The global party of stupid

by John Quiggin on September 21, 2013

Australia’s new conservative ministry has just been sworn in, and while it includes Ministers for Border Protection (that is, stopping refugees) and Sport, and even a minister for the centenary of the Anzac landings on Gallipoli in 1915, there are no longer ministers for science or higher education[^1].

This is part of a fairly consistent pattern. The US Republican Party recently vetoed the creation of an unpaid position of National Science Laureate. In Canada, the Harper government eliminated the position of National Science Advisor, among many other anti-science moves. All of this reflects the fact that scientific research on topics like climate change and evolution regularly reaches conclusions that conflict with the policy preferences or religious beliefs of rightwingers.

It’s striking in this context to recall that, only 20 years ago, the phrase “Science Wars” was used by the right in relation to generally leftish postmodernists in the humanities, who were seen as rejecting science and/or promoting pseudoscience (while it was easy to poke fun at some rather silly stuff, and to point out that it was a distraction from the real political needs of the left, there’s no evidence that it ever did any actual harm to science). These days postmodernist and related “science studies” critiques of science are part of the rightwing arsenal used by Steven Fuller to defend creationism and by Daniel Sarewitz to argue that climate science is inherently political. The routine assumption that the analyses put forward of innumerate bloggers are just as valid as (in fact more valid than) as those of scientists who have devoted their life to the relevant field is one aspect of this, as is the constant demand to “teach the controversy” on evolution, climate science, wind turbine health scares and so on.

In the short run, the costs of attacking science are small. Scientists aren’t that numerous, so their conversion into one of the most solidly anti-Republican voting blocs in the US has’t had much electoral impact. But, eventually the fact that conservatives are the “stupid party” gets noticed, even by rightwingers themselves[^2]

One person who has just noticed is Frank Furedi, a leading figure in the former(UK) Revolutionary Communist Party[^3] which, over the course of the 1990s, morphed into the (rightwing libertarian) Spiked group. In retrospect, Furedi jumped ship at the high water mark of right wing intellectual confidence, symbolised by Tom Friedman’s bloviations in The Lexus and the Olive Tree. Then came the Asian crisis, successive financial crises in the US and the intellectual debacle of climate delusionism, to which Furedi and the Spiked Group contributed actively. So, having joined what seemed to be the smart set, Furedi has finally realised that he is inescapably enmeshed in stupid. The result is this cri de coeur, lamenting the way in which rightwingers are called out for saying stupid things (he name-checks Tony Abbott and Sarah Palin, along with an Australian candidate for the racist One Nation party). Furedi doesn’t deny that rightwingers embrace stupidity, in fact he concedes it, observing

Not surprisingly, many conservatives become defensive when confronted with the put-downs of their intellectual superiors. Consequently, in many societies, particularly the US, they have become self-consciously anti-intellectual and hostile to the ethos of university life. Anti-intellectualism works as the kind of counterpart to the pathologisation of conservatism. And of course, the bitter anti-intellectual reaction of the right, which sometimes seems to affirm ignorance, only reinforces the smug prejudices of the intellectuals who see themselves as being morally superior. (emphasis added)

A couple of things are interesting about Furedi’s piece. First, he erases from history the period of rightwing intellectual dominance that began with the rise of market liberalism in the mid-1970s, and reached its apogee in the mid-1990s, before declining catastrophically in the Bush era. Second, he fails to recognise the way in which the silly-clever pointscoring of rightwing apologists like himself has contributed to the anti-intellectualism he deplores on his own side.

Even now, the intellectual collapse of the right has not had much effect on political outcomes. The dead ideas of the right shamble on in zombie form, and still dominate the thinking of the political class, particularly at the level of unconscious reflex. And, even to the extent that rightwing claims about, say, climate delusionism the beneficence of the financial sector, are discredited, the political power of the interests they represent makes it difficult, if not impossible to change things. Winning the battle of ideas is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for progress.

[^1]: There are also very few women, but that needs another post. I’m also planning a post with a bit more detail on Abbott’s environmental policies.

