Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Fundamentalist Devils, Postmodernist Angels

[Edited, via Amor Mundi] Anthony Stavrianakis over on Spiked-Online writes about the rise of so-called “intelligent design” arguments (that is to say, primarily 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 classes either because they are unpardonably ignorant or stupid themselves, or because they are eager to cynically manipulate others who are unpardonably ignorant or stupid as a way to tighten their grip on power and serve their financial or otherwise socially conservative agendas).

Stavrianakis has grown tired he says of “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 atmosphere of contemporary literary and cultural studies as a kind of empty-headed value-blindness is deeply mistaken -- as is, come to think of it, any suggestion that humanistic intellectuals exercise much cultural authority in the United States these days in any case -- and one 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 could somehow eat 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 not amenable to rational disagreement or peaceful reconciliation in the first place. Meanwhile, a welter of incompatibly diverse believers now 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). But 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....

“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....

Science attains after a kind of universality (at least at a generality that exhibits repeatability), but criticism is content to illuminate singularities (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 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....

I agree with Stavrianakis that it is “when [fundamentalist faith] comes masked as a progressive scientific theory [that] questions must be asked.” But 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 so that they can frustrate reasonable 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.

Sunday, November 28, 2004

Swiss Center and Left Beat Right and Greens on Embryonic Stem Cells

Reuters and NYT report that two thirds of Swiss have backed legislation proposed by the Swiss Social Democrats, Christian Dems and two other parties, and opposed by the Greens and Christian Right, that allows extraction of stem cells from extra embryos from fertility treatments, but not the creation of embryos for research. Therapeutic cloning and the trade in human embryos are banned.

Brain-Machine-Interface takes shape

Gizmag's article "The Brain-Machine-Interface takes shape" provides an excellent overview of current progress on neural prosthetics:
An implantable, brain-computer interface the size of an aspirin has been clinically tested on humans by American company Cyberkinetics. The 'BrainGate' device can provide paralysed or motor-impaired patients a mode of communication through the translation of thought into direct computer control. The technology driving this breakthrough in the Brain-Machine-Interface field has a myriad of potential applications, including the development of human augmentation for military and commercial purposes.