Mar 20 2007


One of the themes of this blog is that science and knowledge should not be subjugated to ideology. In fact, we should strive personally and collectively to free our thinking as much as possible from the chains of ideology. By this standard the recently created Conservapedia is an intellectual abomination.

Why am I so down on ideology? Because it is the “hobgoblin of little minds.” Essentially an ideology is an adherence to a set of beliefs or philosophies for their own sake – beyond any reasonable justification in logic or evidence. Humans, as is oft observed by skeptics, are pattern-seeking creatures. We like (need?) to make sense of our complex world by organizing the complexity into manageable conceptual containers and then attaching a label to the container as if it were a handle we could comfortably grip.

Understanding the world through abstract concepts and categories is fine, even necessary. It’s how our brains work. We stray into the trap of ideology, however, when a concept becomes fixed, when we cling to it for comfort and simplicity, or just mental inertia. Rather, we should rent concepts, not own them. We should strive to have a flexible and nimble model of the world, with a constantly evolving set of interacting concepts of greater and greater complexity as our knowledge and understanding of reality widens and deepens.

All too often, however, people find a concept that they like and that works (to a point) and then they become emotionally invested in the concept. It becomes a label, a badge, a source of identity. Rather than using it as a temporary tool to understand the world, they begin to defend it as if it had objective value in and of itself. They begin to twist logic and select evidence to serve the idol of their precious concept – their ideology.

In politics ideology cannot be avoided. Although I think that politics would benefit from a massive infusion of detached rationality – it does involve value judgments. These are subjective choices that are not evidence-based. For example, in the US we value individuality over collectivism. This is an American ideology, it’s part of our culture, part of what makes us American. That’s just fine, as long as it doesn’t become an absolute – trumping all other values or concerns.

But in science there really is no legitimate role for anything resembling an ideology. All conclusions must be subject to revision by new evidence and new ideas. Ideology is anathema to science.

And this is what really bugs me about the Conservapedia. It is modeled after the Wikipedia – an online encyclopedia that allows anyone to add or edit entries. If the Conservapedia were nothing more than conservative political history (meaning a history of conservatism – not a conservative take on history), opinions, news, etc., that would be fine. But it is more ambitious. It seeks to present encyclopedic knowledge of the world through the ideological lens of one particular brand of American conservatism.

The entry of Evolution says it all. It is nothing more than a laundry list of discredited creationist ideas and demonstrably false claims repeated mindlessly from anti-evolution propaganda. Here is a good example, under “Lack of any Clear Transitional Fossils” is written, “Evolutionists have had over 140 years to find a transitional fossil and nothing approaching a conclusive transitional form has ever been found – only a handful of highly doubtful examples of transitional fossils exist.”

This intellectual dishonesty and abject ignorance of this position is astounding. An excellent list of clear transition fossils can be found here on the site. The Conservapedia author specifically dismisses archaeopteryx as a transitional dinosaur-bird species, an absurd claim I destroy here. In the classic creationist style, the author does not provide evidence for the claims made, but constructs their fiction largely by taking quotes out of context – a style of argument that I feel betrays a literalist ideology. All references from this entry lead not to scientific sources but to creationist propaganda websites.

But my point today is not to refute creationist nonsense (although I never tire of this) but to make the point that there is no such thing as Conservative science or Liberal science. You cannot modify “science” with an ideological label. There is only good science and bad science – and any science that conforms itself to an ideology is by necessity bad science.

Unfortunately the Conservapedia is not an isolated example of ideology masquerading as knowledge. There has been a proliferation in recent years of think tanks, pseudoscientific “institutes”, websites, advocacy groups, and other outlets that have the outward patina of science but are really just front groups for an ideology. If a group is dissatisfied with the findings of legitimate science, they don’t have to fret. All they have to do is create a bogus institute and make up their own ideology-friendly science.

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