[^2]: Even more embarrassing is this TownHall list of “the top 25 most influential conservatives” in which the top 3 places are filled by Rush Limbaugh, Matt Drudge and Sarah Palin. According to this list, the right’s leading “intellectual” is Mark Levin, a marginally more literate version of Limbaugh. You have to go to the “also-rans”, to find Thomas Sowell, the only person on the list who could reasonably count as a serious intellectual.

[^3] Harry is the go-to authority on the UK RCP. For the unrelated US party, devoted to the worship of “Chairman Bob” Avakian, consult Scott.

{ 68 comments }

1

Brett 09.21.13 at 10:54 pm

No surprise on that front from the Harper government. They’ve been crazy strict on trying to manipulate and control communications between publicly-funded scientists and the public on said scientific research, particularly when it touches on anything “sensitive” (AKA climate change and the environmental impacts of oil extraction in Alberta). It’s no surprise that they’d want to manipulate lines of communication with any non-Harper-supporting MPs as well.

Why do Canadians keep the Harper government in power? He seems like Bush-lite, except without a big military.

2

Ben Alpers 09.21.13 at 11:10 pm

It’s striking in this context to recall that, only 20 years ago, the phrase “Science Wars” was used by the right in relation to generally leftish postmodernists in the humanities, who were seen as rejecting science and/or promoting pseudoscience (while it was easy to poke fun at some rather silly stuff, and to point out that it was a distraction from the real political needs of the left, there’s no evidence that it ever did any actual harm to science).

Some, like Steven Pinker, are still beating this dead horse today.

3

Richard Franks 09.21.13 at 11:10 pm

Does calling Tony Abbott stupid convince people that he’s wrong?
Does it explain why he’s wrong?

These are the questions that Frank Furedi is (antagonistically) asking. If you consistently call someone unintellectual – should the fact they become anti-intellectual be surprising? I would hope that his article would function more as a wake-up call rather than a point to rail against. The left has lost, is continuing to lose, and will continue to lose unless we acknowledge that fact. Name-calling and bullshit IQ studies are just salves for bruised egos.

4

ckc (not kc) 09.21.13 at 11:16 pm

Why do Canadians keep the Harper government in power?

In part because there are two reasonably strong parties to the left (more or less) of his.

5

ckc (not kc) 09.21.13 at 11:17 pm

(we, sadly, have “first past the post” elections)

6

John Quiggin 09.21.13 at 11:33 pm

The combination of FPP voting, a strong aversion to coalition governments and a system with at least four major parties seems utterly untenable. And yet, it has survived for decades.

We can hope though, that Harper is on the way out.

7

Martin Connelly 09.21.13 at 11:39 pm

Of interest maybe, that here in NZ a right wing govt has set up a Prime Ministers Science advisory group, and for the first time appointed a Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor (See http://www.pmcsa.org.nz/a-short-biography-of-peter-gluckman/) – so wonder if there is really a pattern. Or maybe just a set of random events where people who look for patterns see one?

8

John Quiggin 09.21.13 at 11:50 pm

The NZ government also hasn’t promoted climate science denialism. And of course, neither have rightwing European parties in general. And the UK Tory/UKP/LibDem is split on the issue. So, it’s not the entire global right, just the majority in English-speaking countries.

9

David 09.21.13 at 11:57 pm

@Richard Franks

Concern troll much?

10

js. 09.22.13 at 12:11 am

Frank Furedi, a leading figure in the former Revolutionary Communist Party which, over the course of the 1990s, morphed into the (rightwing libertarian) Spiked group.

The who the what now?

These days postmodernist and related “science studies” critiques of science are part of the rightwing arsenal used by Steven Fuller to defend creationism and by Daniel Sarewitz to argue that climate science is inherently political.

I’ve seen this sort of claim before, but I don’t entirely get it. Because it isn’t the same critique, is it? As in, there was a certain mode of pomo-left critique of science that was surely excessive (more often not entirely comprehensible); now there’s a markedly more venal attack on science when and because it reaches conclusions that speak against the policy preferences of the right. It hardly seems like the two are comparable.

11

harry b 09.22.13 at 12:56 am

js —
“The who the what now?”

all explained here, you have to follow some links. Boy were those guys cool:

https://crookedtimber.org/2005/08/02/rememberance-of-things-pastish/

12

Alan Bostick 09.22.13 at 2:10 am

Oh, you mean the British Revolutionary Communist Party.

