusade is blessed by their god because they know the Truth.
This politicisation of the goals of the theocratically inclined right wing is becoming increasingly confrontational with the current presidential contest. Not that Donald Trump is particularly religious; he’s not. Not even a little bit. He believes in Donald J Trump and nothing else. But the religious right is just wild about him. And that dynamic seems to have baffled a few pundits.
Why wouldn’t the religious right support Hillary Clinton, a church going, family values candidate whose history shows just how seriously she takes the sanctity of marriage? Why would they gravitate en masse to Trump, who can’t remember a single chapter of their bible, a man who bragged openly about his infidelities and is on his third wife? The short answer is that all that family values rhetoric and posturing, so common in Republican circles, is sheer hypocrisy.
The truth is that what Donald Trump represents to them is a rejection of rational thought, a dismissal of critical thinking, and a strong anti-science and anti-intellectual inclination. He loves the poorly educated, he once enthused. They know that with the dumbing down of America and the rise of a fact-free world order, their utterly fanciful and delusional beliefs about science, history, and even morality will have an atmosphere in which they would thrive. They are excited about the prospect of an America in which their Christian Taliban can wield power. They love things like the law Mike Pence, Trump’s running mate recently enacted in his home state; the law requires a funeral – arranged through a licenced funeral parlour – for all foetuses that are either aborted or miscarried. They know that the implicit rejection of centuries of scientific progress is the sort of fertile ground in which their idiot ideas will flourish.
Other cultures have taken retrograde steps and rejected learning and fact-based thinking. Look at Islam. It was once the centre of science and art and was centuries ahead of the west in the sophistication of its society. Fundamentalism rose, however, and the current barbarity that much of Islam embraces is the direct result of choosing religion over science. It is not unduly fanciful to fear a similar fate for the US in the event of a Trump presidency.