Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Monday, November 29, 2004

Fundamentalist Devils, Postmodernist Angels

The Blight of “values” discourse continues to spread across the punditocratic terrain. The Wittgensteinian "whereof/thereof" has never seemed more fitting. (I see that Michael Kinsley reliably seems to be in a similarly snarky mood on this subject these days.)

Anyway, Anthony Stavrianakis in Spiked-Online writes about the rise of so-called “intelligent design” arguments (that is to say, fundamentalist Christians and others with one foot in the twenty-first century and another in the thirteenth, who decry the teaching of the theory of evolution in high school biology classrooms either because they are unpardonably ignorant or stupid themselves, or because they are simply eager to cynically manipulate others who are unpardonably ignorant or stupid to tighten their grip on power to serve their financial or otherwise socially conservative agendas).

Stavrianakis has tired, he says, of all the “well-worn clichés about the 'deep' south and redneck fundamentalist Christianity” that come up when talk turns to “intelligent design.” No, Stavrianakis chooses to focus his ire instead on “the value relativism characteristic of twenty-first century political debate.” It’s not all about hicks banning Darwin, folks, despite all appearances to the contrary, it’s... wait for it... elite, academic “post-modernists” who are to blame!

Stavrianakis is right to suggest that “I[ntelligent] D[esign] is less a critique of evolution than a political agenda,” and he may be right that at least occasionally “it feeds off a trait in political and scientific debate today whereby differing opinions are considered equally valid.” But I doubly disagree with the significance of this latter claim.

First, as someone trained and working in the belly of the “post-modern” beast (I’m in the Department of Rhetoric at Berkeley), I think his characterization of the environment of contemporary literary and cultural studies as a kind of empty-headed value-blindness is mistaken -- as is, come to think of it, any suggestion that humanistic intellectuals exercise much in the way of cultural authority in the United States these days in any case -- a mischaracterization that is driven by its own “political agenda.”

Second, the problem in my view is not any ominous “value-relativism” holding sway in diverse liberal secular cultures (if only!) which is somehow eating away at the solid science of stolid scientists. Precisely to the contrary, it is the stubborn consolidation of incompatible faith-based fundamentalisms that is clearly the trouble here. The clashing beliefs among fundamentalists are simply not amenable to rational disagreement or peaceful reconciliation in the first place. Meanwhile, this welter of incompatibly diverse believers intimately co-habit a techno-cultural world that is far too complex and unstable for them to accommodate successfully without making a few key adjustments at least in their public outlooks and practices (just like everybody else). Of course, most of these adjustments will look quite a lot like precisely the kind of “value relativism” Stavrianakis is decrying here as the problem at hand.

Science is a vast social and cultural project in which human beings collaborate to produce descriptions of the environment that deliver ever-greater instrumental and predictive power. A number of standards, methods, protocols, and norms, as well as a vast archive of historical descriptions and tools have accumulated to serve these ends.

Literary and cultural criticism sometimes seems to want to re-write itself in the image of science these days. Usually this is because some scholars want to make practical contributions to political ends and think of their work as documentary projects exposing ideology and yielding educational benefits akin to those of muckraking journalism. Or sometimes it is just because university administrators often seem to value research that confers instrumental power over that which confers meaning, and so some humanities scholars try to adjust the language of their projects to attract adequate funding. But the truth is that there is all the difference in the world between describing the world and appreciating it, and all the difference in the world between the indispensable work of science and that of criticism.

“What is worrying is that politically conservative Christianity has leapt on the contemporary idea that criticism means disagreement, rather than evidence-based critique,” writes Stavrianakis, restating a cracked conservative chestnut. Criticism is interested in documenting and appreciating the different ways in which individuals and cultures have made their inhabitation of the world meaningful to them. Science is interested in proposing and testing descriptions of the world to see the use of which ones deliver the greatest powers of prediction and control.

These are two distinguishable enterprises.

A cultural critic might study the way in which a particular Christian fundamentalist poet or politician reconciles the practice of their faith with the implications of evolutionary theory. Over the course of this project the critic might even consider the ways in which the strategies of the fundamentalist might parallel those of a particular atheist in interesting ways. But it would be strange indeed for the critic to suggest that the resulting work should be taught as a candidate-description rivalling an evolutionary description for scientific belief, and fit for testing as such. That would be exactly as odd as thowing a poem into a beaker of solution and calling the soggy aftermath a "reading."

Science attains after a kind of universality (at least at a generality that exhibits repeatability), but criticism is content to illuminate singularities as often as not (which can but need not exhibit a selective applicability beyond themselves).

