On science and liberalism

John Derbyshire thinks there’s a tension between liberalism and science:

liberal scientists, which is to say most scientists…are stuck in an uncomfortable philosophical fork.

Liberalism is optimistic. It is a doctrine of progress and improvement. (Why do you think they call themselves “progressives”?) In this, liberalism has had the support of science, which has made so much improvement possible — banishing diseases, improving the quality and variety of our food, reducing the need for arduous labor, increasing our comfort and amusements.

The link between liberalism and science is therefore easy to understand. Along with the generally optimistic implications of scientific progress, though, there has always been a pessimistic undertow. By repeatedly dethroning us — not at the center of the universe, only another branch on the tree of life — science diminishes us in our own eyes.

For myself, I’ve never seen this “dethroning” as cause for pessimism. It means we’re part of a universe, and that universe has gone on and done amazing things. We’re part of that, but not the pinnacle nor the zenith. Which means there’s room for improvement, and it also means that things can go pretty badly awry and still be fixed. Being at the pinnacle means you can only go down. Or if you’re created to be the pinnacle, then it means that you can neither go up nor down. You just are.

But as part of a dynamic universe governed by laws, you can improve yourself. You don’t need to be perfect, or the center of things. Indeed, the same reasoning that tells us we aren’t the center of things means that no one else is either. And that’s not cause for pessimism (nor, inherently, for optimism). Things could get worse, and a pessimist is entitled to remain a pessimist. But an optimism has plenty to work with, too.

Joel Mathis objects to a different part of that passage:

I can’t speak for others who call themselves liberal, but I think my liberalism has generally stemmed from a deep well of pessimism. Just to pluck out three examples…

• I think that over time, an un- or under-regulated market will accrue all or most of the rewards to the people who already have the most resources, generally squeezing workers who actually do much of the wealth creation in that market.

• I think that, without a government to step in and safeguard everybody’s rights, majorities will generally stomp on the neck of minorities—be they racial, religious, or sexual minorities.

• I think that when we go to war abroad, lots of people whom we never think about get killed. That it generally costs more and lasts longer than we’re promised.

So I favor regulated markets, the rule of law, and a dovish foreign policy. Not because—as conservatives allege—I expect government to create some kind of heaven on earth. I know that’s not possible. But I think government can curb our worst tendencies and mitigate their results.

I actually think this reflects a form of optimism. Liberals and (sensible, pre-teabagger) conservatives generally recognize the issues Joel raises. Some people sometimes suffer in unregulated markets, wars hurt some people, and majoritarian influence can have pernicious effects, especially on racial, religious, ethnic, and sexual minorities.

Conservatives who are willing to grant any of those premises, though, essentially throw up their hands. They’ll grant that markets aren’t always good for everyone, but they’ll insist that government intervention would just make it worse. Or sure, Jim Crow laws are an affront to American standards of decency, but government can’t just impose integration on the South, we just have to leave it for folks to sort that out on their own. And so forth.

In other words, both sides acknowledge the facts on the ground, an acknowledgment which Joel considers pessimistic. But what makes him (and me!) liberals is that we think something can be done about that. We think that government regulations can make markets fairer. We think government actions can improve the lot of oppressed minorities. We think government action can avert or at least alleviate the suffering caused by war.

And in practice, that optimism (in the capacity of government to do things) has been repeatedly vindicated. The Marshall Plan, the New Deal, civil rights laws and the Great Society all show government doing exactly these things, in ways that strengthen society and even out damaging inefficiencies. We’ve seen the same benefits from the stimulus bill, and from Affordable Care. There are comparable gains to be seen from enacting climate change policies.

Conservatism is pessimistic in that it rejects the possibility of fixing problems. And if you don’t think you can fix a problem, you often try to ignore that it exists (as we see with global warming denial). Liberalism is not pessimistic for acknowledging that problems exist, it would only be pessimistic if it gave up on the idea of fixing those problems.

