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

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

The Republican War on Science Is Premodern Not Postmodern

I regularly hear the claim that Republican misuses of science amount to a kind of Republican "postmodernism." Although I appreciate the special pleasure that comes from identifying particularly hateful people with an attitude they themselves particularly hate, I cannot get any pleasure at all from the rhetorical gambit in this instance.

Frankly, I think the claim that modern Republicans are somehow "postmodernist" just because they are willing to lie to get what they want reflects an outrageous misreading (and I am being very generous in implying that any reading is involved) of most of the views that are conventionally labeled "postmodernist." Worse, this attribution of "postmodernism" to Republicans restages the very terms of the most conservative imaginable critiques of the kinds of work that get corralled together -- usually without much sense at all -- under the heading of "postmodernism." This whole line of criticism just refuels an awful kind of anti-intellectualism about the confrontation with difficult and new scholarly work in general, an anti-intellectualism to which America is already terribly prone to its cost and which is of course the cultural landscape in which conservativism always thrives best in the first place.

Postmodernism was defined by Lyotard as a distrust of metanarratives. And so, to the extent that the contemporary neocon/theocon ascendancy in America is driven by equal measures of market fundamentalism and religious fundamentalism it is difficult to imagine a less "postmodernist" sensibility at all than conservatism of all things.

I do not personally identify as a "postmodernist" because it isn't clear to me why I should treat Foucault and Derrida and Butler and Rorty as more importantly similar to one another than they are different from one another. But I do have an investment in some of the claims that seem to get smeared in many of the "anti-postmodernist" and "anti-science-studies" jeremiads of conservatives and, now, I suppose, by some liberals who want to identify conservatism with "postmodernism."

To be blunt, there is simply an enormous difference between the sensible so-called "postmodern" claim that scientifically warranted beliefs are contingent and defeasible and the claim into which this is typically translated, that all such beliefs are a species of lies or that somehow every statement is as good as any other. There is, again, an enormous difference between the sensible so-called "postmodern" claim that scientific beliefs resonate with social values and scientific practices resonate with political conflicts and the claim into which this is typically translated that science is worthless, or indistinguishable from faith, or nothing but politics. In both cases the latter claim amounts to an unfathomably clownish caricature of the "postmodernist" or "science-studies" claims that preceded it. It is hard for me to understand the use of such caricatures unless it is that they enable people to feel good about themselves even when they don't actually read or understand the texts they claim to deplore most vociferously.

If anything, the current Republican misuses of science underscore a point many thinkers vilified as "postmodernists" have long known already: that the accomplishments of consensus science are profoundly vulnerable. Precisely because they are not "underwritten" by the essentially theological fantasy of a world that has preferences in the matter of how it is described, we must be all the more vigilant in protecting the protocols that we have developed over many generations of experiment that have yielded a consensus scientific practice on which we may depend for good candidates for belief about our shared environment.

I think the practices of consensus science constitute a particular culture that yields candidates for belief that are incomparably better at yielding powers of prediction and control than others on offer. Now, I think those practices are no less political than contingent cultural practices and protocols always are -- specifically, I have argued elsewhere that at their best they are pretty democratic, actually -- and so I think it is important not simply to decry the distortions and misuses of science and pseudoscience by some Republican politicians as a "politicization" of science. Rather, I think champions of consensus science need to be very specific about pernicious politicization as against virtuous politicization.

After all, the maintenance of transparency in funding and research practice, the implementation of shared standards of falsification and substantiation and good practice, the maintenance of traditions of wide publication all count as politicization of the culture of science. It is a virtuous politicization that helps science do what it does well -- provide candidate descriptions for warranted belief that empower greater prediction and control over the environment.

By "politicization," what many champions of consensus science seem to mean is very specifically "partisan politicization," as against the idea of a consensus science and professional expertise to which all parties make shared recourse in staking out their different legislative and policy agendas. What Chris Mooney decries in his excellent book The Republican War on Science as "politicization," for example, is precisely the way this "shared" recourse has been dumped by partisan Republicans who offer up as scientific claims that are scientifically unsubstantiated or even falsified whenever they serve the interests of their religious and moneyed base, with the consequence that there is no longer any shared context for a reasonable adjudication between these conflicting claims. I think his point has quite a lot of merit.

Mooney points out that conservatives often exploit the sensible tentativeness with which scientists assert their beliefs in even very powerfully substantiated theories as a way to introduce unwarranted doubts about using these warranted beliefs to guide regulations in the service of the public good. I personally wish Mooney wouldn't frame this tentativeness as a matter of recogizing that even the best science might come to be proved "wrong." Rather, I think of this tentativeness as the recognition that it isn't really the business of scientific description to "get it right" in the naive realist sense of saying the way the world is. Instead, consensus science warrants better beliefs than others on offer when what we want (and this isn't always what we want, after all) is more power to manipulate the world and to anticipate experience. Any one such scientifically warranted belief as this might eventually be defeated by better beliefs later, of course, whether in consequence of our simply learning more stuff or of our coming to value different ends. But this scarcely diminishes its warrantedness, nor should it diminish our enthusiastic embrace of beliefs so warranted.

