Alan Sokal—who has a history of criticizing the irrational Left—and Chris Mooney—who has come down hard on the anti-science Right—have teamed up to write an op-ed that makes suggestions to keep both sides from falling into the same trap again.
I think the root cause of the problem is that we have a democracy in which education is an insufficiently high priority, and either party can succumb to the temptation of going for votes by appealing to the most uneducated segment of the electorate. The Republican party has thrived in the past by going the other way, and building its base in the wealthy elite (which, unfortunately, has no certainty of being coupled to reason and education); they’ve long since learned that religion is a handy bridge to get votes from the most irrational side of the population, and have ridden the crazy train to power.
Democrats have long been populists, but I suspect that the focus on labor has at least grounded the party in practical concerns. That focus is fading away fast, and I worry that in an attempt to rebuild a solid majority they are also going to cast a covetous eye on the religious masses (hence my reluctance to support Barack Obama) and get there in the wrong way.
Sokal and Mooney propose some top-down safeguards against the further encroachment of anti-science bias into government. These are good ideas.
To address this new crisis over the relationship between science and politics, we propose a combination of political activism and institutional reform. Congress needs to establish safeguards to protect the integrity of scientific information in Washington — strong whistle-blower protections for scientists who work in government agencies would be a good start.
We also need a strengthening of the government scientific advisory apparatus, starting with the revival of the Office of Technology Assessment. And we need congressional committees to continue with their investigations of cases of science abuse within the Bush administration, in order to learn what other reforms are necessary.
At the same time, journalists and citizens must renounce a lazy “on the one hand, on the other hand” approach and start analyzing critically the quality of the evidence. For, in the end, all of us — conservative or liberal, believer or atheist — must share the same real world. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria do not spare deniers of evolution, and global climate change will not spare any of us. As physicist Richard Feynman wrote in connection with the space shuttle Challenger disaster, “nature cannot be fooled.”
To avoid nature’s punishment, we must take steps now to restore reality-based government.
I’d just add that we also need more bottom-up preventive measures: more education. I want a reality-based government, and the best way to get there is to increase the pool of reality-based voters.