And, for what it’s worth, when I talk about optimism about government doing things, what I really mean is optimism about the ability of people to get together and solve collective problems through a shared process. Governments exist not as some abstract imposition on society, but as a way to formalize this sort of social problem solving, an activity that primates have done since before humans existed.

Finally, another note on Derbyshire: he qualifies his argument that science is optimistic by writing: “Science — more precisely the technology that science makes possible — has fueled much of that political optimism.”

This equation, often unacknowledged, of science and technology, is common and problematic. Problematic in part because it leads to exactly the sort of optimism Derbyshire is espousing. Conservatives like Newt Gingrich are often enthusiastic about funding the sorts of research that will lead to technological advances (including space exploration, biomedical research, etc.), but are less enthusiastic about basic research, or research oriented towards identifying a problem or exploring its full scope. Hence, Bush-era suppression of climate science, or Rick Scott’s recent attack on the state of Florida’s Everglades management unit. Conservatives would happily fund expensive schemes for carbon sequestration, or other complex technological systems that could let us keep burning coal without having to worry about global warming, but scientific research that shows global warming happening is anathema.

There’s obviously substantial overlap between science and technology, but they aren’t identical, and while stories of technological progress can inspire a sort of optimism, we should balance that optimism with reminders of technological failure (including the persistence unintended consequences, like the accumulation of greenhouse pollution as a result of the internal combustion engine).

On the other hand, the expansion of knowledge thanks to science is always cause for optimism. Even scary findings, like the relatively sudden discovery of the ozone hole in the 1980s, are good, because knowledge is a good thing. With knowledge comes opportunity and responsibility. That’s neither cause for optimism nor pessimism.

I believe in humanity, and that means I believe in the ability of government of the people, for the people, to fix people’s problems. That’s why I’m an optimist, and a liberal.

Comments

  1. #1 coondawg68
    August 25, 2011

    “pre-teabagger”… with the homophobic slur and bigotry is no way to start your point.

    What constitutional conservatives (tea party people) call for is a return to the rule of law. They believe that the constitution doesn’t allow oligarchies determining the law, or unelected regulatory bodies or presidential dictates. That there is a process of check, balances and methods for seeking change built into the system. That the constitution is that system, not a roadblock to be jumped over.

    We believe that a powerful central government that picks winners and losers codifies minority oppression and enables it.

    We seek a repeal of excessive regulations that don’t protect us from the people who already have the most resources, but instead become toll gates protecting those people from upstarts and competition. A roll back of the corporatist crony capitalism that has infected the nation for 100 years.

    We believe that a dovish foreign policy ends up encouraging more tyrants and bullies to action, that if we show might and the willingness to use it in a massive and immediate way, we will have less need to. (The neo-conservative ‘third’ way of fighting a kinder, gentler war, one-hand behind our back nation building and peace keeping that Bush, Clinton, Bush and Obama favor has failed. Shock and Awe still has some value.)

    Science, and the seeming love of progressive, big government, central planning that many scientists have isn’t the result of pessimism or optimism, it is the result of one; the hubris of believing that for every natural problem that occurs someone smart enough can find a solution and implement it, without causing more problems and two; the deep immersion in academia, untouched by the realities of life and economy that face most adults who graduate and move on.

    The clearly politicized world of grants, tenure and peer review that requires scientists to have a unified set of political beliefs and to search for outcomes that fit those beliefs also sets up a sick perversion of the scientific method that rewards PC studies, thought and behavior. It’s the equivalent of the Vatican in the 17th century.

    A government of the people and for the people doesn’t ‘fix’ their problems. The people fix their problems, they occasionally can use government as a tool to do so, but more often than not unintended consequences of using that tool create far more problems. The government that best serves science, real progress and the people is one that keeps score, not decide winners and losers. One that treats all as equal before the law, one that protects the property rights of the people (as property is the fruit of their liberty) not a government that sees your property as something they own and that they get to redistribute, or dictate its use.