It is true that scientists in their enthusiasm sometimes seem to bite off more than they can chew. They sometimes speak as though they are certain of what can inspire at best strong confidence. They sometimes speak as though descriptions are final when they can only be just the best on offer. They sometimes speak as though the grasp of consequences trumps the need for meanings, or deny the saturation of their own practice with singularity and meaning-making projects that speak to values other than their scientific ones. In such moments, scientists seem to me at best like poets, but at worst more like fundamentalists themselves than like proper scientists.

Criticism is useful for discerning these moments, appreciating them for their beauty, exposing them for their pretensions. But however useful it can sometimes be, criticism is not science and shouldn’t mistake itself or be mistaken as such. This is a vital strength of criticism, not a liability.

“Politically conservative Christianity is nothing to be concerned about in and of itself,” writes Stavrianakis, but I couldn’t disagree more. Politically conservative Christianity, in at least its American fundamentalist version, is driving or at any rate has been hijacked in the service of a project to re-write the secular American republic (such as it is) in the image of a secretive, defensive, moralistic, monolithic, militaristic republic with the means at its disposal to destroy the world (and it is the avowed desire of many of its partisans that such an outcome come to pass). You better believe this is something to be concerned about!

But I agree with Stavrianakis that it is “when [fundamentalist faith] comes masked as a progressive scientific theory [that] questions must be asked.” What I want to insist on here is that there is a distinction between values (of which there are a diversity of valid forms that make individual lives more meaningful) and scientific hypotheses (the differing candidates for belief among which are susceptible to testing by powerful standards known and affirmed by consensus scientific culture). Rather like the separation of Church and State, the crucial distinction of scientific from moral belief relies for its intelligibility and force on precisely the kind of tolerant, liberal, secular sensibilities conservatives like to disdain as “relativist."

Stavrianakis points to some interesting reasonable-seeming coded phrases and injunctions such as that educators should “teach the controversy” or “appreciate complexity,” both of which are often used by faith-based anti-evolutionists to introduce a wedge into the teaching of consensus science in biology classes. This is similar to the way in which paid scientific shills for corporate fat cats who care more about their profits than about the suffering caused by smoking cigarettes or the vast dislocations threatened by climate change like to deploy the reasonable-seeming phrase “sound science” to impose impossibly high standards of scientific certainty on reasonable belief and thereby create doubts about the verdicts of consensus science to frustrate reasonable, scientifically-literate regulations in the service of the public good.

This is not anything new. Rhetoric is exactly as old as science is, and if Stavrianakis wants to ensure that the descriptions at which consensus science arrives remain the force for public good they can be, I would suggest he pay more attention to the insights that “value relativist” cultural critics and rhetoricians have long understood and taken into account ourselves, rather than blaming us for the pernicious impact of anti-science social conservatism driven by the twin projects to consolidate the wealth of one minority against the majority, and to consolidate the moral/religious culture of another minority against the majority.


c_neil said...

Listen, I know you won't like this but do you know how the Democrats could make the heads of the cultural conservatives spin out of control? The democrats should run a pro-life candidate. Most of the "values oriented" voters only know one or two issues. If the democrats would fudge (or maybe flip-flop) on one or two of these issues the "moral majority" wouldn't know what to do.

Dale Carrico said...

If you need evidence of just how wrong you are, grasp the significance of the fact that the most powerful Democrat in elective office at the moment Harry Reid is "pro-life" and you probably didn't even know that.

Beyond that, typically "pro-life" just means *anti-abortion*, and the fact is there has been an upswing in abortions performed in Bush's term just as the number of abortions diminished under Clinton. Why? Impact of poverty on decisions to terminate unwanted pregnancies and other structural factors half the Repugnicans don't understand (because they are stupid) and the other half do understand but cynically manipulate nonetheless to whomp up enthusiasm among the rubes (because they are evil).

Women have the right to make health decisions about their own bodies, including the right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. If you want to see heads spinning in the "pro-life" (that is to say, the pro-gun, pro-war, pro-pollution, pro-capital punishment death cult) Taliban branch of the Republican Party just see what happens if they ever try to actually make good on their poisonous promises to end safe and legal abortion in America.

We are right, they are wrong. We gain nothing by fudging or compromising -- in fact exactly the opposite is true.

You are right that voters know and care about a limited number of issues, tho'. That is why literally nothing is more important than that democrats, and especially reform democrats and social democrats, continue to seize and create mainstream media to drive and disseminate their messages. Air America needs to grow and the DLC needs to go.