In its latest cover story, the conservative Weekly Standard has decided to try to refute, outside of the scientific literature, the large body of research on the psychological underpinnings of political ideology (summarized in my book The Republican Brain). The critique, written by Andrew Ferguson, fails badly, in part because it is highly selective at best. Details here.
But what’s particularly interesting is how Ferguson handles the overwhelming evidence of modern day conservative science denial. The basic answer is that he trivializes it. There’s really just one sentence on the matter in his article, and it’s pretty mystifying:
[Mooney’s] list of [conservative] false claims is instructive. Along with the usual hillbilly denials of evolution and global warming, they include these, to grab a quick sample: that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2009 will increase the deficit, cut Medicare benefits, and lead to the death panels that Sarah Palin hypothesized….
Ferguson then goes on to try to defend some of these false claims. He even manages to stand up for “death panels,” which was PolitiFact’s 2009 “lie of the year”!
But notably, Ferguson does nothing to defend evolution denial or global warming denial–or to suggest that conservative science critics are actually factually right in these areas.
So what, precisely, is going on here? Is The Weekly Standard saying that it is “hillbilly” to deny global warming and evolution, and it is too smart a publication for such nonsense? That seems unlikely, for reasons I’ll explain below.
Or alternatively, is Ferguson suggesting that I’m saying that such beliefs are “hillbilly”? But that doesn’t make sense either—if only because I’m certainly saying no such thing.
I know, I know–it can be tough to figure out what conservatives intellectuals are saying sometimes. But let's try to make sense of this.
First, note that The Weekly Standard itself publishes attacks on climate science. See this 2010 article from Stephen Hayward, about “ClimateGate.” It starts like this:
It is increasingly clear that the leak of the internal emails and documents of the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in November has done for the climate change debate what the Pentagon Papers did for the Vietnam war debate 40 years ago—changed the narrative decisively. Additional revelations of unethical behavior, errors, and serial exaggeration in climate science are rolling out on an almost daily basis, and there is good reason to expect more.
Or see this article by Matthew Continetti, leading with out-and-out science denial:
Will An Inconvenient Truth go down as one of the most ironically titled films in the history of American cinema? It just might, as the “consensus” that human activity is primarily responsible for global warming slowly falls apart under its own weight….
And as for evolution? Well, The Weekly Standard circa 2006 was criticizing the teaching of “orthodox Darwinism” in schools, albeit in an article that also contained criticisms of “intelligent design.” It was kind of a “balanced” piece (in a scientific area where journalistic balance is totally inappropriate). The magazine has also published David Klinghoffer, of the anti-evolutionist Discovery Institute.
So The Weekly Standard itself has fostered various forms of conservative science denial, albeit of a relatively genteel variety. It’s pretty dubious, then, that it is calling such views “hillbilly.”
But what to make of this “hillbilly” claim, then? Is it some kind of odd paraphrase of me?
I’ve never suggested that conservative science denial is “hillbilly” or anything of the kind. And it’s not just that I find the word insulting and derogatory.
As I’ve noted repeatedly, such denial is often quite intellectually sophisticated (a lot like the Weekly Standard folks). Indeed, I have repeatedly highlighted the research showing that more educated conservatives in aggregate are in stronger denial about global warming than less educated ones—what I’ve called the “smart idiot effect” (a phrase that is having something of a career out there).
What’s more, national polling data suggests that both kinds of science denial—of evolution, and of climate change–are highly pervasive in the Republican Party and the Tea Party. This hardly suggests they are confined to some small fringe part of the population. See for instance this September 2011 survey, finding that
Less than 1-in-5 Republicans (18%) and Tea Party members (18%) believe that climate change is caused by human activity, compared to 60% of Democrats.
More than 6-in-10 political independents (61%) and Democrats (64%) affirm a belief in evolution, compared to 45% of Republicans and 43% of Americans who identify with the Tea Party.
So in calling science denial “hillbilly,” I'm still not quite sure what the Weekly Standard is trying to say. My sense, though, is that it’s a very misleading paraphrase of my own argument, spat back at me in unrecognizable form.
But here’s one thing I do know: The Weekly Standard thinks of itself as an intellectually influential and thoughtful conservative publication. Yet it has published articles that undermine science on global warming; and now it has launched a baseless attack on the science of political ideology. This definitely isn’t “hillbilly”—not a term I would use anyway–but, well…it does look a lot like sophistication.