I, too, was completely LOLwut? about John’s description of the RCP’s evolution, given that just a few weeks ago telephone poles up and down my street were plastered with a poster for speech by Bob Avakian.

13

Anarcissie 09.22.13 at 3:16 am

I don’t see an understanding of the value of stupidity and ignorance here.

14

Omega Centauri 09.22.13 at 3:25 am

I’m not sure this is as new as some are saying here? I remember Spiro Agnew (Richard Nixon’s veep) going off about pointy headed intellectuals. That was late 60’s.

15

godoggo 09.22.13 at 3:46 am

I’m not sure a global party of stupid is necessarily a bad thing but it depends what you mean by “party.”

16

peterv 09.22.13 at 7:13 am

“used by Steven Fuller to defend creationism “

Fuller isn’t defending creationism per se, but freedom of thought, and the rights of schoolchildren to think for themselves. His arguments equally defend evolutionary theory.

17

Farah 09.22.13 at 7:28 am

I just want to note that the one area in which the attacks from the left on the “objectivity of science” proved genuinely useful was in medicine. My life was revolutionized because doctors stopped telling me I was hysterical and started actually taking tests. I know many women who had similar experiences as medicine began to realise that the questions being asked about health and bodies were very distorted by a false objectivity.

18

NomadUK 09.22.13 at 8:06 am

I never meant to say that the Conservatives are generally stupid. I meant to say that stupid people are generally Conservative. I believe that is so obviously and universally admitted a principle that I hardly think any gentleman will deny it.  

– John Stuart Mill, letter to the Conservative MP, Sir John Pakington (March, 1866)

19

Hidari 09.22.13 at 9:27 am

@16

The purported equivalence between social constructivism on the Left and the anti-science attitude on the Right was always absurd, as academics generally have no power, whereas the anti-science attitude on the Right comes is expressed mainly by politicians and those who fund them (both of whom have power by definition). And this is even accepting that social constructivism is as anti-science as some in the 1990s pretended it was, a highly debatable point.

It will be interesting to see whether the Furedi article (or the, in some ways, even worse Pinker article) will get quite as much flak on the internet as the Franzen article (previously linked to on CT) did. I suspect not, which is an interesting fact in and of itself.

20

Metatone 09.22.13 at 10:18 am

@Hidari – surely Furedi is (these days) a less prominent public figure than Franzen? Wouldn’t that explain the lower level of flak?
I’m pretty sure I read plenty of flak for the Pinker article when it came out.

21

Philip 09.22.13 at 10:24 am

Isaac Asimov:

“Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’”

22

Robert 09.22.13 at 10:37 am

“The routine assumption that the analyses put forward of innumerate bloggers are just as valid as (in fact more valid than) as those of scientists who have devoted their life to the relevant field is one aspect of this”

As a (maybe numerate) blogger, I take exception to this. Quiggin is in an anti-intellectual, authoritarian discipline. For example, look at how citations indices are being used in the Research Assessment Exercise in the UK to purge economics departments of, for example, Post Keynesian economics. I understand that such a purge is currently underway in Australia, too. Maybe you can find bloggers, other than myself, who are more worth listening to those who write the widely-used textbooks in economics and are otherwise held up as authorities. In fact, I can easily name such authorities that, when they stooped to blogging, were seen by many to demonstrate their vileness and stupidity.

As a less contentious example, I was excited when creatures were “discovered” in California lakes that fed on arsenic. Consider the implications for xenobiology. This finding was overturned, apparently, by a (numerate) blogger. The categories of blogger and people who have devoted their life to a topic are not disjoint.

The question of how one becomes recognized as an authority on a topic, whether that be a science or not, is a tough question. Mayhaps those dreaded Post Modernists even have something worthwhile to say on the topic. (My name links to musings on the subject.)

23

Robert 09.22.13 at 10:39 am

^
“Maybe you can find bloggers, other than myself, who are more worth listening to [than] those who write the widely-used textbooks in economics and are otherwise held up as authorities. “

24

Peter Erwin 09.22.13 at 11:18 am

Something of the same sort happened recenly in Spain: the newly-elected Popular Party government eliminated the Ministry of Science and Innovation (science now falls under the purview of the Ministry of Economy and Competition[*]):
http://www.nature.com/news/spain-cuts-science-ministry-in-government-changeover-1.9725

The previous conservative government in Spain (1996-2004) was a little unsure about this whole thing: they did something similar when the first came into power (Ministry of Education and Science + Ministry of Culture –> Ministry of Education and Culture), but then in 2000 they created a separate Ministry of Science and Technology.

