Machiavelli once said that adding religion to politics produced extremism. We might take that one step further, saying that combining religion, politics and pseudoscience produces extremism and a breakdown of rationality. Pseudoscience is fake science, something masquerading as science the way AstroTurf masquerades as grass: It looks real, but it is not.
Science is based upon fact, empirical evidence and rational and unbiased analysis. It experiments, is open to change, tests itself and puts forward its evidence for double-checking and questioning, regardless of the political ramifications. Pseudoscience does none of this; it has spurious assertions rather than evidence, resents questioning and is often employed by political opportunists.
There are a number of pseudoscientific ideas in vogue in American culture at the moment — there is no such thing as global warming, homosexuality can be “cured,” vaccinations are actually bad for you. The most popular is intelligent design — or ID. An updated form of creationism, ID holds that the universe was created by a grand designer and that this postulate can be proved “scientifically.” The primary promoter of ID is the Seattle think-tank, the Discovery Institute, which is funded by wealthy, elite corporate activists.
Intelligent design, however, is a religious idea rather than a scientific one. The notion of searching for a grand designer — regardless of how you go about doing it — is by definition the search for God. There is nothing wrong with the search for God, but that doesn’t make it science. Like religion and politics, religion and science should be kept separate so as not to dilute either.
Recent presidential hopeful Rick Santorum (who has been closely aligned with the Discovery Institute), political pundits Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh and others, as well as various cultural leaders, have embraced intelligent design. They support it being taught in the public school system as an alternative, and use it to assail the genuine science of evolutionary biology and gain supporters.
The problem is that they don’t seem to understand what they are supporting. Intelligent design has no scientific evidence, no experiments prove it and no reputable biologists support it. There is no debate between ID and the mainstream scientific consensus that rejects it.
Supporters of ID have argued the designer could be any one of a number of gods — or even space aliens. They also accept that some evolution did occur and that the Earth is billions of years old. So while ID superficially resembles the mainstream creationism it tries to hitch an intellectual ride with, it differs in profound ways. As a result, not only is ID pseudoscience, it is pseudotheology, too. It reduces God from a sublime entity to a handyman plugging gaps in a poorly designed and leaky universe. It insults religious people more than the scientifically minded.
Why does any of this matter? Why should people, religious or secular, Republican or Democrat, care if an elected official promotes pseudoscience?
In a country so dependent upon science for our survival, one would hope our politicians would embrace facts and evidence rather than fakery. How would we feel about a politician who made important policy decisions based upon astrology, who would claim to be able to reduce the deficit by using alchemy to create gold, support teaching flat-Earth theory as a viable alternative to geology, or use tax dollars to hunt down the Jersey Devil?
Science helps make our society a more free, just and democratic place. Science is good for everyone. Pseudoscience undermines rationality and destroys our education system, condemning children to a fantasy land where polluted skies are preferable to clean air, one ethnic group is biologically superior to another, fossils are hoaxes, changes in air temperature mean ghosts are about, and that one’s religion makes him a terrorist.
Pseudoscience will lead us down the road to extremism and away from rationality, and that isn’t good for anyone.