This is point of inquiry for Monday, August 1st, 2011.
Welcome to Point of inquiry. I’m Chris Mooney point of inquiry is the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs and at the grassroots. In my book, The Republican War on Science and in much of my recent commentary, I’ve blasted the U.S. political right when it comes to science and reason. I think that’s justifiable. But I’m also very aware there are conservative dissenters out there who don’t like where things are headed and who criticize their own side. On this show, I wanted to hear from them. So I invited on David Frum. He’s the editor of the group blog from Forum, a former speechwriter for the George W. Bush White House and a widely published author, most recently of Comeback Conservatism That Can Win Again. In recent years, from has been a leading critic of today’s GOP and its allegiance with the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. Joining him on the show is Kenneth Silber, a frequent contributor to From Forum. Silver is a science writer based in New Jersey who contributes to research magazine, Scientific American and other outlets. He refers to himself as a, quote, center right to center a deviation ist apostle of the from me and heresy. And these days, a rhino Republican in name only.
David Frum, welcome to Point of Inquiry. Thank you.
Good to have you. And Kenneth Silber welcomes a point of inquiry. Nice to be here. I’m very glad to have both of you. This is a show that is of central interest to me and I consider to be a kind of getting some perspective show our listeners to point of inquiry, know that I’m politically liberal. I’ve criticized the Republican Party on science. This is well known. That’s pretty consistent with their views. We also have some libertarians, but most of all, our listeners really care about science, reason, critical thinking and ultimately reason based policymaking. And to the extent that they’re tilting left these days, one reason is because they see a correlation between not just denying evolution and the Republican Party or conservatism, but a lot of other issues now ranging from debt ceiling denial to my. My most recent favorite is incandescent light bulb availability, denial, claiming they’ve been banned, but they haven’t been banned. And you’ve covered all this on from forum. So I want to first ask you a really broad question in the last. David, first. Are we right, people who agree with me? Are we right to perceive that there’s some sort of departure from reality? A lot of it on the political right. And if we are right to perceive it, what is causing it?
I don’t know if this is the case where the situation is getting worse or whether the reporter reporting the situation is getting better. I had a chance just after Inauguration Day to meet the new director of public affairs for NASA and the Obama administration. And we’re on our way to a kid’s birthday party, as a matter of fact. And I asked him about his job and I said, you know what? What do people most want to know? He said, well, everywhere I go, the question I get asked most often is tell us about our Area 51.
And I think that’s that that’s still out there, by the way. He had a very good answer.
He said. Should I work for NEFA? Our budget is under constant pressure. Do you think if we had aliens frozen to the basement that we wouldn’t use that to leverage the most gigantic budget increase in the history of the U.S. budget? It’s what I think is different. What I think is different is the percolation of a kind of folk knowledge into surprisingly elite circumstances. I don’t think it was true a generation ago that the idea that nothing bad would happen if you didn’t pay your debts would rise to the level of the leadership in both houses of Congress. Where does this come from? I am inclined to think that the credible new stress and strain economically on American families is a big part of the reason. We’ve had a decade of slow growth, followed by then this half decade of economic crisis. And in times of hardship, people turn out, look for answers. And if the conventional elites have failed them, they look to other people who are more credible. After all, why should they believe all the people say they were the smartest people in the room? What those people are military leaders or economic leaders, financial leaders, political leaders, they really have failed very badly over the past decade and a half.
And Ken Silver, you’ve written about. You’ve written about a lot of scientific topics. You’ve written about global warming issue. You and I seem to agree it’s real. It’s human caused. I would say that if there was one number one topic where we have a complete divide over reality between the two parties, and I would even go further to say one of them is right, it’s global warming. How did this one happen?
How did it happen? Well, I would say it developed over time a few years ago, it did not look like there was going to be such a staunch opposition to the basic belief that global warming is happening and is human caused. On the right, we were seeing signs of moving away from that. But with the Tea Party and with the backlash against the Obama administration, that seems to be a an issue that’s been seized upon. And, of course, that climate gate pseudo scandal didn’t help matters.
And it’s amazing that climate gate somehow became the explanation for all resistance. And you didn’t even need to say anything else as long as you could say climate gate. It was pretty much the blanket refutation of everything that had ever been done scientifically on the topic.
