Friday, January 18, 2008
A trend I have commented on here recently is the misuse of scientific arguments by proponents of certain political movements to distract people from the political issues at hand. I have considered this point mostly in relation to global warming hysteria, but just yesterday, a couple of animal rights activists reminded me, by accident, of the constant hectoring from their camp to the effect that a vegetarian diet is better than the normal, omnivorous human diet. Even if such claims were true, they would have no bearing on the question of whether animals have rights, which belongs to political philosophy, or whether it we really ought to consume meat, which is a moral question.
My commentary on this trend so far has been mainly in the vein of the following advice from Ayn Rand's arch-villain, Ellsworth Toohey: "Don't bother to examine a folly -- ask yourself only what it accomplishes." In the case of global warming hysteria, those who push for such measures as government fuel rationing (so-called carbon emission caps), can, for example, more easily avoid questions about the propriety of doing so by involving their opponents in an endless debate over whether scientific evidence supports man-made carbon dioxide as a mechanism for global warming.
So far, so good. But might we be premature to stop our inquiry at what global warming hysterics or animal "rights" advocates hope to gain with a blizzard of scientific (or scientific-sounding) arguments? A fascinating article I encountered in Spiked! (via Arts and Letters Daily) this morning suggests that the answer to that question is "Yes."
Frank Furedi writes:
[W]hatever misgivings people have about science, its authority is unrivalled in the current period. The formidable influence of scientific authority can be seen in the way that environmentalists now rely on science to back up their arguments. Not long ago, in the 1970s and 80s, leading environmentalists insisted that science was undemocratic, that it was responsible for many of the problems facing the planet. Now, in public at least, their hostility towards science has given way to their embrace and endorsement of science. Today, the environmental lobby depends on the legitimation provided by scientific evidence and expertise. In their public performances, environmentalists frequently use the science in a dogmatic fashion. "The scientists have spoken", says one British-based campaign group, in an updated version of the religious phrase: "This is the Word of the Lord." "This is what the science says we must do", many greens claim, before adding that the debate about global warming is "finished". This week, David King, the former chief scientific adviser to the UK government, caused a stink by criticising extreme green "Luddites" who are "hurting" the environmentalist cause. Yet when science is politicised, as it has been under the likes of King, who once claimed that "the science shows" that global warming is a bigger threat than terrorism, then it can quite quickly and inexorably be converted into dogma, superstition and prejudice. It is the broader politicisation of science that nurtures today's dogmatic green outlook.Furedi is correct to note that science is being used to lend authority to certain moral and political beliefs. Our society, running on the fumes of the Enlightenment, still no longer takes religion seriously enough for it to serve as an inspiration or even a justification for radical policy changes. There remains a great respect for science as a means of reaching objective truth through the exercise of reason. And yet, thanks to the influence of modern philosophy, there are precious few other areas of human endeavor for which most people regard certainty as attainable. So science, as a sort of rump of the Enlightenment, ends up being used to bless off a conclusion as rational!
Today, religion and political ideologies no longer inspire significant sections of the public. Politicians find it difficult to justify their work and outlook in the vocabulary of morality. In the Anglo-American world, officials now promote policies on the grounds that they are "evidence based" rather than because they are "right" or "good". In policymaking circles, the language of "right" and "wrong" has been displaced by the phrase: "The research shows..." [Americanized punctuation, removed footnotes, added emphasis]
This is a very good observation, and Furedi is mostly correct in his further argument that the moralization and politicization of science endangers its objectivity. Two reservations I have about the piece are (1) that Furedi's initial example is far from a clear-cut case of using science as a moral authority and (2) that the term ("skeptical") he uses to describe the fearless inquiry of science implies that even science itself cannot yield certainty whether he intends it or not.
In so far as what bearing Furedi's observation has on taking Toohey's advice, it is this. Global warming snow job artists and their ilk are dishonest to be sure, but it is astounding how easily they are getting away with not arguing for why we should enact their political agenda. There must be a cause for this, and this cause must be addressed before political debate will become rational and constructive again.
That cause, as I have suggested, is that there is rampant, massive confusion about the fundamental philosophical ideas on which our advanced civilization depends. Neither science nor those who would misuse it have the power to establish tyranny, but the deep confusion sown by evil philosophers such as Immanuel Kant can. The purpose of his folly was to make many others possible.