At the same time, the identity Left has its uses for Science. For one thing, it was a convenient cudgel to use against conservative-leaning Christians distressed by certain implications of evolution or discombobulated by the possibility that homosexuality is a phenomenon with roots that are biological rather than diabolical. That sort of thing is usually the stuff of low-value conversation: A certain kind of eternal adolescent never stops getting a thrill out of scandalizing his retrograde Lutheran grandmother. But if you have a sufficient number of such interactions — and we have no shortage of them — they can become a part of the tribal identity that is the real basis of our politics, however much we might pretend that what we are really talking about is public policy. As the identity Left moved out of the communes and into the suburbs and progressivism became much more strongly associated with the interests and habits of affluent, educated, coastal elites, professing one’s love of Science became an exercise in telegraphing status.
But if it were really about science, we’d be hearing more from scientists and less from people who have batty, superstitious attitudes about modern agriculture and evidence-based medicine. You will not hear Democrats complaining about the fact that the Affordable Care Act clears the way for subsidizing such hokum as acupuncture and homeopathy. Seventh-day Adventists may make some claims about the world that sound ridiculous from the scientific point of view, but so do practitioners of yoga and sweat-lodge enthusiasts. The public adoration of Science isn’t about science.
Which brings us to the recent March for Science and the popular poster boy for all things Science, Bill Nye. The March for Science was no such thing; in the main, it was a march for the one thing almost every faction of the Left can agree on: a larger public sector. Progressives are culturally at home in large institutions (universities, federal agencies, Fortune 500 HR departments), and they have learned how to game those systems pretty well. More funding for “science” means a lot of funding for things tangentially related to science and a lot of comfortable sinecures related to science in the vaguest way: A great many people with degrees in women’s studies or Latino studies have jobs in “science” as community-outreach coordinators and program officers with responsibilities that might charitably be described as “light.” It’s a safe bet that $100 spent on “science” gets you about $17.50 worth of astrophysics with the balance going to “community development,” paid political activism, and overhead. That is not an argument against spending on science — it is an argument for better and more responsibly run programs.