Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Fact-free science and collective behavior

I've read a couple of articles this morning that seem, rather scarily, to fit together. First, there's Fact-Free Science by Judith Warner in The New York Times Magazine:
President Obama has made scientific innovation the cornerstone of his plans for “winning the future,” requesting in his recent budget proposal large financing increases for scientific research and education and, in particular, sustained attention to developing alternative energy sources and technologies. “This is our generation’s Sputnik moment,” he declared in his State of the Union address last month.

It would be easier to believe in this great moment of scientific reawakening, of course, if more than half of the Republicans in the House and three-quarters of Republican senators did not now say that the threat of global warming, as a man-made and highly threatening phenomenon, is at best an exaggeration and at worst an utter “hoax,” as James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the ranking Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, once put it. These grim numbers, compiled by the Center for American Progress, describe a troubling new reality: the rise of the Tea Party and its anti-intellectual, anti-establishment, anti-elite worldview has brought both a mainstreaming and a radicalization of antiscientific thought.

The politicization of science isn’t particularly new; the Bush administration was famous for pressuring government agencies to bring their vision of reality in line with White House imperatives. In response to this, and with a renewed culture war over the very nature of scientific reality clearly brewing, the Obama administration tried to initiate a pre-emptive strike earlier this winter, issuing a set of “scientific integrity” guidelines aimed at keeping the work of government scientists free from ideological pollution. But since taking over the House of Representatives, the Republicans have packed science-related committees with lawmakers who refute such basic findings as the reality of global warming and the threats of climate change. Fred Upton, the head of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has said outright that he does not believe that global warming is man-made. John Shimkus of Illinois, who also sits on the committee — as well as on the Subcommittee on Energy and Environment — has said that the government doesn’t need to make a priority of regulating greenhouse-gas emissions, because as he put it late last year, “God said the earth would not be destroyed by a flood.”

Whoever emerges as the Republican presidential candidate in 2012 will very likely have to embrace climate-change denial. Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty and Mike Huckabee, all of whom once expressed some support for action on global warming, have notably distanced themselves from these views. Saying no to mainstream climate science, notes Daniel J. Weiss, a senior fellow and director of climate strategy for the Center for American Progress, is now a required practice for Republicans eager to play to an emboldened conservative base. “Opposing the belief that global warming is human-caused has become systematic, like opposition to abortion,” he says. “It’s seen as another way for government to control people’s lives. It’s become a cultural issue.”

Warner argues that being anti-science was originally a left-wing position. That might be true. The idea that there are no objective facts, and that science is just one way of looking at the world, no better than any other interpretation, tends to be associated with the left, I think. And certainly, there's still plenty of pseudoscience on the left these days (although, to my mind, it pales in comparison to the scientific ignorance on the right).

But what's really frightening is that this has become part of the right's "tribal identity." Even Republican leaders who aren't completely batshit crazy about these things have to pretend to be batshit crazy. It's a badge of identity to be scientifically ignorant, and indeed, openly, boastfully so.

Why is that? Well, this article in The Economist argues that groups do better when their members are ignorant. The research is about herds, flocks, or swarms of animals - in particular, schools of fish. The group stays cohesive, and can move together as one, because the individuals in the group are mostly ignorant about what's happening outside the group.

The individuals in the group simply follow their neighbors. When one fish reacts, perhaps because it senses food or a predator, the others react. However, it's important that most of the group stay ignorant about what's actually going on. Otherwise, they'll start to react differently and the group will split, or even fall apart.

The implication is clear:
If the models are anything to go by, the best outcome for the group—in this case, not being eaten—seems to depend on most members’ being blissfully unaware of the world outside the shoal and simply taking their cue from others. This phenomenon, Dr Couzin argues, applies to all manner of organisms, from individual cells in a tissue to (rather worryingly) voters in the democratic process. His team has already begun probing the question of voting patterns. But is ignorance really political bliss? Dr Couzin’s models do not yet capture what happens when the leaders themselves turn out to be sharks.

I'm not sure I would have said "sharks" there. Perhaps "lemmings," instead. Still, the basic idea is the same. Groups might be more effective - as a group - if most of the members are ignorant, but what happens if they're headed in the wrong direction? What happens if they're following a leader over a cliff?

I've often heard that getting all Democrats to agree on something is like herding cats. Yes, even Democrats are more likely to agree with other Democrats, but they're really pretty poor at following the leader. Democrats tend to disagree among themselves almost as often as they disagree with Republicans.

This can be maddening if you want to get something done in Congress. Generally, you have to convince each individual Democrat, and it's very difficult to get them all to agree. You'd never get Democrats to maintain a solid front, every one sticking together to filibuster one bill after another, like the Republicans do. Democrats insist on thinking for themselves and acting as each sees fit.

Republicans, on the other hand, value order. They value discipline. Oddly, given their self-image as rugged individualists, they value group-think. You're either with them or against them. And if your opinions vary in any way, you're a traitor to the cause. Republicans aren't eager to embrace diversity - and I don't mean just racial and religious diversity, either.

So, is there a connection between scientific ignorance and this schooling behavior in the GOP? You've got to wonder about people so ignorant they think, despite the evidence, that Barack Obama is a Muslim who wasn't even born in America. You've got to wonder about people who reject basic science like evolution and global warming. How could such willful ignorance not be a huge disadvantage in the 21st Century?

But maybe this willful ignorance is an advantage in maintaining group cohesion. If you really want political power, you've got to have a group who'll act en masse. You don't want people who'll start thinking for themselves. In particular, you don't want people to become informed about issues outside the group. If that happens, some of them will inevitably start to have doubts about the accepted dogma.

This is scary stuff, don't you think? This would mean that the right-wing is more effective politically because they're ignorant, not in spite of their ignorance. Group cohesion is actually strengthened by ignorance. For a democracy, that's really frightening.

OK, I'm not going to claim that research on schooling fish is necessarily applicable to human beings. Clearly, we evidence-based thinkers must demand far more evidence than that! But I do think the idea is interesting - and quite frightening. America desperately needs an informed electorate. All democracies do. If ignorance really is an advantage in getting and maintaining political power, well, we're all in trouble.

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