And for me, it had some somewhat of the opposite effect of what it had for many conservatives, because I saw the reaction to the to the scandal that really had very little substance to it and realized that that reaction was wrong and started looking more skeptically at global warming skepticism. I had not been a climate change skeptic before that. But I was less less exercised by the issue until that. Until then.
Mm hmm. David, you you volunteered for Ronald Reagan. I read your bio koolade. You were very attractive Republican Party then. You still are a Republican and a conservative. But you didn’t think that these sorts of problems existed then.
On the contrary. One of the things that pulled a lot of people in my age cohort, and I was born in 1960 into the into conservatism and people born between 1960 in 1970, I think are the most Republican segment of the electorate, at least were until very recently. Maybe the old folks of the truly old folks or some sort of old have surpassed us. But from long time, we were the most pro-Republican. Was the idea actually that it was this kind of magical thinking was on the left. You found it was on the left that people believe that wage and price controls stopped inflation. It was on the left that people believed that jails did not stop crime, that that the power and how to put it back now. But the micro economic revolution, the discovery of the of the application of the rules of economics to all kinds of areas of why this was such an eye opening revelation in the late nineteen seventies and eighties. And when you heard it, it made sense in all of the kind of insistences that people like John Kenneth Galbraith. I remember an argument in the late 70s when it was possible for big company to go bankrupt and people in the thrall of John Kenneth Galbraith teaching insisted that a company like General Motors could never go bankrupt. It just had too much power. And we’ve seen that. That’s not true. That was the excitement of being on the right in those days. It was the power of new moad, new modes of analysis, jettisoning taboos, not being afraid. And following evidence and truth words seem to go in.
Would you say that? You know, if we could think of one, Icona, that would it be William F. Buckley? I mean, it seems to me like a sort of very, very intellectual conservative who spoke for so many people at that time.
Buckley was an iconic you know what? If I want to think of something that sort of sums up what was the mood of the time? Manning, Charlie Peters. And it’s still at it’s a small magazine called The Washington Monthly. And Peters had this joke about 1955 in 1976 that that he would he wanted to do was really shake off his liberal leaders by writing a cover story in his magazine with the headline Criminals Belong in Prison.
That would be so shocking.
Well, that was thing that we, the conservatives in those days were prepared to say things like if you keep people in prison longer, you’ll have less crime and let’s do the social science research that demonstrates that that is true. Those are the days Margaret Thatcher would say the facts of life are conservative. And we were not afraid of the facts. And we didn’t in those days seemed to feel the need for this terrible industry of what I call pretend information and pseudo facts and knowledge attraction that dominates a lot of the discourse on the right today, tragically.
And I will I will make some counter arguments about Reagan in the sense that I mean, you did see hints of a little bit of a.. Evolutionism. I think he made a couple remarks. I don’t think it was an as nearly as big of a thing as it is now. But at the same end, I guess I’ll I’ll direct this over to over. Kenneth, you had Reagan basically brokering or at joining the Montreal Protocol, the treaty to control chlorofluorocarbons, which depleted stratospheric ozone that arose in part B.
I’m sorry. Yeah, no, go ahead. That arose in part because that’s her that’s her background as as chemistry student actually made her inclined to take that issue seriously.
But I would also regarding Reagan, point to 1988, April two, 1988, radio address, where he defended very forcefully their federal role in basic scientific research and warned the public that budget constraints were endangering that role and that this was. One of the most practical and important things the government does. It’s inconceivable that, A, that a Republican leader would be doing that now, or at least it’s not happening at this moment.
I’ll direct this back over, David. I think you’ve written about this. I just dug up some tacit statistics Nora Hurley recently wrote for the American Prospect magazine, and I used them. And it’s a statistics are about how people with advanced degrees have been moving into the Democratic column. And one of them is 15 percent of U.S. liberals now hold an advanced degree, and that’s more than double as many did in the 1970s. And so liberals have many more of these than than conservatives do. Now, there’s been this kind of shift of intellectuals. You point out that the GOP wasn’t always wasn’t always driving away. So what happened here?