[*] Which sounds a lot like the UK’s Department of Business, Skills, and Innovation, which is where science nominally happens[**] in the British government. But I gather that particular trend (science, universities, and other such frivolities being seen as something serving business first and foremost) started under Labour….

[**] Though there is apparently still a Department of Energy and Climate Change in the UK government, so there’s that.

25

Chris Brooke 09.22.13 at 11:29 am

I think the LRB made Jenny Turner’s essay about the x-RCP crowd freely available just the other day, and it is great fun: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v32/n13/jenny-turner/who-are-they

26

guthrie 09.22.13 at 12:54 pm

Peter V – Fuller might be thinking that he’s defending free speech, but in reality the creationists and to any sensible onlooker it looks like he’s defending the right of anti-science creationists to force religious dogma down the throats of schoolchildren instead of teaching them actual known evolutionary biology. In this case it isn’t so much the argument he is making (Which, when I have tried to read his more academic stuff that I found online to be incomprehensible) but the actual use to which it is put and the causes he willingly lends a hand to. Amusingly, the creationists are very definitely against freedom of thought, expression or any such liberal approach to things, and yet Fuller has even appeared in court on their behalf.

27

Anarcissie 09.22.13 at 2:53 pm

Philip 09.22.13 at 10:24 am:
Isaac Asimov:
“Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’”

More generally, it goes back to the early radical Protestant notion of the priesthood of all believers, the belief that every man could interpret the Scriptures for himself. When Asimov parodies this view as ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge’ he is simply giving the authoritarian view, which is that true knowledge proceeds from and is guided by authority. In politics, that view rejects democracy, or at least calls for it to be denatured by representation and ‘leadership’.

28

Ouranosaurus 09.22.13 at 3:39 pm

I can’t find it now, but there’s a theory that the Spiked crowd are still deep-cover Marxists working from the right to bring about the crisis of capitalism. Which seems to make marginally more sense than the idea that a whole whack of Trotskyists could swing over the neo-con right in just a decade.

29

Mao Cheng Ji 09.22.13 at 3:45 pm

“…I meant to say that stupid people are generally Conservative. I believe that is so obviously and universally admitted a principle that I hardly think any gentleman will deny it.”

That doesn’t sound right; he was probably talking about the specific situation in 1800s England. I’m not much of a gentleman, and it seems pretty obvious to me that depending on the environment (prevailing ideologies, propaganda) stupid people may generally be anything, even most radical revolutionaries.

30

djr 09.22.13 at 5:18 pm

JQ @ 8:
The Lib Dems are fairly good on climate science. I’m not sure they’d agree with your characterising them as a right-wing party either, even if the more rightward elements of the party are currently most prominent. I don’t think the current Tory leadership are into climate science denialism either – they’re not so big on taking action, but not on basis of claiming that climate change is imaginary. Clearly you can find fruitbats in any political party, but the go-to guy here is Lord Lawson, and he’s been retired for 20 years.

31

Jerry Vinokurov 09.22.13 at 5:30 pm

Fuller isn’t defending creationism per se, but freedom of thought, and the rights of schoolchildren to think for themselves. His arguments equally defend evolutionary theory.

Pull the other one.

32

js. 09.22.13 at 5:57 pm

harry b @11 (and Chris Brooke @25):

Thanks.

33

Anarcissie 09.22.13 at 8:04 pm

It would make sense for stupid people to be conservative (in the sense of not desiring much change) since presumably being of relatively limited intellect they would have more difficulty than smart people in apprehending and dealing with changes in their environment, especially rapid ones.

There is a certain confusion, though, between conservative and rightist. If we are actually talking about the latter, then the hostility to science can be seen as animosity toward a different authority system from one’s own.

