Jun 28 2012

Anti-Science as a Political Platform

This came to my attention through Orac at Respectful Insolence and I thought I would pig-pile on – the platform of the Texas Republican party. Mine is not a political blog and I will try to refrain from expressing any purely political opinion. Rather I do often address the science that informs politics and the intrusion of politics into science or the denial of science by political activists – all of which is evident in the platform.

Orac does his usual great job of addressing the evolution denial, anti-vaccine sentiments, and promotion of alternative medicine in the platform. Unfortunately, promoters of unscientific medicine and opponents of science-based medicine find allies on both sides of the political aisle. On the left they tend to appeal to anti-corporate and new age sentiments. On the right it’s all about freedom – health care freedom, freedom from mandates, and freedom from regulation. The platform specifically opposes regulation of vitamins and supplements, stating: “We support the rights of all adults to their choice of nutritional products, and alternative health care choices.”

I have written about the health care freedom movement before.  Essentially it is an attempt to undermine rational and reasonable measures to establish a minimum standard of care in medicine. You can’t have a standard without some criteria and some method of enforcing the criteria. The current standard is largely science-based, transparent, and fair, but proponents of unscientific methods that fall below the reasonable standard want to abolish it so they will be free to practice witchcraft as medicine. Health care freedom is presented as consumer freedom, but it is really anti-consumer and all about the freedom to sell pseudoscience and bad medicine.

The most troubling passage in the platform, however, is this:

We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.

That’s right, the Texas Republican party opposes teaching our children critical thinking skills because that will encourage them to challenge authority. However, this plank in the platform does require some background. The concern here is really that liberals are using public education as a mechanism for instilling liberal values opposed by conservatives, and disguising this agenda as “outcome based education.” For example, here is a 1993 report from Texas Republican Phyllis Schlafly:

When they talk about “higher order thinking skills” or “critical thinking,” they mean a relativistic process of questioning traditional moral values.

This controversy obviously has a long history in Texas. The Schlafly report (What’s Wrong with Outcome Based Education) reflects a culture war being fought in the public school classroom. I think that both political sides have legitimate complaints about public education. OBE is supposed to be about using outcomes to measure the effectiveness of educational methods. However, under the OBE banner lots of experimental and (in my opinion) dubious teaching methods have been tried. One aspect of this the Schlafly report complains about is structuring teaching so that the pace of learning is set by the slowest student in the group, with the quicker learners being kept to the slower pace. This reflects the basic difference in world view between liberals, who tend to be egalitarian, and conservatives, who tend to value individualism and meritocracy.

Unfortunately, having an optimally effective public school educational system is being held hostage to this culture war between liberals and conservatives. The result is that very important aspects of education, like teaching critical thinking skills, becomes a pawn in the culture war and becomes a proxy for the real issues that concern liberals and conservatives.

Of course, even if you accept the conservative view that individual excellence should be encouraged and not sacrificed to egalitarianism, in practice conservative opposition to such things become tied to opposition to teaching evolution, an accurate portrayal of American history, and actual critical thinking skills. They end up taking an anti-intellectual position that throws the educational baby out with the bathwater.

This is going to be an endless fight. Everyone wants public education to reflect their personal values, and so it will continue to be a battle ground for promoting various world-views. We should all agree, however, that the number one priority of public education is to have effective education. In my opinion both sides seem willing to sacrifice that in order to embody their world view in the educational system, and then they rationalize this by convincing themselves that their world view is good education. The platform above reflects this – opposing critical thinking because (egads) children might question the traditional beliefs and authority of their parents.

Another aspect of the platform, and one not dealt with by Orac, is their stance on homosexuality:

We affirm that the practice of homosexuality tears at the fabric of society and contributes to the breakdown of the family unit. Homosexual behavior is contrary to the fundamental, unchanging truths that have been ordained by God, recognized by our country’s founders, and shared by the majority of Texans. Homosexuality must not be presented as an acceptable “alternative” lifestyle, in public policy, nor should “family” be redefined to include homosexual “couples.” We believe there should be no granting of special legal entitlements or creation of special status for homosexual behavior, regardless of state of origin. Additionally, we oppose any criminal or civil penalties against those who oppose homosexuality out of faith, conviction or belief in traditional values.

They stop short of saying outright that homosexuality is a choice rather than biologically determined, but it does seem to be an implied premise of the platform. Essentially they advocate open season on homosexuals, as long as your discrimination or bigotry is faith-based. This position above represents incredible denial of basic biological facts – homosexuality is part of nature, and not just for Homo sapiens. There is no rational basis for discriminating against individuals because of their sexual orientation. There is absolutely no evidence that homosexuality “tears at the fabric of society” or undermines the family. I guess their support for individual freedom is limited only to those individuals whose lifestyle they personally approve.

At least they are open about the source of their anti-homosexual bigotry – their faith. They believe such bigotry is ordained by God. Therefore they believe that the laws of the land should reflect their personal religious beliefs.

Conclusion

There are numerous examples in the platform of ideology trumping science and critical thinking. This phenomenon, in my opinion, is universal to ideology, and is not particular to any specific ideology. That is not to argue, however, for absolute equivalency. Not all ideologies are equal in this regard. The Republican party has certainly moved in that direction with their opposition to evolution, their embrace of climate change denial, and now their embrace of health care freedom and anti-vaccine sentiments.

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