The Tyranny of Confusion

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.

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]
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!

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.

-- CAV

6 comments:

Burgess Laughlin said...

"That cause ... 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."

Your comment is very perceptive. I would like to suggest a possible explanation that goes a step further. (A full historical explanation of the phenomenon would require a lot of research with a lot of examples.)

I would suggest that the basic cause of the advocates of ICACC (Imminent Catastrophically Anthropogenic Climate Change) getting away with leaping from climatological studies to political mandates is this: There are no more fundamentals. Philosophy, in the broader culture, is dead.

This is the payoff, the cash-value, of the disintegration of philosophy. There is no more philosophy There is no more politics as a branch of philosophy. There is still science, as specialized studies.

Here is a narrow, anecdotal illustration. Last year I participated in discussions at realclimate.com. After earning a reputation for being respectful and open to learning, I asked where (in what book) I could find a proof of the "global warming" thesis.

In a calm and respectful manner, I was told by scientists there that "science doesn't do proofs." "Proof" is for mathematics. (This is the standard, bogus model of reason-as-geometry, a misleading model that goes back, I suspect, to Plato's time.)

This is another example of dis-integration. We have piles of evidence, they say, but we don't do proofs (that is, integrations of information into an argument logically leading to a conclusion). And if scientists can't integrate, we shouldn't be surprised that even broader integrations--that is, philosophical ones--are unavailable.

I would suggest that Kant, especially in the Critique of Pure Reason, was the main, but not only, force behind the disintegrationist movement that is heading to the bottom.

Monica said...

"Even if such claims were true, they would have no bearing on the question of whether animals have rights."

Exactly.

Of course, it is often easier for them to deflect the entire issue of rights altogether than to think critically about the concept.

There are people who fall into the animal rights movement out of a genuine desire to promote animal welfare, and muddle the concepts of "welfare" and "rights" without realizing the problems with that. Of course, the generally naive fall into all sorts of movements. I find it difficult to decide, at times, whether to publish such comments if I cannot determine the type of person who is commenting, or what they really mean by the term "rights". It basically boils down to whether I think the person is rational, and thus, reachable.

I had two such comments on my blog today, about a snarky post of mine written yesterday on topic of animal rights (which linked to your post on animal rights). I decided to publish them and answer with my own rebuttal. However, if they decide to respond without thinking critically about what I said, that will be the end of the conversation! :) Unfortunately, that is what usually happens with these folks. The conversation does not remain polite, and descends into a morass of mud slinging and anti-conceptual thought. Yuck.

Gus Van Horn said...

Burgess,

Your comment that there is, in effect "no more philosophy" does a better job than I did by attempting to sum it up as "confusion".

Also, your example of the scientists who scoff at the notion of proof beyond the narrow field of mathematics is excellent, and it also jogs my memory of a phenomenon Leonard Peikoff alluded to in his summer DIM Hypothesis course, to which he gave the Seinfeldian name "conceptual shrinkage".

If I understood what LP means properly, it manifests in science like this: I think that most scientists would agree that you can reason from evidence, but that you can only go so far, and that to integrate it with the rest of your knowledge, explicitly anyway, isn't kosher.

Monica,

I (perhaps) am more "generous with my posting of comments from the types of people you bring up: If the comment itself illustrates what is wrong with a position or my reply can make it do so in such a way I can reach people who ARE open to argument, I am very likely to post it.

Gus

Monica said...

"If the comment itself illustrates what is wrong with a position or my reply can make it do so in such a way I can reach people who ARE open to argument, I am very likely to post it."

Mm. Yes, I think that was in my mind as well, although I didn't articulate it very well.

Joe at Forces blog said...

From the Frank Furedi quote above:

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.

It should be noted that environmentalists are embracing science now not beacuse the environmentalists have become rational, but because scientists (at least the climate alarmist scientists) have become irrational.

Gus Van Horn said...

You are absolutely right about the fact that the environmentalists remain irrational while some "scientists" are becoming irrational. (This is not to say that a scientist who really thinks that the evidence is in favor of anthropogenic global warming is irrational.)

And not to dispute what you brought up, but you also indirectly bring up another worthwhile point: Is it really accurate to say that they now "embrace science"? I would say not. The environmentalists and their ilk are merely embracing the respectability that lip-service to science can buy them.

To use science as a cudgel rather than a means of discovering the truth about the physical world is, fundamentally, to reject reason and science with it.

Or, as I like to say professionally: "Real scientists don't have pet theories."