Thursday, August 03, 2006

In which I (Partially) Agree with PZ Myers

PZ Myers had a post yesterday that I thought took a good point and went too far with it. Plus, my objection ties in very conveniently with something I was trying to express in the comments to this post from Kevin.

Myers wants to "dash some cold water on any sense of triumphalism on the pro-science side" that might result from creationists losing their majority on the Kansas State Board of Education. Myers says:
Elections and courts are stop-gaps. They are ways to temporarily block trends from becoming entrenched in our social institutions, but as I tell everyone, all we have to do is lose one and we're screwed. We are on the losing side as long as our response consists of throwing up more and more sandbags in the face of a rising flood—we need to get to the source of our problems and work there, and if we put all our efforts into these legalisms and desperately close elections, we're being distracted from the work that's really essential.
But then Myers conspicuously fails to describe what, exactly, the "really essential" work is, except to say that
[I]n the long term, the elections don't matter. What counts are the thoughts of 15 year old kids right now, and how their minds are being shaped, and I guarantee you that there are damn few of them who even knew there was a school board election going on. What are they reading? What are they being taught in school? What are their parents telling them, and what will they tell their kids 10-20 years from now? How will they vote when they're franchised in a few years?
My concern here is that when you say that the important thing isn't political victory, but winning over hearts and minds, it's easy to forget that political victories are good ways to win over hearts and minds. After all, how do you convince the 15-year-olds of today to reject bad science in the future if not by teaching them to embrace sound science now? And how do you teach them sound science now? One of the first steps I can think of is to make sure that people who appreciate sound science are the ones making decisions about large-scale education policy.

It's absolutely true, of course, that people's beliefs and convictions influence the way they impact public policy, but the causation works in both directions.

My guess is that there's some tendency to think of politics as somehow inherently cynical or dirty; the worlds of ideas or hands-on intervention are more admirable because they're closer to being "really essential". That's a topic for another post, maybe.

Update: At the Panda's Thumb, Reed Cartwright has an example of what I mean.


Tommaso Sciortino said...

This is all fine and good but, going back to the abortion debate, we shouldn't use a general principal when we can focus on the individual case. It's often the case that political victories sway hearts and minds. I think the best example is the civil rights movement which in ushering a new political reality, changed the mindset which supported the old one. For abortion I think you can make a pretty good case that it hasn't worked out that way.

As I said before, the federalize abortion question is academic - there is no way it can be federalized sans a constitutional amendment and that's not happening.

Paul said...

The general principal need not apply in every case to make it relevant to the general discussion.

As for abortion, it's a tough call. If I had to guess, though, were you to federalize the issue today, abortion would be legal in more states than it was pre-Roe. And if opposition to abortion went from being theoretical to actual by Roe's undoing, I think you' see support for outlawing abortion drop further still.

It's a hard case to explain, but in any case my previous points about hearts and minds had been seperate from my points about abortion - I think they were both arguments against federalism as a general tactic - hearts and minds because I thought the issue had just been overlooked entirely, and abortion because federalizing it would involve actual losses, from a liberal point of view.