34

Mao Cheng Ji 09.22.13 at 8:28 pm

Nah. It seems to me that the most important characteristic specifically of the stupid people in this respect is that they are easy to manipulate, easy to demagogue, easy to turn into true believers. Today being ‘conservative’ is the way to save the world, tomorrow it might be some radical crusade. The crusade still might be called ‘conservative’, but not necessarily: it’s just a matter of marketing. I remember, for example, Mr. Newt Gingrich preferred expressing his ‘ideas’ in revolutionary terms.

35

Gareth Wilson 09.22.13 at 8:39 pm

That’s an interesting quote at 21. I remember one of his examples of public ignorance was hysteria about nuclear power.

36

Anarcissie 09.22.13 at 8:46 pm

Mao Cheng Ji 09.22.13 at 8:28 pm:
Nah. It seems to me that the most important characteristic specifically of the stupid people in this respect is that they are easy to manipulate….

I’ve often found it easier to get around smart people than stupid people, because you can play games with the smart person’s smartness, but many stupid people are very stubborn (conservative, one might say) and hang on to their positions or demands very tenaciously. I’m thinking of many, many tedious interviews with police and military officers, IRS agents, teachers, business managers, and other antagonists who were not the brightest of their kind. How often I longed for a little intelligence to get my hooks into — in vain!

37

John Quiggin 09.22.13 at 9:08 pm

@djr That’s my understanding of the split. The LibDems and the Tory leadership (at least officially) are OK on climate science. UKIP, the Tory press (at least as recycled in Australia) and most of the Tory base are delusionists.

38

Brian Haunton 09.22.13 at 9:48 pm

@22

The NASA “Arsenic life” story was debunked by the microbiologist Rosie Redfield, of the University of British Columbia, not by a (numerate) blogger. The story was that the bacterium GFAJ-1 substituted Arsenic for Phosphorus in DNA, rather than tolerating high concentrations of the element, which is interesting rather than groundbreaking. So someone with technical expertise was suspicious of an over-hyped story which should not have been bunked in the first place (the chemistry doesn’t really make sense) and demonstrated that it was false through experimentation.

39

John Quiggin 09.22.13 at 9:50 pm

Spiked is sympathetic to wind farm NIMBYism

http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/6906/#.Uj9lpCRPqYo

Apparently the culture of fear is OK if it weakens alternatives to nuclear energy.

40

John Quiggin 09.22.13 at 10:32 pm

The categories of blogger and people who have devoted their life to a topic are not disjoint.

[irony on] I’m sure that’s as a surprising to the rest of the CT crew as it is to me [irony off] And of course, Rosie Redfield has a blog, as do plenty of climate scientists. But the complementary set of bloggers who don’t have a clue is also large.

41

Robert 09.23.13 at 12:14 am

Yes, but who gets to be recognized as an authority in some communities?

My arsenic example, if I understand correctly is a case of a blog post trumping peer-reviewed literature.

Why isn’t Ron Paul an authority of the Fed? Hasn’t he devoted his life to it?

Or consider Andrew Schlafly, with an engineering degree from Princeton, a law degree from Harvard, years of experience at Bell Labs, and the founder of Conservapedia. Don’t his credentials sound like those of somebody you can trust on science?

Is John Stewart a promoter of ignorance like Rush Limbaugh? They both fall back on the defense that they are merely entertainers.

I think the current chair of Harvard economics is, at best, ignorant and a promoter of the same. But, once again, he seems to have all the right credentials.

Are Chris Mooney and Jonathan Haidt experts? On what?

I found Anarcissie’s comment in 27 interesting. I do not think one can expect it to be obvious to others who has and who doesn’t have a clue.

And the literature on the social studies of science might be useful in exploring if one wanted to know how scientists might maintain their prestige among the general public. But maybe I am missing some irony in the original post.

42

Hector_St_Clare 09.23.13 at 12:38 am

What about all the cultural liberals who embrace scientifically witless causes like homeopathy, anti-GMO crops, or the belief that gender rolles are a social construction?

43

David of Yreka 09.23.13 at 1:00 am

Schiller, via Asimov: Against stupidity, the gods themselves contend in vain.

Thence, if the Conservatives are indeed the party of stupidity, we are doomed. For some assignment of “we”, that is.

How I love it when my authorities give me wisdom I can apply without thinking.

