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Science and the Republican Brain

Monday, April 30, 2012

The so-called Republican brain, with its deep resistance to yielding before mere scientific evidence, has played an indispensable role in the making of modern science, long before the emergence of the Grand Old Party.

A new term of political opprobrium has been loosed upon the world: anti-science. Like many terms of abuse, it is easier to convey its meaning by an illustration than by a rigorous definition. For example, “If those damn Republicans weren’t so anti-science, we might have a chance of dealing with global warming.” Here’s another example: “Those damn Republicans are so anti-science that they want to see creationism taught in schools.”

As these two examples show, anti-science is a phenomenon that is mainly found among Republicans. Indeed, according to Chris Mooney’s new book, The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science—and Reality, the Republican penchant for denying science is so pronounced and marvelous a phenomenon that in order to grasp it we must turn to the latest revelations of neuroscience.

The source of the problem, Mooney tells us, lies in the Republican brain itself. It is not that Republicans have smaller brains. Their brains can be just as big as or even bigger than those possessed by Democrats. But Republicans are hard-wired to have an insatiable craving for certitude. They ferociously resist any evidence that might force them to change their deep-seated convictions. Liberals, on the other hand, are more open-minded and tolerant of uncertainty, just like scientists themselves.

The history of science teaches us that the scientific consensus of today is no more immune to future scientific revolutions than the scientific consensus of the past.

You don’t need rocket science—or neuroscience, for that matter—to get the gist of Mooney’s argument. Conservatives wouldn’t be conservatives if they liked change; liberals wouldn’t be liberal unless they did. This neatly explains why conservatives hate to change their minds, while liberals simply love to. Indeed, some liberals have changed their minds on so many issues so often that they finally got sick and tired of it all and have turned into conservatives from simple exhaustion.

Yet even if all this is true, what does it have to do with science? Does the mere refusal to change your mind make you anti-science?

Consider the case of Charles Darwin. He refused to change his mind about his theory of natural selection even when the greatest physicist of his day, Lord Kelvin, offered irrefutable evidence that the earth simply could not have been as old as Darwin’s theory required it to be. In the face of this overwhelming fact, did Darwin do the liberal thing and change his mind? No. He held on tenaciously to his hopelessly discredited theory, another tragic victim of Republican brain syndrome.

It is irrelevant that Lord Kelvin’s irrefutable evidence turned out to be not so irrefutable. Darwin’s theory was saved by the discovery of nuclear energy, but Darwin could not have anticipated that any more than Lord Kelvin could. By challenging the scientific consensus of his day, Darwin’s persistence in arguing for his pet theory might be put forward as a flagrant example of anti-science.

By challenging the scientific consensus of his day, Darwin’s persistence in arguing for his pet theory might be put forward as a flagrant example of anti-science.

Indeed, we can take this one step further. If anti-science means challenging the scientific consensus of one’s own epoch, then all the great scientists of the past have been anti-science. As the historian and philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn has demonstrated, every scientific revolution begins by overturning the dominant scientific paradigm of its time. According to Kuhn, those who adhere to the old paradigm never actually change their minds. Instead, they (and their Republican brains) simply die off, making place for the followers of the new paradigm, who will cling with Republican brain tenacity to the new scientific creed.

Needless to say, this is not the popular image of how scientists behave, but one main purpose of Kuhn’s ground-breaking work was to shatter the unsophisticated ideas about science and the scientific method that are prevalent in our pop culture, and to which Chris Mooney appeals in his book. A willingness to change your mind because the facts have changed may be an admirable quality, but, fortunately for us all, this is not how real scientists have behaved.

Of course, simply challenging the dominant scientific paradigm of the day does not necessarily make you a great scientist. It may simply make you a crackpot. Every inventor of a perpetual motion machine, for example, is trying to disprove Lord Kelvin’s laws of thermodynamics, just as today’s creationists are intent on disproving Darwin. Surely we are entitled to call such crackpots anti-science, aren’t we?

This is certainly tempting, but there is a serious problem with classifying all crackpots as anti-science. More than once in the history of science, the crackpot of one generation has been hailed as a visionary by the next. Indeed, during the seminal period marked by a major paradigm shift, it is often impossible to distinguish the pseudo-scientific crackpot from the genuine scientific revolutionary.

If anti-science means challenging the scientific consensus of one’s own epoch, then all the great scientists of the past have been anti-science.

Take the example of Johannes Kepler, who was both. During his lifetime, Kepler was courted by the high and mighty for his mastery of the arcane pseudo-science of astrology. It is hard to get more anti-science than that. Yet today Kepler is honored as one of the most important contributors to the advance of modern astronomy, though, even in this respect, Kepler remained a bit of a crackpot. To understand his ambiguous role, we must first go back to Copernicus and his great scientific revolution.

When Copernicus made his daring conjecture placing the sun at the center of the then known universe, he had only half-dispelled the old Ptolemaic paradigm. Copernicus made the earth revolve around the sun, along with the other planets, but he could not shake off the Platonic fixation with perfect circles that had been embodied in the Ptolemaic system. In Copernicus’s new astronomy, the earth and planets might revolve around the sun, but they still had to revolve in perfect circles. The reason for this seemed quite obvious at the time. Because there was an infinite number of different oval shapes, God, the designer of the universe, had no reason to pick one particular oval shape over another. He would have needed to resort to a process that involved arbitrary choice, for example, by going “eeny, meeny, miny, moe” among the possible elliptical orbits. But for Copernicus, just as for Einstein, God did not play dice. Therefore, God would stick to perfect circles, since this was the only rational choice He could make.

