Republicans and Science

Fight disinformation. Get a daily recap of the facts that matter. Sign up for the free Mother Jones newsletter.

Kevin Williamson says we liberals aren’t as dedicated to science as we pretend:

If you want to see how dedicated a progressive is to dispassionate science, spend two minutes talking about the heritability of intelligence. You’ll be up to your neck in witchcraft and superstition and evasion in no time at all. (If you want to test a progressive’s faith in rigorous scholarship more broadly, ask him about gains from trade and comparative advantage, realities that are as solid as anything social science has to offer.)

Well, I’m a pretty conventional liberal, and I’d say that intelligence is roughly 50% heritable and that gains from trade are quite considerable. Of course, I’d also say that intelligence is roughly 50% due to environment and culture, and that the distribution of trade gains is a bigger issue than their mere existence. I don’t often hear conservatives acknowledging either of those things in tones louder than a whisper.

But look: Williamson is right that we shouldn’t worry about whether Rick Perry believes in evolution. As long as it affects only his personal life, who cares? But what we should care about is how this illuminates his public policy decisions. If he lobbies to have creationism taught in biology classes, that’s a big problem. Ditto for climate change. Like it or not, presidents are routinely required to make decisions about issues where they have little personal expertise. It’s practically the job description. So the question is whether President Perry would make his decisions based on the best scientific and economic evidence available or whether he’d ignore it and just do whatever he felt like. The former can still lead to a pretty broad spectrum of policy outcomes, but the latter is a recipe for disaster. Because let’s face it: the actual existence of human involvement in warming the planet just isn’t in any serious scientific doubt anymore. If you’re not willing to accept this, what are you willing to accept?

So here’s my question for Williamson. Forget about “liberals” generically. Limit yourself to recent Democratic presidential candidates — or, in a pinch, high profile Democratic leaders in general. Can you think of any analogs to widespread Republican disbelief in things like evolution and climate change, which are as firmly fixed in scientific evidence as anything can be? Are there similarly rock-solid scientific findings that high-profile Democrats routinely trash? Or scientific agencies that they disband simply because they produce inconvenient results, as Newt Gingrich did with the OTA? Or frequent cases of gleeful promotion of scientific know-nothingism as a handy culture war cudgel? I can’t think of any.

UPDATE: Williamson replies here. He doesn’t actually try to respond to my questions, but he does get snotty about my estimate that intelligence is roughly 50% heritable:

But, of course, it matters not one whit what Kevin Drum would say, since Kevin Drum knows not one thing about the subject. (Which is the point.) The current estimate, incidentally, is about 85 percent — Hey, it turns out wild guesses by uninformed amateurs are not scientifically sound. Who knew?

I know more than Williamson thinks, though I admit that I haven’t kept up with this stuff religiously lately. Still, research over the past decade has muddied the IQ question considerably, suggesting that environmental factors may be more important for poor children than for middle-class children. In other words, heritability of intelligence varies. This is by no means settled science, and I’m fine with the possibility of overall values higher than 50%, but suggesting that a flat 85% is “the current estimate” just isn’t right. And like any other bright person who doesn’t simply throw up his hands and pretend that it’s impossible for laymen to make judgments about these things, I’ll modify my opinions as the scientific consensus changes.

We Recommend


Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.


Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.