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In defense of enlightenment: “science adviser” David Gelernter and the rise of anti-science intellectualism
David Brin   Apr 14, 2017   Contrary Brin  

Consternation rippled across the American scientific community, upon learning that Yale Professor David Gelernter interviewed with (then) president-elect Trump, for the job of White House Science Adviser. Gelernter became a doyen of the remnant conservative intelligencia, for denouncing liberal influence on college campuses. His 2013 book, America-Lite: How Imperial Academia Dismantled Our Culture (and Ushered in the Obamacrats) blames “belligerent leftists” for purported disintegration of patriotism and traditional family values.

Beyond standard Republican catechisms -- such as Climate Change denial, or opposition to vaccination – Gelernter’s views extend even farther to the right, for example attributing the decline in American culture to “an increasing Jewish presence at top colleges.” (Gelernter himself is Jewish.)
 
In bizarre irony, Dr. Gelernter’s jeremiads against science have migrated steadily, ever-closer to views espoused by Theodore Kaczynski, the “Unabomber,” whose mailed explosives maimed Gelernter, decades ago. Kaczynski’s new book, The Anti-Tech Revolution: Why and Howasserts many of the same manifesto points, distilling down to a message that Gelernter shares: that our scientific-egalitarian enlightenment must be renounced in favor of much older ways.
 
Alas, offended communities may characterize this news in manichean terms – as just part of a sweeping War on Science. Take the fate of OSTP. Through resignations, firings and almost zero replacements, the Trump Administration has all but wiped out the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, sending it down the path of extinction that — in 1995 — swallowed the congressional Office of Technology Assessment, when Newt Gingrich ruled OTA to be irreparably “partisan.” (As - apparently - are 'facts.')
 
Now members of Mr. Trump’s transition team have called for eliminating OSTP, altogether. In part this is reflex reaction to the way Barack Obama boosted science across the board, more than doubling OSTP and bringing it into the Executive Office Building, on the White House Grounds. (I gave two presentations there, in 2016, about 'Wider Perspectives on Threat; exactly the use that a nation might make of hard science fiction.)  Indeed, I'll talk more about the purge of OSTP, soon.

But at another level, this was to be expected. Indeed, when you tally professions on the alt-right’s enemies list – from journalism, medicine, economics, teaching and law to civil servants -- and now  the 'deep state' intelligence/military officer corps – an ironic effect is to make us shrug in resignation.

But in this particular case, shrugging may be premature. There are still corners of that movement that will react to light. So, let's shine some on a fellow who may soon become emblematic of our peril.
 
First some context: our revolution called progress
 
Across time, the very notion of human advancement has evoked powerful cross-currents. Pericles, the sage of Athenian democracy, extolled how steady improvements in both wisdom and daily life can occur when free citizens build on each others’ goodness and innovations, while openly critiquing or canceling each others’ crimes or mistakes – an early expression of faith in a positive-sum society.  In sharp contrast, Plato condemned openness and democracy, calling for a self-proclaimed elite to paternalistically protect gullible masses from dangerous ideas.
 
This battle between visionaries and curmudgeons accelerated when technologybecome a chief agent of disruptive change, starting with glass lenses and printing presses that prosthetically expanded what human beings could both see and know. With each expansion of sight and knowledge, grouches gloomily forecast a worsening of hatred, chaos and war, prophecies that nearly always came bitterly true – in the short term. Over the long run though, optimists proved more accurate, as books and literacy allowed ever-greater populations to sympathize with faraway cultures and peoples.
 
We’ve seen the same pattern with successive expansions of perception and memory – from newspapers and radio to television and the Internet. Each knowledge revolution at-first fostered abuse by demagogues, followed later by enlargement of citizenship and empathy, as average folk adapted to drinking information from an exponentiating fire-hose.
 
This historical perspective is badly needed as we see the very same dynamic emerging yet again, in an unfolding 21st Century knowledge mesh and the looming prospect of artificial intelligence, or AI. This prospect rouses the same array of gloom merchants and dizzy romantics, issuing either dire lamentations or proclamations of utopian transcendence. The latter personality, typified by singularity-promoter and immortality evangelist Ray Kurzweil, certainly weaves a fascinating spell, predicting confidently that we’ll soon – within decades – attain godlike powers and satisfactions. But I’ll not spend any time on them, today…
 
… because, as always, cynics seem more compelling in the short term. For one thing, they often do point at needful warnings! Dyspeptic Jonahs are at their best when calling out failure modes to examine and then prevent. 