Well, it is a fascinating area to look at. And by the way, things may be a little bit in flux this year because of the terrible performance of the U.S. economy over the past three years and the very disappointing response of the Obama administration to that weak performance. So we may see some some shift. But to tell a story simply up until 1988, when we did exit polls, the question that the exit pollsters would ask is, do you have a college degree or more? Beginning in 1988, they began to separate out people with four year degrees from people with more than four year degrees. But even before 88, the rule of thumb was that people with PTSD that with a lot of higher education tended to be democratic for the good reason that a big portion of the 80s grabbed this country are in the field of education. That’s why I think the single largest area of graduate research. So those are people who are, you know, professional educators and that’s a Democratic constituency. But it was thought and you could see it in the charts after 88 people with between four and six years of higher education. So that’s BS. That’s MBA. That’s Boyer’s various kinds of professionals and managers that they trended Republican. And certainly people with four year degrees were overwhelmingly Republican in the 1980s. I think probably more than 20 points. We have seen so no surprise, the parties remain very democratic. But what we’ve seen is erosion for the Republicans in that four to six year group and erosion down to almost parity in the four year group, only four years. And in 19 2008, while John McCain still had a razor thin edge among whites with four year degrees outside the south. He lost even whites four year degrees. We had a piece on our site by by a very smart Norwegian economist who looked at some of the data, made the case that actually if you try to wait, those four year degrees buy quality, that Republicans had especially difficult task with people with four year degrees from more generally admired schools, more competitive schools where the Republican four year degree holder seemed to have worst degrees in the Democratic four year degree holders. That had a lot, I think, to do with the economic stagnation in the wages of college graduates in the 2000s. And that’s why I think we may see some change going into 2012. But it points to some troubling long term trends for Republicans as we become more of a knowledge economy.
And so you don’t agree with this idea that, you know, academia is as liberal bastion. Don’t trust what it has to say. It brainwashes you to the left. That’s not your view. You feel that you need the highly educated constituency.
Yeah, well, this is an offer, an explanation you often hear from conservatives while it’s about all these leftwing professors. But just remember, this is a country that’s been sending almost one third of its population into college. Most people who go to college are not studying feminist art history there. Most people say they are studying some form of commerce, marketing, some kind of business related qualification where and they’re not taking courses in anything very ideological. And while the professors may be more liberal than conservative academics, even in marketing and broadly more liberal and conservative. That’s not really what they’re there for. And and it is it’s hard to imagine that the universities are more liberal in 2008 than they were in 1988. So it just doesn’t pass to me the test. I tend to think that economic factors are very important here. And as Ken was saying, I mean, if you move from a world in which Republicans are a party that’s enthusiastic about funding, for example, basic scientific research to one, whether or not that’s going to have an impact on a lot of people’s livelihoods and hence their voting, this is all bad for the scientific community as well as for conservatives.
If I if half of the political spectrum basically is is hostile to science, that’s going to have a terrible fallout. And ultimately, it’s bad for liberals and people on the left, if they don’t have competent arguments to argue against, they will get intellectually flabby as well.
And I think it’s bad for the scientific community and in another way. I don’t really think it is. I didn’t cite the figure I could about the overwhelming Democratic affiliation and liberal politics of scientists, which you could use. Dismiss them.
He has a six six percent Republicans as the poll that I saw.
Yeah, it’s it’s incredible.
But but we still got to listen to them and these things change over time. I think going if you will, look back at the 50s, that would not have been the case.
No, I think that’s that’s a gigantic shift. Eisenhower talked about how he loved his scientists, and he was the one who created science advice in the White House during that time.
I mean, if you if you think back to for the enthusiasts of Cold War technology. A lot of those people would have been on the right. And certainly the 1960s new left had an antipathy for science and technology and and distanced itself at the very least from it.
And I want to bring that up again when we talk a little bit about the nuclear issue, which is kind of a test case for the left in science. But let me ask you, Ken, is something else. You know, if there’s one reason that we have differing realities is because we have echo chambers right now. Everybody points us out. And so, you know, conservatives have Limbaugh, they’ve got Fox News. And it’s been shown that if you watch Fox News, you believe in contested areas, you know, wrong things about global warming. You’re more likely to know you. Right. I’ve looked at, you know, the things you wrote for you’ve written for places like Scientific American. Would you agree with me? That when you’re writing for a publication like that, I mean, you really you can’t get a contested fact wrong in the same way that you can in some of these echo chambers. I mean, you’re gonna get fact checked. You’re going to get. You might make a mistake accidentally. But you’re gonna get a letter to the editor. You’re going to run a correction. You can’t be, you know, defensively wrong and stick to it.
