Since Chris Mooney’s book has just come out in paperback and the critics often invoke false equivalence between abuses of science on the Right and the Left, I thought this would be a good time to repost this August 05, 2005 post (reposted here on January 16, 2006):
According to Michael Shermer there are:
– borderlands science
– psuedoscience, and
Science is a methodology of figuring out, with as great confidence as possible, how the world works. Evolutionary theory is one of the biggest, strongest and best-supported bodies of all of science.
Borderland Science refers to first small steps in acquiring realistic knowledge about a not-well-understood aspect of the world. It aspires to become Science, but is often held back by various factors, e.g., difficulty in studying the phenomenon of interest, biases of the investigators, social biases against investigations of such phenomena, etc.
For instance, very little is known about hypnosis. It is a real phenomenon but very difficult to study. There is not much funding for it as there is a social bias against such research. Thus, it is still doing its first small pioneering steps and has not resulted in data that are good enough to place it in the realm of real Science.
Another example is Evolutionary Psychology – it is done by psychologists (thus real scientists) who understand biology very poorly, yet strive to make their research scientific. Their own biases make them go up wrong alleys and bark up wrong trees (I love adding up mixed matephors, sorry). Yet, they are asking real questions about real phenomena and it is expected that at some point evolutionary psychology (lowercase) will get its methodology straight and make enough advances to become real Science.
Pseudoscience is an attempt to sell out-of-ass beliefs as scientific by using hifallutin’ terminology, perform meaningless calculations, draw elaborate charts etc. Examples are many (peruse past editions of the Skeptic’s Circle for examples) and include astrology, biorhythms, pyramid force, Feng Shui, crystal balls, alternative medicine, Holocaust denial, Intelligent Design Creationism, and many, many others. The main goal, usually, is making a quick buck, although more sinister motivations are sometimes behind such ideas, i.e., these may serve as methods for making an unrespectable ideology (e.g., Nazism) respectable again, or there is political gain to be had.
Nonsense does not even pretend to be scientific, e.g., Old Earth Creationism.
The psuedoscientific ideas have cropped up, historically, both within the political Right and Left – and often completely detached from any ideology. The crucial difference between the two (today) is that the Lefty pseudoscience has no negative consequences for the broader society. Nobody is hurt if some Birkenstock Lefty performs chants and lights up incense during a spiritual night of camping out in the desert in Arizona.
Lefty pseudoscience was always marginal and marginalized by everyone on both the Left and the Right. No political party has ever pushed for astrology or biorhythms to be used in classrooms or in military planning.
However, attack on science, reason and rationality is the centerpiece of the Right-Wing strategy. The only way they can save their medieval notions about society, economics, religion, science, race, gender equality, etc. from being deposited forever in the trashbin of history is if they systematically brainwash every new generation into dogmatism, uncritical thinking and fearful obedience to their authority. They are in power now – White House, Congress, Supreme Court – and they are ramming anti-science and anti-reality ideas into school (and into media) as hard as they can.
Their strategy is to confuse everyone as to what is science, what is borderlands science, what is pseudoscience, what is nonsense, i.e., what are facts and what is opinion. They are pushing IDC in order to spread the seeds of that confusion. They sneer at the reality-based community. What they are trying to do is institute not just moral relativism, but also factual relativism – nobody knows what the truth is any more and nobody knows how to figure out what the truth is so the only recourse is to blindly believe one’s leaders (while they steal your money and your labor).
Saying that pseudoscientific excesses of the Loony Left are equivalent to the pseudoscientific excesses of the Righteous Right is just an example of such factual (and moral) relativity. The former is silly, discredited, powerless and innocuous. The latter is serious, more and more mainstream and dangerous to the Enlightment and what it gave to the human civilization. The former is laughable. The latter is the key weapon of the Republican Party (at least the faction in power right now).
What about the notion that Academia is liberal, particularly in social sciences? True, and that is good. Let me try to explain why (though I have done it before).
Science changes and evolves and, by being self-correcting, gets closer and closer to the truth as time passes. For instance, current understanding of evolution is better than in 1960s, which in turn was better than the 1930s evolutionary theory, which was better than the theory as described in the Origin of Species, which was better than the ideas of Chambers or Lamarck.
