Georgia Senator Johnny Isakson wants to do something about the Zika virus. Because scientists have said that it is very dangerous. But like a lot of people, Johnny Isakson only thinks science is important when it doesn’t get in the way of his dogma. A lot of those convenient science believers are in my family.
My mother’s side of the family was made up of a bunch of conservative Christians. In fact, by family lore, my aunt gave Oral Roberts $5,000 or more. The reason we believe this is because she received a hand written note from him. But it was one of those things where a Christian is going through a bad time and think if they can just give a big pile of cash to “God,” then all their problems will work out. But they were definitely more interested in talking about abortion than feeding the poor. But the thing they most liked to talk about was the evils of science — evolution specifically.
My parents were both the black sheep of their families, so I didn’t have to worry about this. My parents believed in science. But whenever we would visit this part of the family, I would hear them scoff at the idea of evolution. It’s was curious, because in many ways they knew more about it than most people. They could give you reasons for why carbon-14 dating didn’t work and holes in the fossil record and stuff like that. It was just because they listened to people like John Morris Pendleton. Normal people just assume that scientists know what they are doing and don’t get into the weeds.
Science Is Often Inconvenient
When I would listen to the arguments made against evolution, I would get angry. To me, even as a teenager, science was something you either accepted or you didn’t. It wasn’t a la carte — something you could accept when it was convenient and reject when it wasn’t. That’s not the way that science works.
I even remember a conversation that I had when one of my physics professors when I was in college. I was still struggling with quantum mechanics — not in a scientific way, but in a philosophical way. I told him that I just didn’t like the fact that reality seemed to not be deterministic. He told me he agreed with me. It sucks that the universe is not the way that we want it to be.
But our job is to uncover the universe, not to define it. My professor, Joe Tenn, didn’t say that last part because he didn’t need to. It was enough that he shared my discomfiture. Of course, we weren’t alone. Einstein felt the same way, and that’s what his famous line is all about, “God does not play dice!”
What bugged me about this side of the family is how they picked and chose what science they were going to believe. They were more than willing to take the good things that science gave them: air conditioning, automobiles, MRIs. But they weren’t willing to take the science that demanded anything from them. They didn’t believe evolution, even though it being wrong would have ripple effects throughout all of science. And this offends me.
In all areas of science, they just accept without thinking much about it. But when their pastor tells them that this or that bit of science is not true because it appears to disagree with their religious dogma, they are suddenly experts on science. It’s offensive to actual scientists — and to the entire civilization that has been built on science.
Of course, it isn’t just religious people who do this. On many occasions, I’ve had conservatives tell me that global warming is a hoax. They try to set me straight. They get their information from Fox News and Breitbart. And that makes them more qualified than I am with my ten years of study the subject as a graduate student and then physics professor. But again, these same people accept all the other aspects of science that don’t get in the way of their preferred policy positions.
Johnny Isakson Thinks Science Is Useful This Time
And that brings us back to our good friend Georgia Senator Johnny Isakson. On Thursday, I heard a story on NPR, Southern Lawmakers Lead Fight Over Funding To Combat Zika Virus. In it, I learned that Johnny Isakson wants more money to fight the Zika virus since the “Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta convinced him that Zika could be more dangerous for the US than Ebol.” I wondered if Senator Isakson was also as accepting of the scientific consensus on global warming.
Well, Johnny Isakson is not a Stage I Global Warming Denier. He’s at Stage II: there is global warming, but humans aren’t the cause! And the truth is in 2015 (when he cast his vote to this effect), that’s the most intense level of global warming denial. The only people who say it isn’t happening at all are those who claim there is a conspiracy.
What I wonder is why it is that Johnny Isakson is willing to believe the scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. We know far more about radiative forcing of the atmosphere than we do about the spread of the Zika virus. But it’s the same thing as with my conservative Christian family members: it doesn’t require that he do any intellectual work and counter his dogma to accept science when it comes to Zika. But when it comes to global warming any other science that isn’t convenient, well, that’s a whole different thing.