Well, I I’m not sure it’s that airtight. I mean, of course, Scientific American is a popular level publication. It’s an excellent one. It’s not a peer reviewed publication. Even in the peer reviewed journals. I think it’s always possible to get something wrong. There are some gray areas. I think that the mistake many conservatives have made is contesting on facts where they are wrong as opposed to contesting on the interpretations and the policy implications. I think there is a case to be made, if not one that I make. But there is a case to be made that notwithstanding the evidence of global warming and that it’s anthropogenic causes, that we should not do anything because it’s too expensive or too ineffective or too inimical to freedom. I don’t think that’s a good argument, but it is an argument that could be defended, just as I think there’s a case to be made that that while the scientific evidence for evolution is overwhelming, we should not then extrapolate into into some particular set of political and philosophical positions based on that, such as such as Athie ism or or an adherence to evolutionary psychology. The trouble is that conservatives, instead of arguing on those interpretations, all too often are arguing on the facts when the facts are relatively easily shown to be false.
Right. And I you know, I had Michael Shermer on here and if you know him, but he’s a libertarian and he has taken the position that he accepts global warming, although he thinks not could be that bad. I kind of strongly disagree about that. But anyway, most of his reasons for not worrying that much are, you know, sort of more economically based arguments. And I can you know, I can do that dance. I’m fine with that dance. I wouldn’t accuse him of misinformation.
And by the way, you know that one of the things one of the things that one of the traditional services that conservatives have done to the world of ideas is to put a check on liberal enthusiasms. I mean, that to be the more skeptical party. I remember the ferocious debate that took place. An issue that once obsessed people as much as global warming does now. And that was the population explosion of the 1960s. William F. Buckley in a 19, one of the best things he ever did, a 1970 interview with Playboy, which is gathered in his collection of essays. And I really recommended it’s just a marvelous being. We will go with the collection. He accepted population explosion, as I think you should like the world’s number two problem after communism. Except that was exactly the moment when the trend lines were shifting. And although the global population has continued to rise, it’s rising at a much slower pace. And we now see it’s going to have an arc and and is visibly coming to an end. And it wasn’t as urgent a crisis as we thought it would be. And a lot of the conservative skepticism about it was very timely. And it would have it possible to waste a lot of resources trying to head off a problem that maybe was not as big as it was sold, because these things also become industries. And if conservatives were providing that service on global warming, say, do we know that it’s going to be so bad? We know that its effects are going to be so large. Are we quite sure that some of its effects won’t be benign? That would be a very. That is a classic role for the conservative policy. Intellectual or conservative? Scientific, intellectual. That’s a surface.
Let me ask you something else. And there’s this concept. Maybe you’ve heard of it. I guess I’ll direct this to David Counter expertize and in other words, are counter intellectuals that you have with not just you not just say a Fox News, but with with think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute, which you formerly were at.
This idea that, you know, we’re going to refute what liberal intellectuals say, but to what extent is that really an independent activity?
You know, that’s a that’s a powerful question. I think it used to be really quite independent. And since the economic crisis of 2008 has become less independent, I mean that you can’t you have no business going into the intellectual market to try to convince others unless you are willing to be convinced yourself. And if you begin from the point of view, I’m just not yield. No matter what the evidence is, I just will continue to say blah, blah, blah, and repeat talking points. And then you then, you know, you’re selling you’re not engaged in in a marketplace of ideas. And that has become a a worse problem, I think, for two reasons. One is the one you mentioned, which is the creation of whole alternative knowledge systems, alternative broadcasting companies, alternative publishing companies, and and this kind of the specialized kind of engagement that takes place from the Internet. It’s not that we’re completely siloed and are unaware of what other people say, but that we engage with others in a form of combat rather than the spirit of convincing and being events. But the second is conservatives face a real collective action problem. There are real consequences in the conservative world for people’s livelihoods to being on the wrong side of some question that has become conservative orthodoxy and even. Well, we see this very much in this debt debate. Even people question whether the overall conservative community is on the right path. Have to worry about what would happen if they are the first first to speak up.