44

John Quiggin 09.23.13 at 1:02 am

@Robert There’s a real problem here, but your examples don’t seem very helpful to me.

To clarify my claim a little, extensive and disciplined study of a scientific question is necessary but not sufficient to have something useful to say about it.

As we get into areas like economics, it’s more common to see well-credentialled experts maintain claims that are flat-0ut wrong to the point that they can be refuted by anyone who chooses to look at the evidence. Still, the job of refutation is usually done better by someone who’s actually done the work

45

GiT 09.23.13 at 1:09 am

How many people actually believe in homeopathy? I can’t find any survey data about it.

In the UK the homeopathy market in 2007 was 38 million pounds. The prescription drug market was 12 billion pounds. So homeopathy is about 0.3% the size of the prescription drug market. Doesn’t suggest a very large following, even if those who do follow it break along “culturally liberal” lines. Any actual data on this?

GMO skepticism isn’t really the sole purview of “cultural liberals”: “Republicans divide evenly on whether genetically modified foods are safe or unsafe. Independents rate them unsafe by a 20-point margin; Democrats, by a 26-point margin.” (ABCNews poll).

And the “gender role” bit is too rancid a piece of troll bait to even bother addressing.

46

Ben Alpers 09.23.13 at 1:19 am

I’d also add that there’s some reasonable skepticism around GMO crops that concerns intellectual property issues rather than questions of food safety.

47

john c. halasz 09.23.13 at 1:28 am

@45:
Re: GMOs

In addition, there are also serious ecological and agricultural productivity issues, (long-run as to whether they are at all “necessary”, compared to more “natural” methods).

48

Murc 09.23.13 at 2:29 am

Why do Canadians keep the Harper government in power?

To expand on this one… it’s not just that the left is divided and there’s FPTP, it’s that the Liberal Party loves to hippie-punch the NDP, and when the NDP blew past them to become the official Opposition, the Liberals were staggeringly angry about it.

The NDP spent a very, very long being treated as unserious also rans; the line usually used was “Canada is a center-left country, trying to govern as hard leftists isn’t going to work and will drive people to the Tories. Also, we have FPTP, so voting for them is throwing your vote away” or words to that effect.

Then the NDP blew right by the Liberals (it remains to be seen how long that lasts; Jack Layton’s successors may not be his equal) and there was a lot of bitching about how the Liberals had been doing the “hard work” of needing to oppose the Tories for years while making actual compromises needed to govern, whereas the NDP only had to talk a good game, and any serious attempt to unite the left would have to come on the Liberals terms, rather than the NDPs, because of “respect.”

Left unspoken here, of course, is the fact that maybe if the Liberals hadn’t spent years and years selling out and backing people who disgusted their base (Ignatieff) and were ineffectual milquetoasts (Dion) for leadership positions, maybe the NDP wouldn’t have been able to capitalize on widespread dissatisfaction with the left-wing establishment in Canada.

49

John Quiggin 09.23.13 at 3:54 am

In the UK, the most notably backers of homeopathy in recent years have been Prince Charles and Tory Health Minister Jeremy Hunt

http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2012/sep/04/jeremy-hunt-nhs-tribute-homeopathy

In Australia, publicly-subsidised private health insurers cover homeopathy, but the public Medicare system doesn’t. The Labor government (recently defeated) has commissioned an inquiry into the effectiveness of complementary/alternative medicine by the NHMRC, which appears certain to find that they are worthless. It will be interesting to see how the new government reacts.

50

Hector_St_Clare 09.23.13 at 6:12 am

Alternative medicine isn’t *entirely* worthless, there are some plant based medications used in premodern medicine that are genuinely pharmacologically active, but as a body of thought none of these alternative medical systems hold up when compared to modern scientifically informed medicine.

51

Hector_St_Clare 09.23.13 at 6:13 am

Enough trolling. Nothing more on this topic, please

52

bad Jim 09.23.13 at 6:52 am

The right has some rather odd views on the provenance of the scientific consensus. It always turns out to be the result of a conspiracy. Climate scientists, they say, espouse the views they hold because it gets them funding. They do it for the grants (the franklins being reserved perhaps for more productive routes of inquiry) and leave it unsaid that there is a deeper conspiracy at work to deprive us of everything we hold dear, our trucks and our lawns, even our precious lightbulbs.

