Preposterous Universe

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

I'm jealous of Chris Mooney. It's one thing to needle the religious right, but it's a whole extra level of accomplishment to have them label you an "anti-Christian bigot."

The bigotry charge comes from the Coalition on Abortion/Breast Cancer, a group that fights against abortion on the grounds that it leads to an increased risk of cancer. It's a tough fight, since studies have shown that, well, it doesn't. But the rhetorical fight goes on, and the CABC has a clever strategy: they claim that the scientific studies indicating no link between abortion and cancer are just as bogus as those that failed to find a link between smoking and cancer, and even have invented the concept of "Big Abortion" in analogy with "Big Tobacco." (Because, as a doctor, performing abortions is your easy road to fabulous riches, I guess.) Then they will trot out pro-life scientists who will continue to flog the link against all evidence. Dress up the website in pink ribbons, and you're all set.

It's interesting to ask what kind of scientist would be moved by religious conviction to argue for a conclusion that the mainstream has long-ago dismissed; the parallels with the Intelligent Design movement are clear. That's what Chris has done, in an article for Washington Monthly. He examines how the religious right is increasingly pushing pseudo-scientific arguments to help advance a variety of its agendas, from campaigns against condoms to stem-cell research. It's a scary article, and well worth reading. These "scientists" begin with the conclusions they want to draw and only then construct a reasoning that will get them there; that's not how science is supposed to work. But as Chris says, it's an effective strategy:
All told, Christian conservatives have gone a long way towards creating their own scientific counter-establishment. Indeed, the religious right's "science" represents just the most recent manifestation of the gradual conservative Christian political awakening that has so dramatically shaped our politics over the past several decades. "They're saying that their faith is not just a pietistic private exercise, but that it has implications in the world of education, or politics, or the world of science," notes Michael Cromartie, an expert on the religious right at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. And by providing a scientific cover--albeit a thin one--for religiously-inspired policies, this appropriation of science has at least temporary benefits for groups seeking to promote them. After all, the scientific method is inherently open to abuse. Because it encourages open publication, continual challenges to the conventional wisdom, and a presumption of good faith on the part of researchers, those who would deliberately slant their interpretations or cherry-pick their facts find plenty of running room.
He also is careful to point out that there is no reason why someone can't be very religious and also an excellent scientist; there are countless good examples. But it's also possible for one's religious beliefs to derail one's scientific investigations. Pointing that out is not "bigotry," although it should be a badge of honor to be stuck with the label, considering the source. Congratulations, Chris!

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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