Social sciences are “soft” so the self-correcting process takes longer and often incites more vigorous fights. Still, it does self-correct over time and the current state of psychology, sociology, anthropology, economics, etc. is much better than the 1960s social science, which was better than 1920s which was better than 1880s, which was better than 1670s….
What conservatives would like to see re-introduced into social science departments at the Universities is 1880s social science. This is equivalent to trying to re-introduce Lamarckism into biology departments.
The path towards greater accuracy within science is often not linear. There is often a pendulum motion between one extreme and the opposite extreme, one springing up as a reaction to the other, introducing its own excesses, then giving way to the opposite extreme.
“Nature” held sway for a while, then “nurture” took over as the dominant paradigm, nature again, nurture again….but today it is neither and both. We have arrived not at a grey compromise position somewhere in the middle between the two extremes, but at the more sophisticated understanding of the inheritance of behavioral traits.
Both “nature” and “nurture” are hierarchical positions. We have arrived at the current understanding when we ditched hierarchy in favor of a an interactionist system. This has happened in many areas of science, including evolutionary biology among others.
The same happened in political ideology. In 1930s, both conservative and liberal ideologies were hierarchical – the difference was who’s on top (i.e., in control of economy). But today, conservative ideology still clings to hierarchy (it cannot change – it is BASED on hierarchy), while modern liberalism is an interactionist system.
Conservative childrearing philosophy (as explicated in e.g., James Dobson’s manuals) leads to a hirerachical way of thinking about everything. It is very difficult for born-and-raised conservatives to comprehend non-hierarchical interactionist systems. That is why they do not understand what “free market” is all about, nor can they understand what modern liberalism is all about. They either assume it is the same as it was in the 1930s (thus calling us “commies”), or understand it has changed but do not understand how and instinctively recoil in fear when presented with something they are incapable of understanding (I have written many times and in great detail about various aspects of this so you can dig through the archives of the relevant category).
Back to liberal social science in academia. Excesses of conservatism in social sciences in the late 19th and early 20th century were replaced by excesses of liberal social sciences. Pendulum swung a few times, and each time there was self-correction and general improvement.
No, current state of social sciences is not perfect, but is immeasurably better than anything conservatives would like to put instead. Their social science has not evolved in almost a century – it is badly out of date. Most importantly, conservative social science is still hierarchical – implicitly or explicitly it is based on superiority of some groups (usually white rich Christian straight American males) over other groups.
Liberal social science has largely transcended hierarchical worldview and adopted interactionist thinking. With all its imperfections, it is the best we have at the moment, the closest to the true understanding of the reality. Conservatism has nothing to offer but return to an outmoded hierarchical way of thinking that can be used and abused in apologetics of various social inequities. Putting conservative social science back into the academia is just like hiring a Lamarckist in a biology department. A huge step backwards.
Hard sciences, social sciences, society and political ideology change and evolve over time. Invoking eugenics (which, btw, was apparently liked by conversatives, too, just ask Herr Adolf) or attacking 1960s or 1930s liberalism is exactly the same tactic that Creationists use when they attack the theory as described in the Origin instead of CURRENT evolutionary theory.
What happened in the past 30-40 years or so is that much of hard sciences, social sciences, society and liberal political ideology have moved from linear hierarchical thinking to non-linear interactionist thinking.
Liberals have embraced this change BECAUSE it eliminates some errors of historical liberalism (e.g,. of the 1930s or 1960s). Not all have changed, though. Lieberman is a dinosaur, and so are many others in the Democratic leadership. Some of the Feng-Shui liberals I criticized above are likewise stuck in the 1960s.
Embracing this change also helps liberalism form a unified, internally consistent ideology, in place of its usual issue-by-issue catalogue of stands.
However, conservatism CANNOT change and get modern and current because hierarchy is the ESSENCE of conservatism. Attempts to modernize weaken conservatism as it is forced to accept liberal views on individual issues (see Europe).
BushCo chose the opposite tactic – keep conservatism logically consistent and intact, thus, in the process, stopping the evolution of all political thought, of science and of society – keeping the status quo indefinitely. Systematic attack on science is a neccessary strategy, actually central strategy for that endeavor to succeed.
Conservatism is violently lashing out like a wounded beast feeling its own impending demise. It is still dangerous. If we are not careful it can kill us. If that happens, history stops, returns to 18th century norms, and persists in that state for a long time. We just have to win this fight, defeat this beast once for all, in order to save the Enlightement and allow the world to move on into the future.