The theory of evolution, they darkly hint, is a godless attempt to turn the minds of our vulnerable young to a life free of consequence. In some quarters it’s thought the theory of relativity and the uncertainty principle were also nefariously fashioned to unfasten us from our moral moorings.

As silly as it seems after Copernicus, a great many people still expect the structure of the universe to present a morality play, doling out a measure of meaning and purpose to victims of random fortune.

53

MPAVictoria 09.23.13 at 2:46 pm

Well done Murc! Best summary of the current political situation in Canada that I have read in quite sometime. Though I have no doubt in my mind the Mulcair is no Layton. I was so sad when he past. We won’t see his like again anytime soon.

54

Rob in CT 09.23.13 at 2:52 pm

while it was easy to poke fun at some rather silly stuff, and to point out that it was a distraction from the real political needs of the left, there’s no evidence that it ever did any actual harm to science). These days postmodernist and related “science studies” critiques of science are part of the rightwing arsenal used by Steven Fuller to defend creationism and by Daniel Sarewitz to argue that climate science is inherently political.

Well, I’d say that’s evidence that it did harm, in a round about way. Would the Right have gone post-modern if they hadn’t been shown the way? Being stupid and all, maybe they wouldn’t have thought it up themselves. ;)

55

Jeff H 09.23.13 at 9:39 pm

I disagree on the accuracy of Murc’s summary of recent Canadian politics, if only to the extent that it presupposes that the Liberal party is in any meaningful sense left-wing. It might just about qualify as center-left by current *US* standards, but that says more about current US standards than it does about anything else. For the longest time they were barely distinguishable from the center-right Progressive Conservative party, and they only look left-wing by comparison to the PCs’ successors, the Conservative Party of Canada, because the latter party is the result of a merger between the PCs and the string of hard-right parties that started with the Reform Party. Ignatieff seems pretty representative of the leaders they’ve had since Trudeau retired, only even less charismatic. Despite their name, the Liberals have been center to center-right for essentially my entire lifetime.

56

Martin Bento 09.23.13 at 11:22 pm

Here’s an old thread from this site in which Fuller participated, which shows pretty clearly how he argues. He willfully misconstrues the statements of others and even his own – for example, by phrasing an attack as a rhetorical question and then pretending he was just asking for clarification. Being deliberately obtuse is one thing; pretending to be too stupid to understand one’s own words is something else.

https://crookedtimber.org/2007/06/13/deluge-of-dershowitz/

57

Omri 09.24.13 at 2:35 am

The primarily leftist writers who sounded the alarm about antiscience attitudes among postmodernist academics (Sokal, Gross, Leavitt, et al) were right to sound an alarm. Entire cohorts of young people were going to college, where among other things they are supposed to learn how to evaluate the merits of scientific claims, and they were being taught, by the purveyors of the fashionable nonsense of the 90’s, a whole corpus of rationalizations against bothering with that sort of thing.

Just because Sokal and company gave right wingers something to cackle over with delight, does not mean they didn’t do something right and important. I know everyone among my friends who bought into antivaccine nonsense were 1. educated, 2. leftist, and 3. unfortunately, inclined to use postmodernist arguments to dismiss the importance of the scientific method altogether, and speculate about the cui bono of vaccination and its riks, real and imagined.

As for Furedi and company, I am boggled. I can sympathize with saying “when the facts, change, I change my mind.” But to change one’s mind in lockstep with a whole clique of people? What is this, I don’t even…

58

reason 09.24.13 at 9:03 am

bad Jim @52

” deeper conspiracy at work to deprive us of everything we hold dear, our trucks and our lawns, even our precious lightbulbs.

The theory of evolution, they darkly hint, is a godless attempt to turn the minds of our vulnerable young to a life free of consequence”

Very curious that they don’t see the contradiction in those two directly adjoint sentences (the deprevation of lightbulbs being a consequence of the externalities of energy use).

59

Anarcissie 09.24.13 at 4:43 pm

Omri 09.24.13 at 2:35 am:
‘The primarily leftist writers who sounded the alarm about antiscience attitudes among postmodernist academics (Sokal, Gross, Leavitt, et al) were right to sound an alarm. Entire cohorts of young people were going to college, where among other things they are supposed to learn how to evaluate the merits of scientific claims, and they were being taught, by the purveyors of the fashionable nonsense of the 90′s, a whole corpus of rationalizations against bothering with that sort of thing.’