    A scientist should realize that economy is a force of nature, with rules as clear as physics. They know a government can no better repeal gravity by fiat than repeal the laws of cost, risk, reward.

    Middle-aged men and women who retain the childish belief of an egalitarian state run by experts that can out-guess and out-plan need and demand based on a command economy and who think that a government powerful enough to tell people who not to hate isn’t powerful enough to tell them who to hate are demonstrating an arrested development, not their hopes or fears of the future.

  2. #2 cervantes
    August 25, 2011

    Certainly. The liberal concept of human nature is that evolution made us what we are, but within the limits of nature, we can become what we aspire to. The conservative view is that our nature is ordained and it is sinful to try to change it.

    The main reason scientists tend to be liberal, of course, is that reality has a liberal bias.

  3. #3 Collin
    August 26, 2011

    Josh, excellent explanation of why we need optimism. You should tell this to Sharon Astyk.

  4. #4 Robert Grumbine
    August 26, 2011

    In order to stay more time-insensitive, I go more with Ambrose Bierce’s definitions of liberal and conservative than with political party names. From The Devil’s Dictionary:

    Liberal: One who wants to replace the current evils with new ones.

    Conservative: One who wants to keep the current evils.

    In that view, these days the Democrats are the conservatives, and the Republicans are the liberals.

    Also in that view, scientists, I think, are basically conservative with respect to science. Very liberal with respect to their own new ideas, which they think should replace the old ideas. But very conservative otherwise — someone who wants to introduce a new ‘evil’ had better do some real work to justify replacing the old one.

    For their political choices, on Bierce’s definition, I’d be hard pressed to guess where the majority of scientists lay — conservative or liberal. A couple notable people from my fields are Jim Hansen and Kerry Emmanuel, both politically conservative in the Bierce sense.

    So my thought is that political labels, at least for the last 2-300 years, are more about how you choose to deal with reality, not the reality (which, per Colbert, has a liberal bias). Given the reality of DDT causing various bad things, the liberals and conservatives of the early 1960s arrived at a deal on how to respond to reality — significantly restricting the usage of DDT. Given the reality of CFC emissions causing ozone depletion, liberal and conservative politicians arrived at the Montreal Protocol as a means of dealing with that reality (1980s). Given the reality of acid rain, a cap and trade system for sulfur emissions (then considered a mainly conservative solution) was developed in the 1980s.

    Where there’s greater unanimity among (us) scientists, imho, is in just what I assumed above — first you figure out what is real, and then you think about whether and how to deal with it. While that had long been more or less the case in politics in general, by the time of the 2004 elections it had ceased to be so. The story of the WBush representative referring to the reality based community as the enemy shortly before the 2004 election nailed that down for me. Legislators and legislatures voting that climate change (the fact) was a liberal conspiracy is a simple recurring illustration.

    It is this, I think, which has driven the current apparent ‘liberalism’ of scientists. When the party considered ‘conservative’ progressively abandons reality-based decision making, those who favor such are kind of stuck. Kerry Emmanuel mentioned having been life-long conservative and voting Republican, including twice for W Bush, but having at last been driven from the party by its anti-reality positions. So goes it, I expect, for many scientists.

  5. #5 M
    August 28, 2011

    I don’t always agree with your blog, but this one is definitely a winner.

  6. #6 Drivebyposter
    August 28, 2011

    “pre-teabagger”… with the homophobic slur and bigotry is no way to start your point.

    I stopped right there. Most other intelligent people probably will too. They/you came up with that name. Stop crying that you all came up with a name and didn’t know it had other meanings.

    You’re lying and sheer stupidity is no way to start your point.

  7. #7 TTT
    August 29, 2011

    @6: The teabaggers are the most humorless, self-important, self-mythologizing people in the history of American politics. They feel constantly victimized and offended by everything, and their response to every perceived slight is to narrate their autobiography at you.

Current ye@r *