March 14, 2015 | David F. Coppedge

The Politics of Happiness

Sometimes scientists get it right, and sometimes they get it wrong. Humans are too complex to fit pet theories, but even scientists can notice what works.

Hunting for conservation: Think conservation, and you think of government programs and international action by NGO’s. An article on PhysOrg offers a different approach. Let hunters hunt, and let birders birdwatch. Why? They’re the ones who have a vested interest in keeping nature wild and free, more so than some distant bureaucrat or do-gooder technocrat across the globe. “Both bird watchers and hunters were more likely than non-recreationists to enhance land for wildlife, donate to conservation organizations, and advocate for wildlife—all actions that significantly impact conservation success.”

Corruption trumps policy: Speaking of conservation, overfishing has become a big problem in South Africa. The problem? Government corruption, Science Daily says. No amount of well-intentioned policymaking can overcome lack of moral integrity. “Science” is supposed to be a model of integrity, many assume. But Nature published this letter from the head of a funding body for medical research: “Reproducibility: Stamp out shabby research conduct.” He warned, “we are concerned that questionable practices among researchers seem to be becoming more prevalent.

Tower of Babel rerun: Once in awhile, Biblical phrases appear in scientific writings. A perspective paper in PLoS Biology has this headline: “Biodiversity Governance: A Tower of Babel of Scales and Cultures.” There’s a new Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services that sounds kind of NICE (reference to C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength intended). Like the hunter/birdwatcher article above, though, the paper recognizes the benefit of local rather than centralized control: “Acknowledging that full biodiversity governance is unavoidably rooted in participation of local actors and their problems and knowledge, we suggest that to deal successfully with the complexity and diversity of local issues, including indigenous knowledge systems, IPBES must recognize a key role of local institutions.

The purpose-driven heart:  What’s the difference between a person with a sense of purpose and a drifter? A healthy heart. Scientists at Mt. Sinai medical centers reported to the American Heart Association that “Having a high sense of purpose in life may lower your risk of heart disease and stroke.” They defined purpose as a sense of meaning and direction. What they didn’t take into account is that some purposes, like jihad, kill more hearts than they save.

God and mammon: Does money buy happiness? Psychologists meeting in Long Beach, California, didn’t think to look up the teachings of Jesus on that question. Instead (as they are wont to do), they analyzed the results of surveys and interviews (Science Daily). They decided that the anticipation of good feeling is more important than having possessions. My, what did mankind do for 6,000 years before these eggheads showed up.

Political happiness: Who is happier, liberals or conservatives? After a devastating (to liberals) rebuke last year that Republicans, on average, were happier people, a new report says that while Republicans “report” more happiness, Democrats “display” more happiness (Science Daily). “Previous research has found that political conservatives report being happier than political liberals,” the article says. “But UC Irvine psychologists have discovered that those on the left exhibit happier speech patterns and facial expressions.” News reporters (who are predominantly liberal) jumped at this solution to the “happiness gap“: Science Magazine showed the graph to prove it. Medical Xpress touted that “Political liberals display greater happiness, study finds“.

What the reporters and psychologists seem to have missed is that this is an unanswerable question for science. Who are you going to put in the pool of left vs right, liberal vs conservative, Republican vs Democrat? How are you going to measure happiness? What time of day or night? What gender? What age? What countries? Under what circumstances? Did they measure the facial expressions of people at a leftist rally chanting “Down with [whatever]!”? Did they measure the happiness of conservatives grieving over the wholesale slaughter of Christians in Iraq and Syria? There are far too many variables for “science” to provide any meaningful answer to such questions, yet this study was praised by the highest scientific society in America, the AAAS.

The non-warfare of science and religion: Contrary to usual attitudes that religion and science are at odds, a new study done by Rice University reports that “Nearly 70 percent of evangelicals do not view religion and science as being in conflict.” Once again, though, definitions and context matter. What do they mean by religion? (Some see secular materialism as a kind of religion.) What do they mean by science? (Some see major differences between physics and evolutionary psychology or climate science.) What do they mean by conflict? Are the religions liberal or conservative?  They report “evangelical” positions without defining the spread of doctrinal positions under that big umbrella.  While it’s comforting to some to see less an attitude of conflict, the disturbing thing is that science believes it can answer such questions in a meaningful way.

Rubbish bin: Scientists give a false sense of expertise in many studies involving humans by ignoring the complexities of the mind. Worse, some “studies” look like veneers over political agendas. For instance, a Science Daily headline screams, “Religion, support for birth control health coverage can mix,” calling on University of Michigan experts for scientific authority. A search on “psychologist”  will find many more bad apples that need tossing.

You can save yourself a lot of mindless muddle by simply understanding the limits of science. Experts, you recall, used to be just spurts. Now, they are ex-spurts. An expert is someone who knows more and more about less and less until he knows absolutely everything about nothing. Or it’s one who pretends to know a lot about the universe while not even understanding the patch of ground under his feet. We don’t need more scientific expertise on these topics. We need more wisdom, and more integrity. You get those from the Good Book.


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