Monday, October 10, 2005

Science, Truth, and the Politics of Deception

Andrew Hehir, writing in Salon, makes some very important points about the current conflict between science and politics ("The Know Nothings," September 14, 2005.) What does it mean that the current administration rejects science not just in practice but in theory? And what vulnerability has the administration exploited in its surprisingly successful attempt to block scientific information from the public? Hehir is right to call this an "epistemological crisis," so right, in fact, that I would take it even further and name this the great philosophical problem of our time. (Of course as something of an idealist I tend to view social problems as symptoms of philosophical errors - please forgive me that bias.)
First, it is clear to me that the discipline of science as a public service, one whose purpose is to establish the public as an authority competent to govern itself, has stalled and even reversed. In May 2004 a report of the National Science Board, An Emerging and Critical Problem of the Science and Engineering Labor Force, sparked alarm among educators by predicting shortfalls of scientists and engineers based on current trends in education. (For the debate over this issue, see the following articles.) Even if it is unclear, however, as to whether science as a specialized profession is in decline, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence as to the decline of scientific knowledge among the general public. It is this state of affairs which the neo-conservative movement has actively exploited in pursuit of its anti-regulatory agenda, as Hehir chronicles. On matters of vital public interest, including global warming, public health, stem-cell research, sexual education, and the teaching of evolution, the Bush administration has repeatedly obscured the findings of science through a particularly effective and vicious new form of propaganda: the fake scientific debate. To use Al Gore’s phrase, the Bush administration uses an echo chamber which bounces manufactured debate between the walls of industry-sponsored think tanks and the conservative media, then baits the supposedly mainstream press into covering the "controversy." Once this false notion of a scientific controversy has been generally established in the public mind, the administration can then use the public’s confusion as itself further evidence of the existence of an actual debate. For instance, if only half of Americans "believe" in evolution, then this can be taken as evidence that the legitimacy of the theory of evolution may still be plausibly regarded as an open question. If the goal of science is to establish a public consensus of verifiable facts, then the goal of the Bush administration is to break that consensus through constant suggestion of uncertainty.
This suggests that the current epistemological crisis and the much discussed crisis in journalism are one and the same. The media appears to be functionally incapable any longer of distinguishing between good and bad arguments, information and propaganda, truth and fiction. So-called "balance," which is understood as being neutral to matters of truth, is the self-proclaimed goal of today’s media ("fair and balanced.") Once again this is a turn of events which has been ruthlessly exploited by the ruling conservative party. For instance, consider the recent political acts against public television, ginned up as an effort to provide "conservative balance" to PBS. Even more chilling is the conservative campaign against objectivity in higher education. The libertarian commentator Cathy Young has written about the need for "intellectual diversity," meaning a balance of conservative and liberal faculty appointments, at colleges and universities. Apparently there is nothing contradictory to Young about this kind of merging of the scientific and the political – as if research should be judged not simply on its empirical merits but on its political affiliation as well.
But we are not yet to the bottom of the current epistemological crisis. It’s no surprise that a powerful authoritarian regime would attempt to manipulate science for its own purposes, but what weakness has it exploited in doing so? The Bush administration could not have succeeded in its misinformation campaign unless the public had in some sense willingly assisted in its own deception. I would like to make the case that the prevailing conditions exploited by the Bush administration are the result of a set of epistemological errors resulting from a popular (and populist) misunderstanding of post-modernism, first introduced into politics by the left in the second half of the 20th century and now adapted and perfected by the new right.
Hehir hints at this when he says that the work of philosophers of science such as Wittgenstein, Foucault, and Feyerabend (I would add Thomas Kuhn) has contributed to a general sense of epistemological uncertainty which has arisen in the public mind in the past half century. A generous philosophy of relativism has become common property; science has become popularly regarded as an arena of dispute rather than of clarification and consensus. It’s beyond my intention here to mount a thorough defense of the work of these philosophers, but I will say that all of them would have been appalled at the appropriation of their work by a radical, authoritarian regime. Far from intending to undermine science, the purpose of their work was to bring about its advancement by liberating the western tradition from its foundationalist and idealist impulses and re-grounding it in the organic processes of language and culture. I’ll concede however that the failure of post-modernism to clearly articulate its liberal intentions has been one of the chief sources of the sloppy and nihlistic relativism which now pervades the popular understanding, and further, that skeptics such as Foucault either failed to realize or didn’t care that an unbridled skepticism is easily converted by the skilled sophist into the precise metaphysical authority it claims to be resisting.