Alas, pessimists become a failure mode, perhaps one of the worst, when they undermine the confidence of a can-do, problem-solving civilization. That, indeed, is the only failure mode I truly fear. And so much for context.
 
Burgeoning attacks upon science
 
Anti-scientific sentiment appears to be rife at both ends of the hoary-clichéd and lobotomizing "left-right axis," with campus post-modernism representing one, sinister wing. 

Still, you would have to be hibernating to miss the far more copious torrents of hostility pouring at science from the other end. Take, for example, Tides of Mind, David Gelernter’s book that posed an interesting, if simplistic model of human consciousness, while riffing hostility toward a purportedly close-minded scientific establishment. This caused me to revisit his core manifesto, "The Closing of the Scientific Mind," an essay that appeared in the first 2014 issue of Commentary Magazine.  
 
The title is an homage to The Closing of the American Mind, a 1987 book by Allan Bloom, that once served as a central declaration of the New American Right. Bloom's earlier tome foretold that the United States -- and Western Civilization -- would soon tumble into heck and darnation if the scientific mind-set were allowed to (among other modernist crimes) ruin the subjective-conservative-humanism of impressionable youth. Carrying on with that Spenglerian theme, David Gelernter proceeded to denounce scientific modernity and nearly all its mental works.
 
To be clear, this was not always his message. Mr. Gelernter's 1993 book Mirror Worlds forecast a coming era when Big Data models will replicate objective reality so closely that cyber and physical may merge in useful ways, empowering us all – a rosy view of technological change that not only put him in the transcendental-optimist camp, but earned him devastating attention from the Unabomber. 
 
Whether or not that painful, crippling brush with a luddite lunatic was precipitating, Gelernter soon shifted his emphasis increasingly to nostalgia and exceptionalism in tomes like Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion, striving to justify the brief reign of Straussian neo-conservatism -- a fervently messianic belief that America could transform other peoples and nations into enlightenment-republicans almost overnight, by sheer, overwhelming force of our unstoppable will.
 
When that manic phase proved calamitous in Iraq and Afghanistan -- and Straussian neocons went politically extinct -- Gelernter then helped swing the American Right into its later, bipolar cycle of apocalyptic depression. From frenetic imperial activity to a grumbling determination that government should do nothing at all. Doomcasting in the mode of Allan Bloom, Gelernter zeroed in upon a national intelligencia that had been skeptical of both those frantic, Bushite wars and the ensuing melancholia. His book America Lite is a growling dismissal of U.S. universities – which are, ironically, the nation's one realm of completely unambiguous superiority in a fast-changing world.
 
Irony, alas, appears to escape many of those who engage in intellectual finger-wagging. For example: Gelernter sings paeans to the Greatest Generation (GG) of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, who endured a Depression, defeated Hitler, contained Stalinism, spurred entrepreneurial enterprise, went to the Moon and built the vast American middle class. He touts especially their intellectual honesty and prowess -- while expressing contempt for the world and nation that generation built, along with every political and social edifice that they created. 

He also neglects to mention that the favorite living human of that admirable American generation was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Further, by deriding every value of the succeeding -- boomer -- generation, does not he (and confederates like Steve Bannon) hammer GGs with the worst insult of all? That they were bad parents?
 
But all of that is prelude. As illustrated in his 2014 Commentary piece, Mr. Gelernter's main denunciations focus on science – or rather the elite and deceitful priesthood that (he claims) science has become.
 
This isn’t new, of course. Lamentations against modernity and scientific thinking erupt with rhythmic regularity, not just from centers of scholastic nostalgia on the right but also with eerie similarity from the very-far-left, whose scoldings differ only in detailed specifics, not tone.  They call to mind C. P. Snow's famous "Two Cultures" essay that rocked academia 50 years ago. Snow portrayed simmering resentment in some university departments toward scientists, who the humanities dons viewed as usurping their authority over matters of "Truth."  (And note that this divide is completely orthogonal to the usual, left-right measuring rod.)
 
