Both Left and Right Are Afraid of Change

Social experiments don't sit well on either side of the aisle.


It's a long drive from the foothills of Pittsylvania, Virginia, to the footsteps of the Supreme Court. The distance separating the environmental left from the religious right might seem greater still. But appearances can be deceiving.

Consider one of the main arguments being used in two contentious disputes: gay marriage and the fight over whether to lift Virginia's moratorium on uranium mining.

Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Nelson Lund—a law professor at George Mason—terms gay marriage "A Social Experiment Without Science Behind It." He argues that while a number of groups have filed briefs insisting gay marriage will do no harm, "these assurances have no scientific foundation. Same-sex marriage is brand new, and child rearing by same-sex couples remains rare. Even if both phenomena were far more common, large amounts of data collected over decades would be required before any responsible researcher could make meaningful scientific assessments" of their effects. The Supreme Court, he concludes, "cannot possibly know that it is safe" to take the "irrevocable step" of legalizing same-sex marriage.

Social conservatives say this a lot. Gay marriage is "a social experiment that needs no special protection," according to the author of California's Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage there. It is a "radical social experiment," according to evangelical leader Gary Bauer. No—it is "the most radical social experiment in U.S. history," according to National Review's Dennis Prager.

All right, it's an experiment. But why is the experimental nature of gay marriage assumed to be a bad thing? Conservatives rarely say; they treat its badness as a given. Yet if current evidence provides little reason to think the experiment will turn out well, then by the same token the evidence provides little reason to think it will turn out badly. So why the long faces?

To be fair about it, some social experiments do turn out poorly. (Communism, for glaring instance.) But many—e.g., the American Revolution—turn out rather well. The Heritage Foundation, which warns that the U.S. should not "institutionalize a social experiment" in the gay-marriage case, calls "the American experiment . . . a political miracle."

Conservatives also exhibit a fierce loyalty toward Israel. And so they should. But what do you call plunking down a democratic Jewish state amid a bunch of hostile Arabic autocracies, if not a radical—and highly dangerous—experiment?

Social conservatives are not the only ones who treat novelty as a disqualification when it suits them. Those opposed to lifting Virginia's ban on uranium mining also make the same point, over and over.

Uranium mining would be "a risky experiment," according to the Sierra Club's Mary Rafferty. It would be a "dangerous experiment," says Chris Miller of the Piedmont Environmental Council, adding that "the risks . . . have never been addressed." Mining uranium would be "a very dangerous experiment affecting the health, safety and welfare of millions of people for the profit of a few," insists Bill Speiden of the Orange County Farm Bureau. Trieste Lockwood, who runs the Power and Light program for the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, calls uranium mining "a risky experiment" and adds: "It hasn't been done before in Virginia."

Uranium mining is not the only thing environmentalists denounce as a dangerous experiment. Others include fracking, genetically modified crops, and irradiating food to prevent spoilage. The environmental movement has even institutionalized fear of the new in the doctrine of the Precautionary Principle, which (in one formulation) argues against pursuing course X unless X is demonstrably safe, and (in another) suggests adopting preventive measures to forestall harm even if in the face of scientific uncertainty.

Recoiling from new technology is not the sole province of the left, however. Some years ago Pope John Paul II denounced cloning as a dangerous experiment. You could argue (and Virginia Postrel does, in The Future and Its Enemies) that for all their differences the left and right often are united against the perceived threat of change.

In his comments on cloning John Paul II noted that technological change is not a priori good. For that matter, neither is social change. But neither is either of them a priori bad. To say that gay marriage is "brand new," or that uranium mining "has never been done before in Virginia," is really just an appeal to fear of the unknown. Precisely the same could have been said of every human innovation, from flint arrowheads to women's suffrage.

If mere novelty were a reason for not doing something new, then nothing new would ever be done. Are the results of an experiment uncertain? Of course. But that is simply the definition of an experiment—not an argument for avoiding one.

This article originally appeared in The Richmond Times-Dispatch.