Why? I mean, this is a hard question. I could go in the liberal and conservative psychology or something. But why would that be the case more? I mean, what is it?
Is it more more of a sense that you must be on the same team? Liberals cannot be on the same team. They’re just like they love attacking each other.
You know, Ken, why? I think a lot of better ideas about this. But, I mean, let me just throw a couple of them and then kick it over to him. I was a one is a conservative self-consciousness of being a minority in the world of ideas. And that that’s got a little bit of a connection, the world of conservative religiosity, because if you are an intensely committed Christian and especially an evangelical Christian, you do feel yourself kind of beleaguered in an intellectual world that’s not hospitable to you. And that feeling of isolation and victimization is and then spreads through the stone in tone and style of the whole conservative world. And it affects people in areas like economics where conservatives have no right to feel that way, where in fact they have the ascendancy. So I think I think that’s one thing. And the second is because of the historic weakness of the conservatives in getting positions in universities and other tenured positions of of intellectual life, they are much more economically dependent on places where their livelihoods are much more volatile and unpredictable, like like the think tank world. There’s no tenure think tanks, which is maybe which is potentially a good thing if the think tanks have a strong sense of intellectual integrity in their mission.
But if they don’t, it’s potentially that I would I would add that a number of the issues where there are tensions between between the scientific mainstream and liberals or the left are relatively low profile issues. Genetically modified organisms. There’s a tremendous scare about them. Generally speaking, the scientific community is not impressed by by that scare. But it’s not an issue that’s going to be in the headlines on it on a frequent basis or when John Edwards speaks out, how the Kerry Edwards administration is going to have embryonic stem cell policies that will enable the lame to walk and the blind to see and engages in the same kind of hyperbole, for that matter, that Obama spoke about, that Obama used when he spoke about the oceans stopping to rise. Those those things either are not going to get the same publicity or they are things where the scientific community will perhaps tacitly embrace a little bit of hyperbole that they see as being on their side. But certainly those statements went beyond what science would justify.
Mm hmm. I remember the John Edwards statement, and I do believe that I said something about it. How you can’t say that. So, you know, bully for me.
But when one was when John Edwards, John Edwards points to one of the ways in which the conservatives, again, have been on the right side of these questions, probably one of the most important places, conduits and sources of the spread of false scientific information into American life has been the plaintiff’s bar. That’s where the whole idea of vaccines was dangerous came from. Yes, that was historically a crank idea. It became a more mainstream idea when somebody goes, oh, my God, these pharmaceutical companies, they are big and rich. And if I can persuade 12 people that autism is caused by measles vaccine, I can be big and rich. That’s where I was. So that’s where John Edwards made his fortune by persuading people that childhood diseases that are clearly hereditary or acquired in the womb are caused by medical malpractise. He made a fortune convincing people of all untruths like that. And one of the big conservative ideas has been not allowing scientific theories to go to a jury. And on that, it has historically been Democrats and liberals who have been the other side at the state level saying no jury should decide. Judges can’t take judicial notice of scientific fact. That’s going to be up for juries.
I really appreciate you both taking me in this direction, because if if I want to remain open minded, if I want to be able to change my views on issues, I need to know where my blind spots are. And so I have tried to find topic areas where you can pit. Science in the left against each other and the left is doing something wrong. And one, you even come up with a theory thanks to having a guy Yale on this show named Dan Kahan, talking about the different moral values of liberals and conservatives.
And he said the liberals are basically egalitarian and communitarian. So what that means is if you find some science that goes in the face of one of those values, then that’s where they’re most likely to distort it. And so Communitarian is worrying about harm, you know, across the population. So an environmental issue where they perceive harm, they might exaggerate the science. Egalitarian is perceiving that we’re all equal. If there’s some scientific issue, like, for example, when E.O. Wilson was attacked for sociobiology, you know, that was coming from the left because it seemed to hint to people that were not all equal in some way. So those seem to be the blindspots. I guess that would be my theory.
I know there are others there. And it wasn’t that long ago that postmodernism and post structuralism in the academic left was taking up the cardinals against going to science as a bastion of male white privilege and and something that scientists basically agree on rather than rather than any having any relationship to objective truth. That particular academic fad seems to be fading. But it only shows that we’re living in a moment, whereas a gap between the right and science is larger than the gap between the left and science. Not that those things are stable over time.
