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April 5, 2005

The Flight from Science and Reason

Once upon a time, not so many years ago, a contingent left-leaning Historians, Sociologists and Philosophers of Science were engaged in a vigorous critique of Science and its presumption of a privileged place in our epistemology.

Their not-so-subtle science-bashing1 was ripe for parody and the “Science Wars” dragged on for a while in academic circles, reaching their height, perhaps, in a conference at the New York Academy of Science, from which the title of this post was borrowed.

Back then, conservatives could be found siding with Science against its “postmodernist,” “relativist,” “social constructionist” (but, one presumes, most importantly, leftist) critics.

Those days are long gone. Now we have the Heritage Foundation (for my non-American readers, perhaps the most prominent conservative think tank in Washington, with vast intellectual influence on our Republican Overlords) sponsoring symposia on “Intelligent Design”. There’s a broad push to bowdlerize the teaching of evolution in schools and IMAX Theaters across the South no longer feel they can show movies mentioning Evolution, Big Bang Cosmology or modern Geology. (I could post a longer list of depressing links, but I think you get the idea.)

Of course, the trouble with picking away at bits of Science that you don’t like is that it’s a bit like a sweater: pull on a thread, and soon the whole thing starts to unravel. If Evolution is “just a theory,” and Big Bang Cosmology is “just a theory,” and …, then pretty soon, everything else needs to be called into question, too.

Thus we find the Vice-President of the Discovery Institute telling us that Einsteinian Relativity must be wrong, too.

Sean Carrol takes time out for a little smackdown. But I have a meta question: where did American Conservativism go off the intellectual rails? And is there any hope for getting it back on?

Update (4/8/2005):

The Vice-President of the Discovery Institute has issued a retraction. It seems he could not distinguish a popular magazine article about Science from … actual Science.

I erred in not clearly distinguishing Jim Holt’s summary of Einstein’s argument, from Einstein’s argument itself.

Sounds pretty diagnostic of the whole crowd over at IDthe Future, dunnit? He goes on to reasure us skittish physicists that

I am not a skeptic of special or general relativity.

Whew! That’s a relief. Any other branches of Physics that I should be worried about?

I really have to marvel at the intellectual audacity of Science’s new right wing assailants: being a *-skeptic (Global Warming-skeptic, Evolution-skeptic, Big Bang Cosmology-skeptic, …) doesn’t require any actual knowledge of “*”. But it does (particularly if Horowitz and Baxley and their allies get their way) guarantee you a place at the intellectual table. Can I sign up as an official ID-skeptic?

1 It is not entirely coincidental that some of them bore a certain affection for the Creationists. See, e.g. Steve Fuller’s “An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Intelligent Design Theory,” Rhetoric and Public Affairs 1 (1998) 603-610. (If you can’t be bothered to troop to the library, you can get a taste from Fuller’s parenthetical remarks on Intelligent Design in The Globalization of Rhetoric and Its Discontents or Demystifying Gnostic Scientism.)

Posted by distler at April 5, 2005 5:21 PM

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Read the post In which I commit liberal heresy in the last two paragraphs
Weblog: Pharyngula
Excerpt: Thank you, Paul Krugman. In its April Fools' Day issue, Scientific American published a spoof editorial in which it apologized for endorsing the theory of evolution just because it's "the unifying concept for all of biology and one of th...
Tracked: April 5, 2005 8:01 PM

Re: The Flight from Science and Reason

“But I have a meta question: where did American Conservativism go off the intellectual rails? And is there any hope for getting it back on?”

Do I hear a huge sigh of relief coming from liberals, now that certain conservatives have decided that it is their turn to go nuts? I mean, all that deconstructionist horseshit was quite an embarrassment, wasn’t it? How nice to be able to pretend that all that crap has gone away, and that now all anti-scientific lunacy can be blamed on the conservatives. It must have really been uncomfortable to think that there are leftists who are every bit as kooky as any creationist know-nothing. But here’s some bad news, Jacques: the leftist crackpots are still there in their departments of eng.lit. and sociology etcetcetc. It’s just that they have learned to keep their heads down. Sad, eh?
Anyway, to answer your question: one good way to find out why the conservatives have gone nuts would be to ask why liberals went nuts back in the science wars days. Why was it so easy to persuade so many academics of the truth of a position that was so obviously nonsensical?

Posted by: fyodor uckoff on April 6, 2005 3:55 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Relatively harmless

At least they’re holed up in the English Lit Department, rather than roaming free, trying to make their views the law of the land.

Posted by: Jacques Distler on April 6, 2005 7:47 AM | Permalink | PGP Sig | Reply to this

Re: Relatively harmless

Yup, that pretty much nails it. Mr. F. Uckoff, do let us know when those evil Po-Mo hippie English professors of yours seize power and start using the club of big government to legislate away the science that they don’t like. Then we’ll talk.

The Discovery Institute guy’s blather about relativity doesn’t even meet the standards of your average Slashdot post. This in itself is terribly depressing. Think about it: Galileo had to grapple with some truly exceptional minds on the other side, people like Cardinal Robert Bellarmine. But now after hundreds of years of spectacular successes, after we have proven that we know how to do science and science can yield wonderful, tangible benefits, it is these bozos that are finally managing to tear the entire edifice down? Seriously? These guys? From a historical perspective it’s just… humiliating.

Posted by: Evan on April 6, 2005 9:56 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Relatively harmless

Bellarmine would be spinning in his grave to be compared with these guys. But it’s a good comparison, it does illustrate vividly how far things have fallen.

Posted by: Sean on April 6, 2005 5:56 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: The Flight from Science and Reason

I recently learned, much to my own surprise, that the GPS system has to account for relativistic effects in order to work. I sometimes with that those who insist on denying the validity of modern science would also forswear the practical results of it. Like in-car navigation, or cruise missiles.

The stuff on Intelligent Design over at IDtF is…interesting. You don’t need to be a biologist–or physicist–to see the flimsiness of their arguments.

Posted by: Adam Rice on April 6, 2005 2:49 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: The Flight from Science and Reason

You won’t be surprised to learn that there are people claiming that GPS actually secretly disproves relativity. They are, of course, wrong.

Posted by: Matt McIrvin on April 6, 2005 8:19 PM | Permalink | Reply to this
Read the post Reprinted from Musings: Once upon
Weblog: screaming penguin
Excerpt: Reprinted from Musings: Once upon a time, not so many years ago, a contingent left-leaning Historia. . .
Tracked: April 11, 2005 7:12 PM

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