20 December, 2007

Are you a duck?

I don't consider myself a conservative, but I trend that way.* To this day I read a lot of conservative opinion, and I haven't ever voted for a Democratic presidential candidate, although in 2004 I didn't vote the Republican ticket, either.

It does irritate me how each side tends to trivialize and/or demonize the other. I'm not sure which is worse: to characterize your opponent as a moron, a lunatic, or a devil, but one comes across such things regularly. Maybe I'm the lunatic; I can stomach a great deal of genuine controversy, but when someone implies that conservativism is found only among morons and their manipulators, or that liberalism is found only among degenerates, I acquire a foul taste in my mouth and tend to excuse myself, or stop reading.

I've especially resented the slander that conservatives are anti-science—I once had great fun with this in grad school, for example—but I don't know if I'm going to try any more. Listening to the radio yesterday, I heard a prominent conservative commentator ridicule scientists for identifying the protein that makes us feel cold. What's the point? Isn't global warming going to make that a moot point? he mocked.

I've read or heard other remarks to that effect. Perhaps he didn't mean it with such a flavor of contempt, but the commentator has a great deal of experience in radio, so it's hard to believe that he doesn't intend that effect. Was it demagoguery? Since he portrays himself as a truth teller and a spokesman for "ordinary" conservatives, one wonders if they agree with him.

In any case, it certainly plays right into the hands of standard left-wing attacks. How does one get around this? It isn't enough to point out, as some conservatives do, that 1/3 of registered Democrats seriously believe that Bush and/or Giuliani knew about the terrorist attacks of 9/11 before they happened. Yes, that's disturbing. I'd say that it's more disturbing than the notion that a large number of registered Republicans disbelieve evolution, but that's really nothing more than begging the question. If conservatives aren't on the whole anti-science, they ought to denounce the commentator's remark.

It's one thing to poke fun at the excessive pretentiousness of many scientists, or to remark on some scientists' utter contempt for ethical questions. To make fun of another man's honest, dedicated labor is another matter entirely. The conservative writer John Derbyshire has also encountered this trend, and recently wrote, regarding evangelicals' complaints that he attacks them:

If I were inspired to know everything that could be known about the surface of my dinner table... and spent years scrutinizing it, tallying all the scratches and dents and stains, measuring and classifying them, seeking in the patterns of grain some clue to the nature and structure of the tree from which it was made; and if you then came along and told me that I was all wet, that my observations were illusions, my theories hogwash, my years of effort wasted, because the table had been described to perfection by an unknown scribe living in a desert cave three thousand years ago — if all that came about, then I am sorry to say I would tell you, probably rather brusquely, to go boil your head. I would attack you; and, to be perfectly frank about the matter, you would have had it coming.

The physical world — including the living things that inhabit it, and including even humanity ourselves — has been, and is being, scrutinized in just that way by men and women of science. There are millions of them and they have been at work for centuries, observing, measuring, classifying, comparing notes, forming discussion societies, arguing, presenting theories, discarding theories, slowly and painfully coming to broad agreement on this, and this, and this (though not yet on that, or that, or that).

In a free country, evangelicals are free to tell these truth-seekers, and those who follow their efforts, that they are all wet, and have been wasting their time. And the truth-seekers, and those of us who understand the truth-seekers’ motivations and methods, and marvel at their dedication, at their sheer hard work, and at the truths they so painstakingly uncover, are likewise free to tell evangelicals that while we (well, some of us) respect their spiritual quests, should they attempt sorties into the territory science has occupied and tamed with such arduous exertions, and sneer and scoff at our hard-won understandings, then they are attacking us, and should not be surprised if we stage a vigorous defense.

It is possible to be a conservative and not to be anti-science; it is possible to be deeply Christian and not anti-science. A number of conservatives, as well as a number of Christians, like to sneer at science, and that number is more vocal, more numerous, or both. They hypocritically mock scientists' honest livelihoods while enjoying the fruits of that livelihood. Some of them grumble about the high salaries paid to men and women whose discoveries will benefit them, their children, their grandchildren, and so forth.

At the same time, these people will deny that they are anti-science. To adapt a conservative proverb: if you quack like a duck, walk like a duck, and look like a duck... you must be a duck.

