Be a Dissenter for Science
When does politics trump science? Whenever it wants to. That’s a problem with modern politics in general, and — at least in part — we owe it to the malign influence of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
We all know about the anti-science right, and they are indeed awful. The creationists. The AGW deniers. The folks with… let’s call them less-than-mainstream theories of reproductive health. And others.
But there is also an anti-science left. Their numbers and influence are certainly much smaller, and the media does its best never to connect the dots. Still, they’re out there: They are the anti-GMO folks, who reject a scientific consensus every bit as strong as the one supporting anthropogenic global warming. They are the anti-vaxers, whose movement will hopefully fizzle now that we are seeing the awful effects of leaving kids unvaccinated. They are the groups opposing food irradiation, although irradiating to kill bacteria is both safe and effective. And then there’s the entire organic food movement, aptly likened to a kind of secular kashrut. Organic food has shown no demonstrated health benefits. Organic farming means destroying more natural habitat than we need to. And organic farming methods can’t possibly feed the whole world. Organics will necessarily remain exactly what they are right now: a luxury, one that gratifies our apparently inborn need for purity-and-danger taboos. They’re a game that lefties play with their instincts, and not at all a means of saving the planet.
That said, I am not writing to suggest a simple equivalence between Team Red and Team Blue. I’m not saying that it’s irrelevant which side you choose, or that there are no meaningful differences between them. (I am not doing these things, and yet I know that — because politics is the mind killer — I will be accused of doing them anyway. So, whatever.) I’m not asking you to abandon your political beliefs wholesale, and still less am I asking you to adopt mine. I appear to have been born enjoying cognitive dissonance, and I don’t expect this to be a shared character fault, given how maladaptive it is.
What I ask is much simpler: Whichever side you’re on, left or right, at least put science first. If you have to, be a dissenter for science. No matter what side you’re on. I’m not asking you to give up your political team. That’s (1) way too much cognitive dissonance for you to endure and (2) you wouldn’t do it anyway and (3) I don’t even like any of the organized teams, so I find no point in shuffling you around among them, even if I could. I just ask that politics come second, for a while, whenever people who care somewhat less about politics are trying impartially to figure out what’s going on. Listen to these people for a while, please.
In my last set of concretes, I picked on the left, so I’ll pick on the right for the next: Does anyone imagine that climate scientists were cheered to discover anthropogenic global warming? Does a slightly increased probability of grant funding really comfort anyone, when they contemplate the possibility of radical climate change? Folks on the right like to point out that climatologists in the 1970s anticipated a new ice age. They cite this fact as if it proved the incompetence of science in general. What it really shows, to anyone who would consider the position of the scientists involved, is that science is able to change its mind in the face of new and better data. That ought to be a virtue, not a vice. That is — it ought to be the way that cognition happens for all of us. (Is it possible in politics? Maybe not…)
What politicians may choose to do about global warming is a completely separate question from the science. Policymakers ought to consider the tradeoffs presented by various regulations, the groups harmed and helped by them, and the chances of a policy’s overall success or failure. That’s if they were honest and disinterested, which of course they typically are not.
If this were the place for it — and it’s not — I would point out what I see as the strengths and weaknesses of various proposals that respond to the scientific fact of AGW. What seems truly improper to me, though, is for political types to reach beyond politics, into what ought to be the value-neutral domain of science, for the sake of our all-too-human political wins or losses. As if nature were playing on the same team we are, and God were keeping score.
The science says what it says, though. It’s not always going to be right, but it will be more often than guessing, which is what the politically motivated answer inevitably amounts to. Science is not always going to square with your intuitions, and especially not your politically motivated intuitions: Politics is less a tool for uncovering the truth than it is a tool for burying the truth.