Kepler disagreed. It was not that he thought God played dice, any more than Copernicus did. There was still an intelligent design behind the orbit of the planets, but it was not quite as obvious as everyone had supposed. Going back again to Plato, Kepler discovered that the key to deciphering the mystery of the cosmos lay not in perfect circles, but in three-dimensional polyhedrons known as Platonic solids: The octahedron, the icosahedron, the dodecahedron, the tetrahedron, and the cube. These were the ideal models that God had relied upon in laying down the orbits of the then known planets.

You don’t have to understand anything about polyhedrons in order to sense that there was something a bit crackpot in Kepler’s reasoning. After all, we are taught that scientists are supposed to look at empirical evidence, not attempt to fathom the inner workings of the mind of God. Yet historians of science recognize that Kepler’s far-fetched theorizing marked an enormous breakthrough. Having broken the spell of the perfect circle, the path was now open to permitting the planets to revolve around the sun in different ellipses. Modern astronomy was finally up and running, thanks to Kepler’s crackpot polyhedrons.

More than once in the history of science, the crackpot of one generation has been hailed as a visionary by the next.

The importance of this step cannot be overestimated. Before Kepler, the Copernican revolution seemed doomed to failure. This was not simply because the Church opposed it, but because it flunked the first challenge that a new scientific theory must face in order to gain general acceptance: It must explain and predict observable phenomena better than its rival. When it came to predicting eclipses and other signal astronomical data, however, the old Ptolemaic system, with its elaborate multitude of epicycles, did a better job than the Copernican model. If good scientists are supposed to change their minds when confronted with evidence that goes against their own theory, then the proponents of the Copernican system should have changed theirs. But they didn’t. Like Darwin, they held on tenaciously to their preferred model, despite the scientific evidence against it.

In short, the so-called Republican brain, with its deep resistance to yielding before mere scientific evidence, has played an indispensable role in the making of modern science, long before the emergence of the Grand Old Party in 1856. This fact, however, has been obscured for most of us because of the way in which we learn science in our classrooms.

As children, we are able to make quick progress in mastering science because we can skip over all the mistakes and errors that scientists have made in the past. We can ignore the messy history of science and go directly to the latest scientific consensus without retracing the circuitous path by which it was ultimately obtained. This approach has obvious pedagogical advantages, but it can also lead to an erroneous view of science as a finished product, instead of an endlessly evolving project.

Modern astronomy was finally up and running, thanks to Kepler’s crackpot polyhedrons.

To see the difference this makes, imagine two different classrooms. In the first, the children are introduced to the fabulous Mr. Scientific Truth. The teacher explains that Mr. Scientific Truth has never once been wrong in his whole life, and that every word that drops from his mouth is true beyond any conjecture of doubt. In the second class, the children are introduced to Mr. Latest Scientific Consensus. The teacher explains that Mr. Latest Scientific Consensus has been wrong over and over again, and even now, he is still not at all confident that he has gotten all the right answers. While there are some truths that he is pretty sure of, there are others about which he cannot quite make up his mind. Furthermore, Mr. L. S. Consensus is subject to having fits in which he completely reverses his previous opinion, a recurrent malady known as paradigm shifting, so that it is entirely possible that he may come back tomorrow and tell you that everything he taught the day before was wrong.

Now, if you were a child with an innate craving for certitude, would you rather be taught by Mr. Scientific Truth, whose every word could be trusted, or Mr. Latest Scientific Consensus, who is forever changing his mind? Obviously, you would want Mr. Scientific Truth. But what if someone suggested that Mr. Latest Scientific Consensus was the better teacher, precisely because he was not so cocksure of himself? No doubt you would take great offense at such a statement. You might even decide to use the harsh epithet of “anti-science” to describe someone who questioned the authority of Mr. Scientific Truth.

It would be unfair to say that only liberals (or Democrats) are taken in by the extravagant claims of Mr. Scientific Truth, but the moment you hear someone attacked for being anti-science, you can be certain that the person making this charge is a true believer in the teachings of that rank charlatan, Mr. Scientific Truth. Belief in the infallibility of the latest scientific consensus may be useful in the process of learning about science when we are children, but the history of science teaches us that the scientific consensus of today is no more immune to future scientific revolutions than the scientific consensus of the past. To label as anti-science anyone who is skeptical of the current scientific consensus may be a clever political stunt, but it betrays a hopelessly naïve idea of the nature of science. The real enemy of science is not the skeptic, but the true believer.

Lee Harris is the author of The Next American Civil War, Civilization and Its Enemies, and The Suicide of Reason.

FURTHER READING: Harris also writes “Why ObamaCare Has Proved a Hard Sell,” “More than Just Broccoli: The Real Slippery Slope of ObamaCare’s ‘Must-Buy’ Provision,” and “Double Talk about Double Standards.” Michael Barone says “Colleges Skimp on Science, Spend Big on Diversity.” Jon Entine discusses “Killing Drilling With Farcical 'Science'” and “Geoengineering: Crackpot Capitalism or Climate-Saving Science?

Image by Rob Green / Bergman Group

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