Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Liberal experts, conservative saints

The IDolators at ARN quote Curtis Dahlgren quoting Denis Prager:
The left believes in 'experts.' The liberal is bowled over by the title 'Nobel laureate.' The conservative is more likely to wonder why a Nobel laureate in physics has anything more meaningful to say about [issues] than, let us say, a taxi driver.
Now, let's set aside the validity of the claim that the right does not care for acquired knowledge. They believe the truth was revealed to Saint Reagan during his sojourn in the wilderness of Hollywood. Set aside, too, the observation that a system in which we place our confidence in people who have demonstrated expertise is the definition of a meritocracy, something conservatives often give lip service to.

I want to point out that Dahlgren (and ARN by extension) is playing fairly loose with that quotation. After all, Dahlgren is writing about ID, and about the article Dr. Myers was rightly unhappy with. And that's why the IDolators quoted it. So you'd think that Prager must have been suggesting that we shouldn't trust physicists to talk about scientific issues. Thus we'd be facing a world in which physicists and taxi drivers are equally credible in their assessment of string theory, or more importantly, the merits of IDC.

But what did Prager actually write?

In a Townhall.com essay dismissing global warming (conservatives don't believe in it, so it's just partisan fearmongering), Prager offers several theories about why "Liberals" dismiss "conservatives and their positions." Hint: it isn't because we on "The Left" critically analyze evidence and reach our own conclusions. Only clear-headed dissemblers like Ann Coulter can do that.

The Left believes in experts. Of course, every rational person, liberal or conservative, trusts the expertise of experts -- such as when experts in biology explain the workings of mitochondria, or when experts in astronomy describe the moons of Jupiter. But for liberals, "expert" has come to mean far more than greater knowledge in a given area. It now means two additional things: One is that non-experts should defer to experts not only on matters of knowledge, but on matters of policy, as well. The second is that experts possess greater wisdom about life, not merely greater knowledge in their area of expertise.

That is why liberals are far more likely to be impressed when a Nobel Prize winner in, let us say, physics signs an ad against war or against capital punishment.
The liberal is bowled over by the title "Nobel laureate." The conservative is more likely to wonder why a Nobel laureate in physics has anything more meaningful to say about war than, let us say, a taxi driver.
The bolded text somehow disappeared without ellipsis in the quotation above. Funny how the meaning shifts dramatically when you acknowledge that biologists are qualified to speak about the merits of biological ideas. Besides which, "war" and even "matters of policy" are not the same as "issues."

Global warming is an issue. In fact, it's several issues. One issue is whether human actions are causing the Earth's atmosphere to warm up more than it would due to natural processes. That is a scientific issue, one that climate scientists have evaluated and come to a fairly uniform consensus on. Naomi Oreskes' famous study found no peer-reviewed research papers rejecting the consensus position that human activities are increasing the Earth's temperature. Such rejections may exist, but cannot be commonplace (or she and others would have found them to be abundant).

Prager, a radio host, is not qualified to reject that scientific consensus, and he seems prepared to admit that (sort of). He's right that it's silly to think that physicists know more about war than other worldly people, though it should be noted of that statement: "The signers, all men, include a number who at one time or another have advised the federal government or played important roles in national security. Among them are Hans A. Bethe, an architect of the atom bomb; Walter Kohn, a former adviser to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency at the Pentagon; Norman F. Ramsey, a Manhattan Project scientist who readied the Hiroshima bomb and later advised NATO; and Charles H. Townes, former research director of the Institute for Defense Analyses at the Pentagon and chairman of a federal panel that studied how to base the MX missile and its nuclear warheads." Are people who "played an important role in national security" more qualified to comment on national security than a taxi driver is?

Not if Saint Ronnie was acting as a John the Baptist for the Right's new Messiah, G. W. Bush. Sure, his support is peeling off now, but Jesus' apostles denied him, too. Facts only matter when they agree with the right-wing's pre-existing decision.

On climate change, there is a second issue, beyond the scientific consensus that it's happening. There is the issue of what to do. The right clearly wants to do nothing. The easiest way to justify doing nothing is to deny that there's anything happening, and that means downplaying the science showing that humans are causing climate change. But there are other ways. They could say that they don't care about the world around us. They could insist that rising oceans will just give a few more people beachfront properties. They could say that the cost of a particular solution (carbon tax, gas tax, Kyoto, building wind farms, developing cellulosic ethanol) is too great given the marvelous consequences of climate change. And on the issue of what to do, climate scientists are no more qualified to comment than other people with experience and expertise in the issues at hand, a category which could well include politicians and pundits.

This meshes with another interesting trend. For reasons passing understanding I was paging through Global Political Campaigning: A Worldwide Analysis of Campaign Professionals and Their Practices by Fritz Plasser, Gunda Plasser and I was struck by a table on the degree to which professionalism was something campaign advisors seek in a Congressional candidate. In other nations, some sort of political experience and background ranked fairly high on the list of things campaign pros think is important. In the US, it ranked near the bottom, well below the ability to raise money and how mediagenic the candidate was. Ability to speak to a crowd, charisma, and grasp of the issues also ranked lower in the US than in other countries.

I'm genuinely torn over that result. While I'd rather have issue competence than TV looks, and I like the idea of a Congress that turns over often enough that politicians actually have to work to hold their seat, I also think that politics, like any other human endeavor worth effort, is a field where expertise matters. Our current Congress, run by a wrestling coach, a surgeon and an exterminator (until the bug zapper got indicted for corrupt behavior), has managed to accomplish nothing of actual consequence in two years. They could use a few professionals to help them get things done. But they're conservatives, and experts don't count with them.