Like much of what’s wrong with our politics, our anti-scientific movements, both left and right, trace their ancestry to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau held that civilization and technological progress brought inequality, vanity, vice, and the tragic alienation of mankind from its very nature. Rousseau held that we haven’t been happy — not happy in any way that really matters — since we were all noble savages. A happy state that the very first scientists ruined:
I know it is incessantly repeated that man would in such a state have been the most miserable of creatures… [but] … I should be glad to have explained to me, what kind of misery a free being, whose heart is at ease and whose body is in health, can possibly suffer. I would ask also, whether a social or a natural life is most likely to become insupportable to those who enjoy it. We see around us hardly a creature in civil society, who does not lament his existence: we even see many deprive themselves of as much of it as they can, and laws human and divine together can hardly put a stop to the disorder. I ask, if it was ever known that a savage took it into his head, when at liberty, to complain of life or to make away with himself. Let us therefore judge, with less vanity, on which side the real misery is found. On the other hand, nothing could be more unhappy than savage man, dazzled by science, tormented by his passions, and reasoning about a state different from his own. It appears that Providence most wisely determined that the faculties, which he potentially possessed, should develop themselves only as occasion offered to exercise them, in order that they might not be superfluous or perplexing to him, by appearing before their time, nor slow and useless when the need for them arose. In instinct alone, he had all he required for living in the state of nature; and with a developed understanding he has only just enough to support life in society.
The resemblance to Rousseau is perhaps stronger on the left, among the organic food devotees and the drum circles. But “back to the Pleistocene!” may be shouted to good effect on either side of the aisle. (MRM folks, I’m looking at you…)
Noble savagery was not Rousseau’s only mistake. He also very distinctly prized intuition ahead of intellection: Truth, for Rousseau, was only that which was clear and obvious to the virtuous man. His philosophy had no room for hard-won and counterintuitive conclusions. Revision for him was not a sign of refinement — or, if it was, what he meant by “refinement” was something pejorative. Science itself corrupted, with its flood of complicating data:
What shall I say of that metropolis of the Eastern Empire [Constantinople], which, by its situation, seemed destined to be the capital of the world; that refuge of the arts and sciences, when they were banished from the rest of Europe, more perhaps by wisdom than barbarism? The most profligate debaucheries, the most abandoned villainies, the most atrocious crimes, plots, murders and assassinations form the warp and woof of the history of Constantinople. Such is the pure source from which have flowed to us the floods of knowledge on which the present age so prides itself.
But wherefore should we seek, in past ages, for proofs of a truth, of which the present affords us ample evidence? There is in Asia a vast empire, where learning is held in honour, and leads to the highest dignities in the state. If the sciences improved our morals, if they inspired us with courage and taught us to lay down our lives for the good of our country, the Chinese should be wise, free and invincible. But, if there be no vice they do not practise, no crime with which they are not familiar; if the sagacity of their ministers, the supposed wisdom of their laws, and the multitude of inhabitants who people that vast empire, have alike failed to preserve them from the yoke of the rude and ignorant Tartars, of what use were their men of science and literature? What advantage has that country reaped from the honours bestowed on its learned men? Can it be that of being peopled by a race of scoundrels and slaves?
Ugly stuff, this Rousseau. Stripped of its racism (or, you know, not), the idea remains with us that the Truth and our deepest, most unreflective intuitions coincide. But that idea is precisely the one thing science cautions us the most strongly against. (Who was the original anti-vaxer? The one who did the most to inspire all the rest? Rousseau. Of course.)
How should we think of science? I’m going to cite Hayek here, but not because I think my own tribe is particularly exempt from antiscientific prejudice. It’s certainly not. Still I have not found the difficulty so well expressed in any other author:
The whole history of modern Science proves to be a process of progressive emancipation from our innate classification of the external stimuli till in the end they completely disappear… The new world which man thus creates in his mind, and which consists entirely of entities which cannot be perceived by our senses, is yet in a definite way related to the world of our senses. It serves, indeed to explain the world of our senses… But the point is that the attempts to establish such uniform rules which the perceptible phenomena obey have been unsuccessful so long as we accepted as natural units, given entities, such constant complexes of sense qualities as we can simultaneously perceive. (F. A. Hayek, The Counter-Revolution of Science. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1979, pp 31-33.)
Science frustrates our intuitions, but it predicts future events much better than intuition ever could. We should welcome it for precisely this reason. We should welcome the confounding of our intuitions: We should dance when we are proven wrong.
Given the relatively small range of claims advanced by our intuitions within the much vaster range of claims that might be so advanced, we should not be surprised indeed if, on venturing beyond the range of behaviors governed for eons by instincts in similar animals, our intuitions proved to be worthless. Intuitions ought not to be worth anything in these domains, and science agrees that they aren’t. Of course, our politics runs on intuition, a fact whose implications can’t be fully expressed without becoming both tedious and perhaps more radical than the audience will tolerate.