I’m curious about this statement. I have little idea of what was going on in colleges in the ’90s, but I did pay attention to Sokal’s Hoax and subsequent material written by him, and I thought it was pretty ignorant. This shows the value of ignorance, because the Hoax itself, and its success (in getting published at all) was a wonderful piece of humor which people with a better understanding of ‘postmodernism’ could not have written or accepted. But I haven’t observed much evidence that the kind of people who used to have faith in science have lost any of it. People do understand that in a capitalist social order, where everyone is pressured into competitive market relationships with everyone else, that science can and will be used for dubious or malign purposes as long as it makes money or brings power and repute, and that much that is presented as science isn’t science but ‘science’. Hence the suspicion of vaccination and mainstream medicine in general, GMOs, nuclear power, and so on. Moreover, most of the material which Sokal satirizes is virtually unreadable; one must doubt, then, that many out of the cohorts of young people who were allegedly being corrupted by it actually read any of it. But I’m willing to look at contrary evidence if there is any.

60

Omri 09.24.13 at 5:21 pm

For the sake of argument, I’ll entertain the notion that Sokal and company attacked and satirized an oversimplified precis of postmodernist theory, rather than the real thing. (I won’t try to ascertain whether it is so, cuz ain’t nobody got time for that.) Nevertheless, I can tell you that in the fall of 1997, I sat in a classroom at MIT, and listened to a professor of psychology who bought in to that oversimplified precis, while he claimed that Einstein’s theory of relativity was justification for his own relativistic take on basic epistemology.

61

Anarcissie 09.25.13 at 2:51 am

So actually he believed in science.

62

Omri 09.25.13 at 5:55 pm

Uh, no. Interpreting Einsteinian relativity as a justification for postmodernist epistemology is not indicative of a belief in science.

63

Anarcissie 09.26.13 at 5:21 am

He must have believed in science if he thought it was a justification for something, even postmodernist epistemology, whatever that is. Or am I being overly logical here?

64

reason 09.26.13 at 9:22 am

bad Jim @52 reason @58
I just realised that of course the Theory of Evolution doesn’t teach people to lead a life free of consequence. The Theory of Evolution is nothing if not consequential.

65

Omri 09.26.13 at 1:44 pm

No, Anarcissie. Mining a theory of physics for buzzwords is not indicative of a belief in science. It’s just indicative of a belief in its usefullness as a source for buzzwords.

66

Anarcissie 09.26.13 at 4:41 pm

@65 — You did say ‘justification’, so I was under the impression that your professor was indulging in the frequently observed sequential structure of (1) (mis)understanding a scientific theory and (2) using some kind of logic or narrative based on the (mis)understanding to (3) arrive at some peculiar conclusion, not that he was simply vacuuming up and dumping buzzwords. Some of the performances of the former type can be quite interesting — clouds of buzzwords, not so much, since they are so widely used in technology business advertising, which I suppose must have academic analogs.

67

Omri 09.27.13 at 3:09 pm

@66 if a climate denier cites some out of context quotes from a climate scientist, does that mean he believes in science?

If an antivax loon cites a few quotes from Paul Offit or Orac, does that mean he believes in science?

If a gay rights activist cites verses from Leviticus in order to demand that a fundie get off his back, do you conclude he is a Christian as per the Nicene Creed?

68

Anarcissie 09.27.13 at 4:01 pm

@67 — I believe you’re referring to the overrated debating tactic of using one’s opponent’s evidence or logic against the opponent. In that case, actual belief in the opponent’s argument is not implied. I got the idea that your professor was providing a constructive support for his view of epistemology, in which case he would have to believe (I would think) that the support had some validity (or it would not be a very good support). Of course it is possible for a climate-change denier to believe in science, since as we know humans have little trouble simultaneously entertaining contradictory beliefs. (We have the far more egregious example of ‘Creation Science’.) So the professor could simultaneously believe that science was invalid and contained worthy material in support of his views, perhaps thus giving a living example of his Relativistic epistemology.

Comments on this entry are closed.