A Foolish Consistency in the “War on Science”

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” Essays: First Series, 1841

Some folks are having trouble with, or just having a cow over this recent George Will column where he encourages Congress not to cut research spending or support for research universities.  Apparently folks can’t handle the fact that Will could possibly support research funding after he misrepresented and/or cherry-picked facts to argue that global warming just isn’t happening (though Andrew Sullivan notes a different inconsistency involving the stimulus).

(Don’t worry, his use of facts remains selective and inconsistent in this column.  Note the lack of any mention of the research funding in the stimulus or the recently passed COMPETES legislation – can’t credit Democrats in a column meant to encourage Republicans.  And my U.K. readers could probably attest better than I to the disconnect between Lady Thatcher’s words supporting science research and her actions that, well, didn’t.)

Putting aside the ill-considered notion that paying attention to George Will is ever a good idea (Colbert makes the case for no), these demonstrations of brow-furrowing and calls of hypocrisy help highlight another part of the rhetorical straitjacket that is the notion of a ‘war on science.’  If there’s a war on science, then that’s the focus of political choices and policy issues, and you must be for science or against it across the board.  It’s simplistic, but to borrow again from Colbert, we’re at war, pick a side (5:18).  To act in favor of science in one place and against science in another piece (or vice versa) would therefore be counterproductive.

Why expect such a foolish consistency?  Perhaps those who are suffering  cognitive dissonance (making Mooney’s reaction title ironic) are expecting their ‘anti-science’ opponents in the ‘war on science’ to subscribe to the same frames that they do.  But for most, regardless of party, the important political issues are not approached from a perspective first informed by what the science suggests.  Other interests, be they the advancement of a party or an ideology (which seems to be Will’s raison d’être), usually come first.  Take another look at the ‘pro-science’ Will column.  He lists patents and invention before science, and then links it all to his motivation in the very next sentence.

“Such research is what canals and roads once were – a prerequisite for long-term economic vitality.”

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