Update (responses to critics):
Political theories may not be falsifiable, but political theories are based on either common-sense or scientific theories about the world that are falsifiable.
One’s stance on any political issue, from economy, education, health care and environment to foreign policy or the role of the judiciary, stems from one’s core political ideology. That ideology is based on one’s general worldview – the way one understands the world. The way one understands the world is heavily influenced by one’s upbringing (not neccessarily conscious learning – it is more of an early developmental influence of the family dynamics). The way one understands the world may be consistent with empirical information about the way the world really works, or it may be at odds with our increasing knowledge about the world.
We have learned a lot about the world during the past century or so. Important pieces to understand are: human nature, human behavior, development of the brain and behavior, effects of upbringing on the subsequent behavior, human social behavior and formation of social groups, behaviors of large complex systems (e.g., economies), nature of human relationships (e.g., competition or cooperation) both between individuals and between groups (including between large groups, e.g., nations), etc.
Unfortunately, the conservative ideology is turning out to be based on what more and more appears to be inacurate and incorrect understanding of the way the world works.
Remember that 1930s liberal model was governmental control of industry – the experiment that was tried in the USSR etc. That is a top-down hierarchy. Today, liberalism is more free-market than conservatives can ever be, i.e., it is non-hierarchial interactionist thinking about the economics. In conservative minds, “free market” is a way to climb up (or down) a hierarchy. You compete against and compare yourself to other players in the system. The people on top – the winners – are assumed to have gotten there through hard work and fair play (which is actually impossible – you have to take a little sliver off your employees earnings in order to make a profit) and are trusted as moral pillars of the community – they can do no bad. Thus a hierarchy forms in which owners of megabusiness control economy, thus subverting the operation of free market – the economy becomes top-down controlled again. Liberals would have none of it: the idea is strengthen middle-class which runs small and mid-size businesses, while restraining the power of large business (not eliminating it – some things just HAVE to be done by big business due to the costs), i.e., letting the free market operate.
One of the major points of my post is that psuedoscience and anti-science that has its roots in the Left is marginalized by all political parties, while psuedoscience and anti-science that has its roots in the Right is front and center – nobody in the GOP farts without getting Dobson’s written permission first.
Thus, searching for nominally Leftist groups on the fringes in order to “prove” that Left is capable of pseudoscience does nothing to undermine the argument – au contraire, I have pointed it out in the very first comment.
I have also stated originally that many of the current leaders of the Democratic Party are dinosaurs, i.e., they belong to the ‘old’ liberalism. Clintons are not liberal, Ted Kennedy, Denis Kucinich and John Kerry are ‘Old Guard’. A few young-uns are new liberals, e.g., Dean and Edwards (off the top of my head). If you want to see the new liberals, go peruse the blogrolls of Big Brass Alliance, Liberal Coalition or Progressive Blog Alliance.
There is something strange about 1960s. Something happenned then that triggered revolutions in so many areas of society. I am not talking hippies here and LSD.
In the sixties, we learned about the DNA and Williams published his Adaptation and Natural Selection, which finalized the process of ossification of Darwinian synthesis, spawned “selfish gene” and sociobiology, and planted the seeds for the reaction – the evo-devo.
The sixties were the time when much of the non-linear dymanics (“chaos”) was worked out, leading to complexity theory which has influenced everything from biology to economics to lay understanding of nature.
The sixties saw the rise of a cheap and reliable Pill. As Stephanie Coontz documents in her “Marriage – A History”, the sixties were a beginning of a revolution in marriage that we are still embroiled in, that most observers have not noticed yet, and that is triggering the fearfull backlash from the conservatives.
The sixties saw a huge change in the way we use language – the de-formalization of English documented by John McWorther in “Doing Our Own Thing”. This, in turn, changed education and also paved the way for politicization of language, sloganeering and political marketing as first noticed by Charles Kelly in “The Great Limbaugh Con” and lately studied in depth by George Lakoff in “Moral Politics”.
Since mid-sixties, liberalism changed a lot. Conservativism could not change nor did it notice how liberalism changed. Liberals soaked in the new ways of thinking about the world because they naturally felt in line with progressive values – equality of opportunity. Conservatives were stuck and had to fight back against new liberalism by attacking the underlying science.