January 30, 2015

Where Does Hostility to Science Come From?

There was an excellent article yesterday by Chris Mooney in The Washington Post making the political case for a revenue neutral carbon tax. His analysis strikes me as spot-on. Conservatives, he argues, aren’t the main obstacles to a deal. Self-identified Tea Partiers are the obstacle. Unlike everyone else in the political world, Tea Partiers profoundly distrust scientists, believe that global warming is a leftist hoax concocted to dismantle capitalism, and militantly oppose any and all governmental policies to address climate risk. They not only reject mainstream science as forwarded by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; they also reject the science being offered by mainstream scientific skeptics of climate change.

While not all Tea Partiers are libertarians – and not all libertarians are Tea Partiers – it’s fair to say that most politically engaged libertarians are inclined to share the Tea Party’s view. My former colleagues at the Cato Institute, for instance, have established a large and growing Center for the Study of Science (staffed by scientists!) arguing that scientists can’t be trusted to tell the scientific truth.

It was not always thus. There was a time when libertarians parted company with conservatives who made the sorts of arguments heard by Tea Partiers today.

One of the most important libertarians in post-war history – Friedrich Hayek – had this to say about the Right’s attitude toward science in his classic essay “Why I am not a Conservative”:

Personally, I find that the most objectionable feature of the conservative attitude is its propensity to reject well-substantiated new knowledge because it dislikes some of the consequences which seem to follow from it—or, to put it bluntly, its obscurantism. I will not deny that scientists as much as others are given to fads and fashions and that we have much reason to be cautious in accepting the conclusions that they draw from their latest theories. But the reasons for our reluctance must themselves be rational and must be kept separate from our regret that the new theories upset our cherished beliefs. …


By refusing to face the facts, the conservative only weakens his own position. Frequently the conclusions which rationalist presumption draws from new scientific insights do not at all follow from them. But only by actively taking part in the elaboration of the consequences of new discoveries do we learn whether or not they fit into our world picture and, if so, how. Should our moral beliefs really prove to be dependent on factual assumptions shown to be incorrect, it would hardly be moral to defend them by refusing to acknowledge facts.

When confronted by conservative arguments in the early 1970s about how the health risks from air pollution were a fraud and that no regulation was necessary, one of the father’s of modern libertarianism in America – Murray Rothbard – had this to say:

Among conservatives – in contrast to libertarians – there are two ultimately similar responses to the problem of air pollution. One response, by Ayn Rand and Robert Moses among others, is to deny that the problem exists, and to attribute the entire agitation to leftists who want to destroy capitalism and technology on behalf of a tribal form of socialism. While part of this charge may be correct, denial of the very existence of the problem is to deny science itself and to give a vital hostage to the leftist charge that defenders of capitalism “place property rights above human rights.” Moreover, a defense of air pollution does not even defend property rights; on the contrary it puts these conservatives’ stamp of approval on those industrialists who are trampling upon the property rights of the mass of citizenry.

Why did the libertarian movement abandon this healthy respect for science and embrace the dim view of science held by some quarters of the Right? I suspect for two reasons. First, the influence of Ayn Rand among libertarians moved the intellectual center of gravity. Second, the libertarians’ political alliance with the Right – which firmed up in the 1990s – blurred the ideological distinctions between the two camps.

It should go without saying that how one reads the science of atmospheric physics does not say anything about how seriously one believes in liberty. But alas, it sometimes needs to be said.