The Bush administration’s mastery of post-modern sophistry deserves a closer study than I can provide here. At its most effective, it flattens discourse into a an exercise in futility, marked by absurdist non-sequiturs, flights of cynical fancy, and passive-aggressive posturing, all scored with a numbing fatalism. It is impossible to get a straight answer from the Bush administration and yet, until very recently, its reputation was always just the opposite. This is the mark of the truly exceptional sophist: when the weakness of one’s argument is so artfully presented as to be universally accepted as its greatest strength. In the case of the Bush administration, a record of stunning dishonesty and manipulation masquerades, successfully, as unvarnished candor. Which brings me to the greatest triumph of the Bush administration, and that is its masterful subversion of American values. The character played by the President is a composite of 19th and 20th century American archetypes: the evangelical preacher, the self-made man, the recovered addict, the lone ranger, and the WWII soldier. Each of these figures is meant to evoke an American value: selflessness, humility, earnestness, folk-wisdom, independence, piety, determination. Bush is adept at turning arguments on their head by retreating to one of these values and then accusing his critic of betraying it, forcing his critics to defend their patriotism rather than focus on objective arguments.
This brings the conflict between science and politics into sharper focus: if the goal of science is to clarify discourse so as to establish the public as its own authority, then the goal of the Bush administration is just the opposite. Its power derives from general confusion and ignorance, from a deliberate heightening of the general sense of indeterminacy (from an epistemological perspective) and anxiety (from a psychological perspective) which are the defining characteristics of capitalist societies.
Finally, let us delve once more into the history of philosophy to try and make some sense out of what brought the western tradition to this point. Why has the progress of science been so drastically halted? What factors have contributed to the philosophical and social impasse at which we now find ourselves? If post-modernism is a kind of black hole at the bottom of western metaphysics, then it is one whose existence has long been suspected and feared. From Plato’s dialogues the need for a foundationalist super-structure with which to buttress scientific inquiry is already apparent. This is the beginning of the essentialist strategy which becomes omnipresent in western philosophy. The reasoning goes that only a self-validating (or self-transcending) foundation would be capable of withstanding the skeptical assault; without it, science collapses into meaningless parody and self-reference. The long-noted problem with this strategy is that like any makeshift barrier, essentialism only provides a temporary fix. If essences themselves are proposed as part of a visibly material discourse, with all of the telltale signs of human construction, then what permits them to operate so exceptionally? The result is an infinitely repeated recourse to allegedly purer and purer regions untainted by the fallibility and temporality of human institutions. This problem was not solved by the Enlightenment, which only converted essentialism into a cult of personalized metaphysics – the individualist values of autonomy and self-determination. The Enlightenment project already foretold the failed state of post-modernism.
Yet if both essentialism of the classical variety and anti-essentialism of the post-modern variety lead to the same impasse, is there a future for science as a public discipline? Might we ever hope to live in a world in which the findings of science are cherished as the consensus beliefs of an informed public, and George W. Bush is known only as his father’s miserable son?
The answer, I submit, lies in the other great western philosophical tradition most articulately represented by Aristotle: naturalist in method, constructivist in its anthropology, pragmatic, adaptable, process-oriented, transcendental. If science is regarded not as the procurement of a fixed state of knowledge with reference to some theoretical essence, nor as a continual contest between equally arbitrary perspectives, but rather as a natural process unfolding through the fallible but nevertheless self-transcending institutions of language and culture, then science is as imperfect as the human life which temporarily possesses and proclaims it. What post-modernism should have taught us, but didn't, is that science doesn't take place in some theoretical, abstract realm but rather in the here and now. Consensus is gained through compromise, persuasion, and cooperation, not rationalist fiat. Progress is unpredictable, depending on the imaginative breaking and rebuilding of paradigms. Science is a creative process, a truly human activity. As anyone who has ever pursued science knows, truth and wisdom are rare gems indeed, gained only through struggle. Perhaps then science is a kind of revelation of a fragile and fleeting beauty which arises only briefly, like a flower, in the midst of great difficulty.

1 comment:

David McCullough said...

Thanks for speaking up about the public misunderstanding of skepticism. I've been astonished to fall upon internet postings describing Paul Feyerabend as "the father of relativism" and the like. I'm hard put to think of anyone more fundamentally contemptuous of the imprecision that marks postmodernism (not to mention the Bushies) than Feyerabend.

David McCullough