Are Republicans really the “ignorance caucus?”

Krugman-PaulRecently, economist Paul Krugman wrote in the New York Times that many Republicans act as if they were members of “the ignorance caucus.” As an example, he points out what House Majority Leader Eric Kantor said in a recent speech in which he intended to demonstrate his openness to new ideas.  Kantor said that he favored a complete end to federal funding of social science research. To Krugman, this was a real and obvious disconnect.

Krugman also notes that the Texas GOP recently and explicitly condemned efforts to teach “critical thinking skills.”  The Republicans’ reason was that such efforts “have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.”

Mr. Krugman’s assertions challenge the thinking of progressives. On the one hand we are firmly committed to what President Obama calls evidence-based social policy. On the other hand, we try to be tolerant and prefer to not engage in name-calling with those with whom we disagree. How do we reconcile this conundrum?

It is not easy. At the root of our dilemma is whether we consider our positions on policy issues to be merely right, or do we anoint them as being “absolutely right.” If the issue is evolution, there is indisputable scientific information that Charles Darwin’s theory is right. For those who went to school a half century ago, Darwin’s theory was actually exciting to learn because it was science that was so readily transparent and logical. As science was becoming a cornerstone of our society in areas ranging from the Space Race to micro-biology, we knew that science held the answers to many of the questions we had about the mysteries of the world.

But things changed in the 1970s, as Christian fundamentalism was on the rise. The so-called Moral Majority was established in 1979, and more and more Americans came to find solace in religious teachings rather than science. Concurrently, it was becoming clearer that there were two distinct types of science: hard science and social science. The latter type, social science, was rarely absolutely correct and frequently problematic in its conclusions. An example would be the field of education, in which many so-called experts now believe that student performance is improved by standardized testing. There is clearly contradictory evidence to this contention and probably always will be, as long as empirical evidence in our social sciences is not firm. Examples of this would be so-called soft facts in issues such as consumer’s preferences, voter tendencies, and interpersonal relationships. We can try to “get it right,” but the best we can do is to come close.

For the most part, Democrats are comfortable with evidence from the hard sciences, and they try to apply it to policy decisions. Democrats accept the existence of social sciences and then apply analysis and intuition to interpreting it. This is where most of the intra-party disagreements lie.

Republicans accept hard science when it is convenient for them (such as riding on an elevator with the confidence that it will get them to where they are going). However, in many cases if hard science inconveniently is at odds with their beliefs, they will often side with beliefs such as “God created the world in seven days.” As for Republicans and social sciences, they frequently dismiss it. An example would be what happened in Benghazi, Libya on September 11, 2012. Logical Democrats such as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have been dismayed at how Republicans such as John McCain readily dismisses the knowledge from observation that we do have and instead turn a tragic event into a political tool.

As a progressive, I find it very frustrating to hear Republicans oppose spending for necessary infrastructure repair or for them to contend that a ban on assault weapons undermines the entire Second Amendment. I am constantly wondering how we can change their line of thinking. On a personal level I certainly consider much of their thinking to be “not too bright.” However, calling them that will probably not advance the policies I favor. I appreciate what Paul Krugman wrote, but somehow, we progressives are going to have find new ways to understand where the hell these GOP ideas come from and how we can try to get them to a more logical position.