The Politicization of Evolution

Between my original post about how to punish creationist politicians and ScienceBlogling Greg’s discussion, several readers commented that I was making this a political issue. Quite simply, I am not the only doing that: the Republican theopolitical conservative base is. The issue is, do we fight back, or lose due to their political power?

The creationists might not be able to defeat the reality of the existence of evolution, but they can defeat every effort to teach and study that reality. So, like it or not, evolution has become a political issue, and it must not only be taught in classroom but defended in the corridors of power. I don’t like it any more than anyone else, but there’s no choice in the matter–that’s why we need to develop strategies, including legislative ones, that reward pro-science legislators and punish anti-science ones.
That brings me to another point, and one that I think subtly underlies the complaint: politics is not inherently bad. Politics is how we decide things. Forget about creationism for a minute. Suppose there were a new funding initiative that would fund research on E. coli and Drosophila, but the amounts spent on each organism had not been decided. Ultimately, this would be decided by a political process. Hopefully, the process would be informed by scientific arguments, but many arguments, taken at face value, would be equivalent (my colleagues are very, very tricksy). One person might decide to be Solomonic, and split the funding 50-50. Someone else might argue that the funding should reflect the frequency of proposals for each organism. Others would argue that the ‘underrepresented’ organism should receive disproportionately more money to encourage research on that organism. No doubt, opponents would argue that the ‘predominant’ organism should receive even more money in order to capitalize on the critical mass in that field.
To anyone who has ever been involved in funding decisions and battles, this will sound painfully familiar. While part of the decision will be based on science, another part will be based on pure politicking: a scientist knows an influential decision maker, someone’s district has an infectious disease center (i.e., works on E. coli), or organizes other scientists (and non-scientists) to exert more effective pressure.
The reason I use this example is because it doesn’t contain trigger words (except for the microbiologists and drosophilists). And, honestly, in the hypothetical example, all of the arguments could be legitimate ones (although I’m biased towards E. coli). Now, apply it to the evolution ‘controversy’, and it becomes painfully obvious just how important politics are.
There’s no science fairy–most of the research discussed on ScienceBlogs involves federal funding. That means politics. That’s not a necessarily a bad thing, unless scientists (and other pro-science citizens) choose to ignore the political process.

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5 Responses to The Politicization of Evolution

  1. SabrinaW says:

    Good post – this is a growing issue that has been bothering me a lot. Finding an appropriate line between politics and science (or any profession with a base of expertise) is nebulous, but I think that the distinction ought to lie between the usage of information and knowledge, and the recognition as fact of that information. With the former, it is reasonable to recognize that there are funding and time limitations that restrict our application of ideas developed by professions (we can only pass so many laws in a year or fund so many research projects at a time). But the latter is Lysenkoism – where the findings of recognized experts are called into question because the information contradicts political agendas and presents uncomfortable challenges to social doctrines. But doing this undermines the integrity and contributions of professions; what we are seeing today is people questioning medical findings (gag rules against contraception education), hiding safety studies (the FAA study withheld from the public for economic reasons), and certain types of scientific research promoted as “the best scientific option” not because it is scientifically better, but politically more palatable. This type of deception has no place in the free world.

  2. SteveG says:

    Agree whole heartedly. Indeed, I argued similarly the other day. The empirical support for ID creationism has not been a scientific question since the 19th century and has not re-emerged as one recently. It is a political question and to respond to it in a scientific fashion is to fall into the trap. It makes it appear to those outside the conversation as if a scientific controversy is going on and that appearance serves the political purpose of the creationists because then we look like we’re trying to play unfairly. The political question is based on appearances, not fact and when we don’t expose it as a base, crass political play, we lose. What Barbara Forrest did so effectively in Dover (and her book) was not to discuss the science, but to unmask it as a bald, brazen political move on the part of anti-science special interests.

  3. Jason Failes says:

    “The creationists might not be able to defeat the reality of the existence of evolution, but they can defeat every effort to teach and study that reality.”
    We need to drive home that denying evolution after DNA is like denying E=mc^2 after the atomic bomb went off….
    …oh, and also voting en masse for only pro-science candidates wouldn’t hurt either.

  4. Dave FInn says:

    Political input into evolution is inevitable as there is astonishingly little real scientific input to the issue. Darwin is, rightly, respected for pointing out that the requirements for natural evolution are a source of genetic change and filtering using the exigencies of survival and reproduction. He also, correctly, pointed out that there was a source of genetic change in natural variation so that there is a natural evolutionary process. He also, correctly, pointed out that natural variation plus natural selection does not match real world data very well. Given a natural evolutionary mechanism a movement arose proclaiming that this was the one and only true religion about the origin of species. To describe Darwinists as economical with the truth is an understatement – most of the accounts of evolution I have read are marketing documents with the occasional favourable data trumpeted loudly and the unfavourable data pushed as far as possible out of sight. Neo-Darwinian evolution is based on random change and there are many different meanings given to the term “random”. The religious/philosophical meanings relate to the absence of plan/cause/rationality. The scientific meanings relate to conformity to rules of probability. If you take neo-Darwinism as a theory that states that if genetic changes are taken to be random with the distribution implied by the “principles of neo-Darwinian evolution” then then you wind up with a scientific theory that is correctly formulated, testable and false. It is obvious from the correspondence on evolution that it is the religious meanings of random that are important to Darwinists. Since Darwinists absolutely refuse to allow their religious view of randomness to be subject to scientific rules of proof and disproof there is no scientific mechanism to resolve the issue.
    If you turn the issue around and ask what statistical rules the evolution of species actually follow and look for biological mechanisms that fit those observed statistics and not a religious notion of randomness then it is a trivially easy matter to obtain a natural theory of evolution of species that fits the data and does not require immense amounts of explaining away of contradictory data. It is merely a case of identifying the correct source of genetic variation. Granted, such a theory violates many of the “principles of neo-Darwinism” but those principles are based on navel-gazing, not scientific data, and there can be no scientific justification for retaining them as statements about evolution (although they remain as a definition of the subset of evolution that is neo-Darwinian). The great advantage of a correct theory is that the arithmetic works. If you compete with Creationism with a false, religious, theory incorrectly claimed to be scientific then you have to expect a strong opposition. Switch to a scientifically correct theory and they do not have a leg to stand on – all you need to do is smile sweetly and say “here are our calculations, may we see yours, come back when you have some”.

  5. Jo Presse says:

    I get your point, but keep this in mind: The fight to keep creationism out of the schools has only barely involved the simple fact that “evolutionary biology” is acceptable and creationism is not. Had there not been a First Amendment Issue there would not have been ACLU legal teams pulling our nuts out of the fire. It would be nice to win on the basis of truth, but so far we have not won anything on that basis (though it has been a factor)

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