Forbes again: on Republicans and Evolution!
- (I posted my "Goliath of GRAS" in the readers' comments section of that column as I did recently in another Forbes column.-RLBaty)
Republicans are Stupid ...
By Jon Entine
May 3, 2012
That's the Stupid Premise of a Stupid New Book by an Anti-Republican Gadfly
"Let's play "Jeopardy." Round One: Science Literacy. Category: Evolution. For $500: Which is the largest demographic group to reject Darwin's theory of evolution?"
According to Chris Mooney's best selling new book, The Republican Brain, a follow up to his 2007 polemic The Republican War on Science, the answer is easy: Tea party Republicans.
From 50% to 80% of Americans, depending on the poll and how one interprets the data, do not believe in evolution.
Yet natural selection theory has been settled science for more than a century. Even the Catholic Church agrees that evolution doesn't have to conflict with church dogma. So, what gives?
The explanation, according to Mooney is simple:
> conservatives are scientifically illiterate.Mooney bases his conclusions primarily on two issues:
> (1) anthropogenic global warming andThe heat generated by Republican grey matter working through complex scientific theories pops their hard-wired neural circuits like corn heating in a kettle.
> (2) evolution.
Because science is made up of "facts," he writes, there must be some neuro-cognitive evolutionary reason for why the right wing brain limps along as it does.
He equates the far right of the Republican base, which does fervently embrace these anti-science views, with both Republicans and conservatives in general.
It's a neat theory:
> Republicans are congenitally defective.Well, he doesn't use the word "defective". He does say he believes they are cognitively incapable of accepting such staggeringly complex concepts as "survival of the fittest."
But he's got a big heart.
I'm not making value judgements, he's quick to claim.
I'm just reporting facts.
We should try to understand these mental slackers not blame them.
Mooney's narrative reminds me of the fanciful Rudyard Kipling tale about how the leopard got its spots. Kipling's wonderful turn-of-the-20th century "Just So Stories" contain fictional tales that pretend to explain scientific phenomenon.
No one takes them seriously.
The trouble with Mooney's "just so" story about the biology of politics is that some peoplemostly Democratic ideologuesdo believe it.
What's the correct answer?
There is a clear Republican-Democrat split over the validity of evolutionary theory, although neither party's adherents win awards as a group for scientific literacy.
In the latest poll on this subject, by Fox News, in September 2011, the pollsters asked: Which do you think is more likely to actually be the explanation for the origin of human life on Earth, the biblical account or Darwin's theory of evolution or both accounts (which is logically impossible, but humans are not always logical).
The results are frightening.
Only 28% of Democrats and 13% of Republicans accept the purely scientific explanation.
So, are both Democrat and Republican brains defective?
These patterns have persisted for decades, and scientific literacy on this issue may even be backsliding.
In 2005, an NBC poll found that 33% of Americans subscribed to strict evolutionary theory; 57% believed in either the fundamentalist Biblical version of human origins, which holds that the earth was created in six days and a crafty snake talked poor Eve into sinning, or a divine presence.
The Fox survey, in line with others, found that 66% accept the Biblical account in whole or in part and 55% believe in the literal truth of the Bible.
The problem with just so theories is that, like Eve's serpent, they come back to bite.
Mooney has trapped himself into arguing that both tea partiers and African Americans have defective brains, with black "Democratic" brains being more so.
Why do blacks as a group reject evolution more than any other demographic in America, including conservatives? As Graves notes, the majority of American blacks belong to fundamentalist Protestant denominations, such as the National Baptist Convention, which claims that every aspect of the Bible is true.
Graves believes the best explanation for anti-science thinking is not the Republican/Democrat divide but the religious and educational schisms in America.
Tea partiers and African Americans, as groups, share certain characteristics.
Their educational levels are low and their religious fervor is high.
Several studies have demonstrated a negative relationship between student religiosity and likelihood to take science classes or pursue a science career.
Turns out that if you factor in education and strength of religious belief, the Democrat-Republican divide dissolves almost entirely.
Liberal precautionary politics
As other critics of Mooney's speculations have pointed out, by subject matter, the left anti-science kook index is remarkably high.
It includes "natural" remedies and alternative medicine, the special nutritional benefits of organics, the inherent threat of genetically modified crops, cell phones as carcinogens, the link between vaccines and autism, the toxicity of tested and approved chemicals, the intrinsic dangers of fracking and nuclear power, etc. etc.
Mooney goes apoplectic at any suggestion of equivalency.
He contends that conservative denialism is more consequential than the liberal version. He excuses it as the product of really good intentions gone bad or mainstream liberal belief in the "do not harm" dogma of the "precautionary principle," which he praises as sound science.
Few scientists would agree.
Debasing science literacy
Despite his frequently sophomoric glibness, Mooney's central thesis is worth exploring, even with the inherent uncertainty and author biases that infect the socio-psychological studies that he favors.
There are intriguing issues here.
Don't expect Mooney to come clean, but a far larger percentage of Democrats rejects the mainstream scientific views on fracking than Republicans reject evolution.
It's not only Republicans who find many of Mooney's just so stories dopey science.
Check independent science blogs, like Science 2.0, whose readership is almost all liberal or left libertarian.
Editor Hank Campbell, dismantles Mooney's limited understanding of epigenetics, an emerging field of science that suggests that perhaps Lamarck had some things rightcertain behaviors may actually be able to change the underlying genetic code.
Proving that a little knowledge can be dangerous, Mooney makes the chicken-egg argument that Republicans vote Republican because their parents voted Republican, which rewired their brain and biology, with the reprogrammed DNA then passed on to their children.
No, Chris, culture does not equal genetics.
Mooney does get occasional kudos from mainstream scientists, such as Neal Lane, former director of the National Science Foundation. But Lane doesn't praise Mooney's science acumen."[A]t the highest levels of government, ideology is being advanced in the name of science," he wrote in a blurb excerpted on the book's cover. In other words, he likes Mooney's polemical attack on Republican political know-nothings, who put adherence to far right causes or their eagerness for corporate donations ahead of sound science.
But that's not Mooney's point in this book.
He's claiming the "Republican brain" is less biologically developed than Democratic grey matterand that's stupid.
What some Republicans believe out of ignorance or for political expediency, soft-headed Democrats often embrace for ideological vanity (and sometimes for crude personal financial gain as well; see: organic farming lobby).
Mooney and hard-edged Democrats may denounce this analysis as "equivalency," but they often peddle something far worse: scientific illiteracy.
Science is indeed on trial and unfortunately Chris Mooney is testifying for the anti-science faction.
Jon Entine is founder and director of the Genetic Literacy Project and senior fellow at the Center for Health & Risk Management and STATS at George Mason University.