No, no, they’re not. That issue did fade. And so we used to you know, we the community of science reason, we like to style ourselves. We used to we used to whale on the postmodernists. And now it’s like, you know, why bother anymore? They’ve defeated themselves. We already brought a vaccines. And I guess that would be a left wing blind spot. Except that, you know, I’ve tried to find polling data and it seems to be not exactly partizan. It seems to be more across the range of politics. And then there’s, you know, nuclear, where there’s this long tradition of, you know, resisting nuclear power. And it’s it’s put, you know, a lot of people on the left at odds with scientists. The thing about that is, though, is actually, you know, mainstream Democratic Party is not anti-nuclear today. So I’m having trouble finding that many that are really screaming howlers today.
Well, I would say that if you want to find where do we blame the left? I mean, the single most identified movement is the commitment to allow juries to make scientific decisions in cases in civil litigation. If you want to do one thing to raise his level of scientific literacy in society, I would be it would it would be to fix that. And that would be a huge contributor also to social social efficiency. I mean, it should not be the case that it’s somewhere in some jurisdictions we think that birth defects are caused by medical malpractise and in other cases we would accept them as genetic. You know, the science has to be the science across the whole country, the whole world.
I would add, if we have a moment that on the on the light bulb issue that you referred to earlier, I don’t think that is at all a cut and dried issue where one side is is deploying facts and the other side is obscuring them. I think we’ve seen misstatements on both sides. If one if one side’s argument is that raising the energy standards for light bulbs is a thing that can be done without costs and trade offs and limitations. That is just as wrong as suggesting that this is the imposition of light bulb tyranny on America.
Okay, well, fair enough. Look, let me let me conclude by just asking you both to respond to a story, a story that I told. That’s why it’s it’s on my mind about someone who changed parties. Longtime Republican became a Democrat recently. It’s a guy named Kerry Emanuel. He is a leading meteorologist at M.I.T. He’s a climate scientist as well. He studies hurricanes, but he studies the climate system. He knows he has global warming is human caused, and he teaches his students in his department to do all the calculations that show this right. And he tell he’s a longtime Republican, you know, talking about how the left was so out of control in the 60s and 70s that turned him to the right. Something by 2008 had made him cease to be a longtime Republican who voted for the first time for Barack Obama.
And he told me that it was because he was fed up with attacks on science. How do you get somebody like that back to your side?
Well, I think it requires a thick skin.
I think some farm is doing a good job of being a conservative bastion of criticism of other conservative, and that gets a lot of backlash and and it’s worth doing.
Yeah, I was a bit thin. And I think cancer that I think one of the most powerful shapers of people’s political experience is the general success of the United States under one president or another. And there will be as Americans, you know, I’m not an Obama basher and I just recognize the difficulties that he’s labored under and a lot of them inherited. But as Americans cope with the question of whether or not this president is up for this job within his party has come up with the right answers for these very grave problems, that that creates an opening for the right kind of Republican to get a hearing. And if Republicans do things like nominate the right kinds of politicians, if those politicians, should they win, show themselves open to scientific expertize, should they deliver success and results? I think the situation can be turned around and certainly at the at the state and local level where we have debates over do we test in schools or not? Do we? Well, how do we how do we do civil litigation? I think conservatives there can make a lot of good points about the power of their ideas. If you’ve got facts on your side, it’s not a good idea to get extra facts by making them up. Stick with the facts you’ve got.
Well, on that note, you know, or a thank you both, David Frum and Kenneth Silber for being with us on a really different and I think really, really fascinating episode of Point of Inquiry. Thank you. Thank you. Chris.
I want to thank you for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry. To get involved in a discussion about the U.S. political right and science, please visit our online forums by going to center for inquiry dot net slash forums and then clicking on point of inquiry. The views expressed on point of inquiry aren’t necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor of its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on this show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry. Talk.
Point of inquiry is produced by Atomizing and Amara’s, New York, and our music is composed by Emmy Award winning Michael Waylan. His show also featured contributions from Debbie Goddard. I’m your host, Chris Mooney.