Those "champions of science" who would decry this sort of sensible instrumentalism and historicism as "postmodernist relativism" (and I definitely do not number Chris Mooney among them) seem to me to want to re-write scientific belief in the image of religious faith, to find in our warranted confidence in the verdicts of consensus science an inappropriate source of deeper certainty and metaphysical reassurance, and, at worst, sometimes seem to want to assume the mantle of a priestly elite testifying on behalf of Science construed as an Idol. All this is to say, those who cannot distinguish lying from pragmatism and who think science must be defended from any recongition of its limits as a human enterprise seem to me to represent a nascent scientistic fundamentalism as much as anything else, and hence to have far more in common with conservatism as it plays out in the world than the "postmodern" viewpoints with which they mean to identify the Republican misuses of science they rightly decry.


Doctor Logic said...


I think that the Republican War on Science is both premodern and simultaneously "the charicature of postmodern." They seek to render objective facts indistinguishable from opinion in the mind of the electorate.

As for postmodernism itself, I still don't get it. What has postmodernism done for us? What are its contributions? I'm not saying it has none, I'm saying I can't tell what they are.

Postmodernism appears to be an effort to account for custom, politics and implicit suggestions in language. That's fine, but it seems a bit grandiose. All propositions have some uncertainty in their meaning, but, with effort and good faith, we can express meanings that are arbitrarily precise. As I think you point out, science is not weakened by such observations. Scientific theories are always underdetermined, and our current theories have some arbitrariness resulting from historical accidents. However, this point of arbitrariness is politically inconsequential, as it has no impact on the effectiveness of physical theories.

I worry that postmodernism generates far more heat than light, and that postmodernism simply renders science less intelligible and less credible in the eyes of students of the humanities.

Dale Carrico said...

I don't think there is any such thing as "postmodernism itself." Who are we actually talking about here? Butler, Foucault, Derrida, Barthes, Lyotard, Latour, Virilio, Irigaray, Haraway, Rorty? It's not like these folks don't disagree on as many things that matter to them deeply as they agree on.

Too often postmodern is a word that functions exactly as politically correct does -- it is a smokescreen behind which sensible positions disappear to be replaced by clownish caricatures mouthing facile self-referential incoherencies for their conservative foes to skewer to the snake-hiss of oblivious applause.

The thing most of the theorists who get called "postmodern" seem to have in common is antiessentialism, antidualism, and an emphasis on historicizing putatively universal claims. I think there are many versions of these attitudes that are as sensible as may be.

You say that "postmodernists" -- whoever they happen to be -- perniciously undermine a distinction between objective facts and opinions. There are some versions of such a thesis that make perfect sense to me, but others that do not. When you distinguish facts from opinions do you mean to distinguish warranted beliefs from unwarranted ones? I think there are plenty of figures who are pilloried as "postmodern relativists" who are quite happy to affirm that there are some beliefs that are more warranted than others and that these are good in the way of belief when what is wanted is more prediction and control.

There is indeed a sense in which I think the verdicts of consensus science are opinions. I think they are opinions that eventuate from a scientific practice that inspires considerably more confidence than others on offer that their adherents will be empowered to manipulate the world and anticipate experience.

There are also moral opinions/beliefs, esthetic opinions/beliefs, political opinions/beliefs, ethical opinions/beliefs each of which eventuate from different locations in culture and accomplish rather different sorts of ends. I fail to see how this threatens consensus science, inasmuch as I am hardly tempted to *identify* the protocols or uses of one mode of warranted belief with any of the others.

Certainly there are some philosophers who want to say that facts are somehow *more* than warranted beliefs, that they say or come closer to saying the way the world is. I consider this an essentially theological attitude, and one which does nothing to secure or explain scientific practice as an enterprise that empowers prediction and control.

I think it's probably fair to say that quite a lot of philosophy generates more heat than light, especially if you ask folks door to door (even down the corridors of a Philosophy Department). I don't see that the unfortunate thinkers who have been corralled together under the banner of "postmodernism" primarily by their detractors are more particularly vulnerable to this criticism than other philosophers are.

I cannot agree with you that the impact of social norms on scientific practice is always politically inconsequential -- especially in the social sciences. But I see little reason why such an observation would invalidate scientific practice as such.

And by way of conclusion let me make the melancholy observation that students in the humanities are much smarter than students in the sciences sometimes give them credit for. And very likely the converse is just as true. And all to our cost.