A casual observer of American politics in recent years could be forgiven for imagining that the legitimacy of scientific inquiry and empirical knowledge are under assault by the right, and that the left has mounted a heroic defense. Science is constantly on the lips of Democratic politicians and liberal activists, and is generally treated by them as a vulnerable and precious inheritance being pillaged by Neanderthals.
â€œFor six and a half years under President Bush,â€ Senator Hillary Clinton told an audience in October 2007, â€œit has been open season on open inquiry.â€ Senator Edward Kennedy, in an April 2007 speech at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, bemoaned the many ways in which â€œthe truth is taking a beatingâ€ under conservative influence in Washington. One popular recent book on the subject is entitled The Republican War on Science; another, by former vice president and Nobel laureate Al Gore, is called The Assault on Reason.
But beneath these grave accusations, it turns out, are some remarkably flimsy grievances, most of which seem to amount to political disputes about policy questions in which science plays a role. Ethical disagreements over the destruction of embryos for research are described instead as a conflict between science and ignorant theology. Differing judgments about the proper role of government in sex education in schools are painted as a quarrel between objective public health and medieval prudishness. A dispute about the prudential wisdom of a variety of energy policy alternatives is depicted as a clash of simple scientific facts against willful ignorance and greed.
And the countless minor personnel and policy decisions that always shape the day-to-day operations of the federal executive branch are pored over in an effort to reveal a nefarious pattern of retrograde anti-rational obscurantism. The presidentâ€™s science advisor, it seems, now has an office located a little further from the Oval Office than his predecessors had, and a member of a Food and Drug Administration advisory board once wrote a book about his religious conversion.
The American right has no desire to declare a war on science, and nothing it has done in recent years could reasonably suggest otherwise. The leftâ€™s quixotic defensive campaign against an imaginary enemy therefore has little to tell us about American conservativesâ€”who, of course, do have a complex relationship with science, though it is not the one the left seeks to describe.
But if this notion of a â€œwar on scienceâ€ tells us little about the right, it does tell us something important about the American left and its self-understanding. That liberals take attacks against their own political preferences to be attacks against science helps us see the degree to which they identify themselvesâ€”their ideals, their means, their ends, their cause, and their cultureâ€”with the modern scientific enterprise.
New Mexico governor Bill Richardson seemed to speak for many when, in a speech in the course of his ill-fated campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, he called upon Democrats to make theirs â€œthe party of science and technology.â€ This is a more positive (not to say less paranoid) way of expressing the deep connection between scienceâ€”understood both as a way of knowing and a means to doingâ€”and the agenda of liberalism and progressivism.