Thursday, September 22, 2005

The Republican War on Science Is Premodern Not Postmodern

[via Amor Mundi] 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.

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