Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Political Correctness Trumps Science at Elon

By Richard Vedder

Our good friend Jane Shaw just pointed out to me a great column in the Pope Center's Clarion Call by another good friend (and American Enterprise Institute colleague) Steve Hayward, the author of a superb biography of Ronald Reagan's life before the presidency.

Steve notes that North Carolina's Elon University is requiring students, as part of its summer reading program, to read the book version of Al Gore's movie An Inconvenient Truth. Gore's book is full of passion and emotion, but is weak on fact and objectivity. There are dispassionate, more objectively scientific works that provide a balanced view of the global warming debate, as well as right-leaning accounts (Chris Horner of the Competitive Enterprise Institute has written a great one), but Elon assigns only Gore's work, in effect saying it wants to promote not a search for truth but environmental activism, Gore-style.

I am not a scientist, and I am not sure about global warming, but I do know there are multiple points of view on the issue, and some very prominent scientists dissent from what the press calls the scientific consensus with respect to the evidence and perceived policy solutions. Universities who want to promote truth should select middle-of-the-road objective accounts (Steve names one or two). Or, if the goal is to invite debate on the issues, why not assign both Gore's book and Chris Horner's? Or some of Steve's own work on the issue?

Universities and colleges very often use required readings programs to push a political agenda, which is the antithesis of what universities should do. They should stay neutral in the policy debate, offering evidence of all kinds and varieties, and let the facts dictate policy by outsiders. Or, if they are trying to promote critical thinking and the realization that there are at least two sides to almost any issue, they should provide equal access to alternative viewpoints. That very often does not happen. Ideology tied to junk science increasingly trumps factual presentations of evidence. As I have written before, the Age of the Enlightenment may be winding down, as the forces of secular faith overcome the forces of reason and science. If schools want to have a deliberate ideological bias (and there are such schools on the right, too, such as Hillsdale College), they should label themselves as such: "We are Elon University and we promote left-of-center policies as part of the curricular experience."

As Steve Hayward points out, of course, this is nothing new. Students were coerced to read Paul Ehrlich's screed The Population Bomb a generation ago, another alarmist book whose thesis today seems rather laughable, particularly in parts of the world where the chief demographic concern is depopulation. For everyone who read works by the late great Julian Simon in college on this issue, there were 50 students forced to read Ehrlich (I am guessing at that figure --it may be more or less). And these are not isolated examples: other faddish books have gained attention for a while (old-timers: remember The Greening of America?)

What do students and parents want from a college? For many, the prime interest is vocational --job preparation. But most of us believe colleges do prepare young Americans to become adults, to be good citizens, and that, in turn, requires some knowledge of our heritage, our culture, and, yes, issues perceived to be important in our times (of which global warming is one). And in asking students to read, we should not shelter them from polemical tracts, from strong points of view, etc., but we should aim for balance with respect to policy options and for truth with respect to evidence. I think that American colleges are not doing that very well based on the rudimentary evidence I have seen. Of course, we don't really know, since it is a deep dark secret what students actually learn in their postsecondary education, and colleges, by and large, want to keep it that way.


Reginald Shepherd said...

With regard to global warming, there really are not "multiple points of view on the issue" (at least not multiple scientifically valid points of view--lots of people have lots of "points of view," but that doesn't mean that they're all equally true), nor are there many prominent and reputable scientists who dissent from the scientific consensus (which the press actually presents as much less of a consensus than it actually is). Global warming is a well documented fact by this point, and an anthropogenic component has been clearly established. There is indeed some debate about the extent of that component, but that it exists is certain.

There are certainly differences with respect to perceived policy solutions, among scientists and others, but to say there is that sort of disagreement is quite different from saying that there is not a scientific consensus regarding the fact of global warming itself.

I do not understand the recommendation of "middle-of-the-road" accounts, nor the assumption that such accounts are more "objective" than accounts which take a position. If the position is based on facts (which, as Homer Simpson lamented, can be used to prove anything just because it happens to be true), then it is more true than any attempt to split the difference. Should schools teach a "middle-of-the road" position between creationism and evolutionary theory, despite the fact that one is based on fantasy and one is based on an enormous body of scientific evidence? (Even the Catholic Church has accepted evolution.)

You claim to want "objectivity" and "balance," but you obviously have as much of an ideological agenda as you impute to those against whom you argue. It would be more intellectually honest to admit your own biases and argue, using facts and evidence, from those.

sciencedoc said...

RS -- "Global warming is a well documented fact by this point, and an anthropogenic component has been clearly established. There is indeed some debate about the extent of that component, but that it exists is certain."

Anthropogenic component is CERTAIN? I think that's nonsense. The mere fact that it can't be quantified with any accuracy is a dead giveaway.

Homer Simpson and the Catholic Church have nothing to do with it.

Speaking of which, ironically, Al Gore is acting more and more like the Global Warming Pope -- in the Renaissance style!

Paul said...

I think what Dr. Vedder is getting at is that both sides should be evaluated. Maybe absolute objectivity is impossible. Some theories are better than others, such as capitalism over communism or socialism. Such as freedom over slavery. Yet colleges should seek to at least give a fair account of the other side. What was the South's justification for slavery before the civil war? What did Marx really say in the Communist Manifesto? While we may know they are wrong, it is important to study them so we have something to contrast our own ideologies and views with. Now as far as global warming goes, I doubt that Al Gore's book will talk very much about the fact that half of the warming in the 20th century happened before 1950; which is interesting because the US and the world as a whole has burned far more fossil fuels and had a much greater population in the second half of the century.

Mad Dog said...

reginald you are colon - not a semi colon. seems to me your mind is closed because you can't acknowledge that there are many scientists who flat out disagree with the arguments presented to try to convince us that the world is going down the crapper.

Yep, the world was going to end in a nuclear war - are you old enought to remember that fatalistic, "no question about it" used to stoke fear?

And then there was the hole in the ozone that was melting the polar ice cap and going to give us all a big ol honkin melanoma on our foreheads and we would all end up with uni-brow - hmmm...? But now the polar ice cap is melting because of global warming - not the donut hole in the ozone. Did the cavemen cause global warming so the dinosaurs could roam the earth? What caused that climate? Oh and then there's the ice age. Was there too much methane from gigantic piles of dinosaur shit?

You know of course, water vapor is a green house gas - what SHALL we do with the clouds?

You need a good ass-whoopin' How big a boy are ya?

Mad Dog said...

s-doc and paul - EXACTLY. By god.