*At my extreme, I supported Pat Robertson in 1988; whatever the reason, no one else I knew supported him, so it reinforced my self-image of nonconformity. I have an odd notion of noncomformity. This is not to say that I agreed with everything he said then, and I have rarely agreed with anything he has said since.


Brendan said...

Prof. Perry,
While I sometimes identify as a bit of a paleoconservative, I tend to avoid sides and ideologies altogether. That said, the thing that has disturbed me most in recent current American political events was the absurd march (metaphorically) (that included Dem's and Republicans) to call for federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.

To paraphrase my girlfriend's biology prof. (at a major university), the media has made it appear that all scientists are in favor of embryonic stem cell research - this is not true.

There was such a one sided view of this issue coming from the mainstream media and the congress (libs & 'conservatives'), and as many of us knew... it was nonsense. It was quite simply a ridiculous political move that was made for God knows what reason, perhaps to shore up resentment against the president who would surely veto their efforts. (Never cared for Bush that much until he vetoed that trash.)

Most frightening of all is that a socially conservative president (or congress) can't save us from these things. The public support for the issue seemed to be pretty clear; on facebook (college networking site) the groups pro embryonic research were overflowing - the groups against consisted in great portion of students at the orthodox Catholic colleges (FUS, TAC, AMU, UD, CC, CUA, STU, et cetera).

brendan said...

P.S. (on science & the faith)
Ran into this quote from Cauchy earlier this week, "I am a Christian which means that I believe in the deity of Christ, like Tycho de Brahe, Copernicus, Descartes, Newton, Leibnitz, Pascal… like all great astronomers mathematicians of the past."

jack perry said...


Thanks for the comment. The march towards embryonic stem cell research doesn't disturb me "most", because so many other things disturb me so much more that the willful dishonesty involved in that long campaign came as no real surprise. I did write on it a few times in the weblog, though.

I also think it is important to recognize that "scientists" are not one monolithic group who all agree on the same thing. I have known real, live scientists who disbelieve in God. I have known real, live scientists who believe in God; indeed I have known internationally-recognized scientists who disbelieve evolution. (They weren't biologists though.)

What I was trying to express is that we need to respect other people's honest work, especially since it comes at great personal sacrifice and it very often is hard labor. If instead we hold them to ridicule and scorn, and attribute all manner of traits of bad character to them, merely because we disagree with their conclusions, or because we don't immediately see the purpose of their work, we reveal a much worse character in ourselves than in the person we are trying to attack.

There does seem to be an incredible swell of passion against what to you and me seem like reasonable points of view. We can lay a lot of that blame squarely at the feet of our leaders, who seem to have lost sight of what truly matters in the final reckoning. I often wonder whether, by remaining silent on matters of personal holiness—indeed, by bending over backwards, it seems, to remain silent on such matters, to the point of a seeming amnesia as regards the saints!—our leaders have contributed to the popular perception that religion is a need that can be satisfied by shopping around for the right "business".

More pressingly, we must ask ourselves whether Christ truly shines in our own lives.

Clemens said...

I seem to be the flip side of you. I don't consider myself a liberal but I do tend that way. And I almost always vote Democratic, esp in presidential elections. And I started my blog mainly because I was sick of all the moronic nonsense coming from the extremes of all political stances.

jack perry said...

I used not to see myself ever voting Democratic in a national election, but it's starting to materialize as a possibility. I've thought about writing on this one day; the problem is that I don't think it's quite appropriate to what I want on this weblog :-) Sort of like the entry we're all responding to here; I'm not very happy with it.

Clemens said...

Yes, I can see your point. That's partly why I keep two blogs. One is personal, the other just opinions, political and otherwise.

Depending on who the candidates are, I might consider a Repub this time, at least if it is McCain. But - we'll see (a deeply philosophical phrase).

Elliot said...

I enjoyed this post. I think the creative tension that results from being between two worlds which to many seem opposed (whether that's religion and science, or in the political realm) makes one more thoughtful and builds character. You're not willing to just toe a particular party line, and you strive to think for yourself - I think the best communication between positions is carried out by people who can live with creative tension. So, for example, you and Clemens can relate better than a doctrinaire 'conservative' or 'liberal' could.