Paul Broun, Anti-Intellectual

by Benjamin Studebaker

Recently, US Representative Paul Broun (R-Georgia), a member of the House Science Committee, made some comments about science:

Broun is indeed a scientist of sorts–while not a geologist, he is a medical doctor who, at one time, was in general practise. His comments, because they come from a democratically elected member of congress, are worthy of response.

Regular readers will recall a post I wrote about science in September in response to a Bill Nye video in which Nye criticises biblical literalism for holding back scientific progress. In this post, the conclusion is reached that literalism is a nonsense view, that being a biblical literalist requires one to believe in, according to Job 41, a mythical giant sea monster that breathes fire and totally indestructible, among other clearly and demonstrably false propositions. Often strong atheists make the leap that all religious people are literalists, which is a simply not the case–many theologians and priests reject literalist interpretations of the bible, as do many religious leaders in Judaism, Islam, and other religions. Generally religious texts are read by theologians as morality tales, allegories, metaphors, and so on. They are interpreted just as English teachers encourage their students to interpret literature, to see beyond what is on the page. You do not have to be an atheist to find literalism intellectually facile and repulsive. No individual who gave religious texts the least bit of thought would interpret them literally. Such a simplistic reading is slanderous to the various religions and their texts, insulting, even. Yet of course we know that there are literalists in the United States who deny things like evolution, climate change, physics, various elements of scientific theory. We think of these people as unfortunate people who were, at some time or another denied access to quality education and consequently were left mired in ignorance. They are victims of the terrible inequality that afflicts the school system, right? Well, that was where the Nye video left me on the subject–there was some minority of unfortunately uneducated people who believed demonstrably false things. A shame, and something worth correcting, but certainly not a controversial matter for the rest of us. Of course, now I have seen the Paul Broun video, and this changes things.

See, what the Paul Broun video shows is that literalists are not a fringe element to religion–literalists are common enough, acceptable enough, to most people, that Paul Broun was elected to congress. Not only was Paul Broun elected to congress, but he was chosen to be on the House Science Committee despite his belief that science is a myth being perpetrated on an unknowing populace by Satan. Now what’s important here is that the republican members of the various house committees are selected in practise by the party leadership. The Speaker of the House is John Boehner, and the House Majority leader is Eric Cantor. Now what we can surmise from this is that Boehner and Cantor think it is just fine and dandy for someone who believes that science is a myth being spread by Satan to serve on a committee which oversees science spending–in fact, they are likely the very people who selected Broun for this purpose. This tells us two things:

  • We live in a country in which, in certain areas, an anti-science, anti-intellectual candidate can be elected to congress
  • We live in a country in which one of the two major political parties is lead by individuals who either agree with, condone, or will not condemn anti-scientific or anti-intellectual behaviour and opinions

Let’s be clear here–the left often equates opposing abortion or gay marriage or stem cell research with an anti-scientific, anti-intellectual mindset, and in those cases while some of those people may very well be anti-scientific or anti-intellectual, the positions expressed are moral positions that do not necessarily entail anti-scientific or anti-intellectual views. We may disagree with those moral positions, but they are not rejections of science. Broun is not like Todd Akin (who, incidentally, is also on the science committee–it’s almost as if Boehner and Cantor did this on purpose), who merely expressed a moral viewpoint on abortion with a scientific mistake. Akin, to his credit, never said he opposed science, and there’s no way to know for certain how he feels on the subject. Broun literally says:

all that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and big bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell

That is a rejection of theories established by the scientific method. It is necessarily anti-scientific and anti-intellectual. There is no alternative interpretation. It is not a moral argument, it is not defending a legitimate philosophical point, it is just flagrantly, factually wrong, and the man is getting applause and cheers in the video for it.

This is the sort of thing I’m often talking about when I discuss sophiarchism and the problems that result from a society that values popular appeal over expertise or sophisticated knowledge. We are electing people who have no knowledge about statecraft, who openly declare their ignorance of the very subjects they are to oversee, who have no willingness to defer to experts in their own fields, who have no reverence or respect for specialised knowledge. These candidates are reflections of the people who elect them–insular voters who do not respect or perhaps resent intellectuals and scientists are given a platform through the vote to impose those views on other people through the government. Importantly we cannot blame these voters–they have the beliefs they have because of the kind of education they received. It is inevitable that, given the vote, they will elect people like this. The trouble is that by electing candidates who are anti-intellectual, they are guaranteeing that the government will not impress upon their children the value of science or learning, that the education system in these areas will remain poor and backward. It is a great misfortune that so many people lack the educational background to contribute as much as they might otherwise to society, but it is a crime to allow the cycle of ignorance to continue into the next generation, both for the children whose potential will be limited, and for wider society, which will receive reduced economic benefit from their endeavours as a result. Democracy is a danger not merely for us now, but for generations of people who will see their potential reduced by a society and a state run against their own interests by their parents. Were states like Georgia to have been governed by a sophiarchy fifty years ago, millions might have been spared the broken education and the hereditary resentment of intellectualism that results in the election of men like Paul Broun to congress, and men like Boehner and Cantor who are happy to embrace him.