Although Dr. Gelernter is a computer engineer, his apologia in Commentary reiterates Snow's divide:  "Scientists have acquired the power to impress and intimidate every time they open their mouths, and it is their responsibility to keep this power in mind no matter what they say or do. Too many have forgotten their obligation to approach with due respect the scholarly, artistic, religious, humanistic work that has always been mankind’s main spiritual support." 
 
Wow. We could discuss those assertions and assumptions all day -- for example by probing whether classical Romans, or post-Alexandrian Hellenistics, or medieval scholastics were ever mass-effective at preaching an admirable life. Or whether anyscientist has ever sought to "impress and intimidate" as heavy-handedly as nearly all kings and priests and scholarly pedants did, in times past. But never mind. Mr. Gelernter then veers away from the provocatively interesting, to the absurd.
 
"Scientists are (on average) no more likely to understand this work than the man in the street is to understand quantum physics."
 
To which, I am behooved to put it plain. That constitutes one of the most profoundly and demonstrably counter-factual assertions I have seen in years. Pick almost any scientist, almost at random, and this calumny will collapse, as she or he displays far greater than average knowledge of art, literature or history. Indeed, nearly all first rate scientists have artistic or humanistic pastimes that they pursue at almost professional levels. C. P. Snow’s two-cultures divide was never symmetrical.
 
But let's not linger there; David Gelernter goes on to construct one accusatory strawman after another while accepting no burden of proof. No wonder he sings the praises of subjectivity. In fairness, do go and give his missive a slow and attentive read. I'll wait right here. 
 
The ancient, dismal, underlying premise
 
What ultimately underlies Mr. Gelernter's rant in Commentary, and indeed, similar railings against modernity by Francis Fukayama and other Bush Era court intellectuals, is something called Zero-Sum thinking -- the dispiriting belief that if a person has superior powers in one realm, that plus must be paid for with a minus of inferiority in some other aspect of human life. This underlies strange and unsupported assumptions, e.g. that success automatically makes one shallow, or that suffering inherently ennobles.
 
In promoting this ancient reflex, Mr. Gelernter channels the jealous snarkiness of Walt Whitman's poem: "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer-- implying that boffins who peer through telescopes or understand Maxwell's Equations -- the language God spoke when he said "let there be light" -- cannot, thereupon, ever grasp the beauty of a rainbow, or experience compassion, or have soul.  This compulsion isn't rare. Indeed, zero-sum thinking tugs naturally at us all; it was thecommon human reflex that dominated almost every past human  culture... though not our own.  
 
Our enlightenment civilization is the only one ever to have been based firmly on the notion of positive sums - that we can be many. That each success does not require a compensating failure. That each winner does not always have to stand upon a smoldering loser. That we might become greater than our parents, as the best of them would have wanted us to be, and then see our children excel far beyond us. That a person who has been lucky and comfortable can still feel the pain of others (it's called empathy). And that limitations on the breadth and depth of human reach are mere impediments, not immutable law.
 
No greater proof is needed than us. We live in a world filled with spectacular positive-sum results, where most children no longer grow up steeped in tragedy, but with some likelihood that they might leverage their talents, uplifting themselves andothers too. That easily-supported and statistically proved assertion is not a call for Pollyanna-complacence. Rather, all of our tentative progress constitutes an urgent clarion summons to complete the partly-fulfilled Enlightenment Promise. Indeed, we judge ourselves and our society harshly in proportion to how far short of that ideal we still lag, proving how embedded the ideal has become, in our hearts.
 
Moreover, scientists lead the way.  For every bad thing science engenders (and most-often scientists issue the alerts), there are a hundred genuine advances. 
 
When cliché becomes outright slander
 
May I be forgiven for reiterating a central point? Anyone who has spent time around top-level scientists knows that they tend (with some exceptions) to be profoundly broad in their interests. Most are well-read and thoughtful far beyond the so-called "objective" realms. At three years old, I was privileged to watch Albert Einstein perform with his violin. As an undergraduate, I got to discuss patterns of history and humanism with physics Nobelist Murray Gell-mann, before we shifted to Joyce's “Finnegan's Wake.” Richard Feynman was among the world's greatest bongo players; he also painted brilliantly and wrote passionately about humanity's need to combine bold exploration with humility before a stunning cosmos. (And he stole my date once, at a Caltech dance.) Lynn Margulis showed us how to view our planet as a living entity. The anthropological insights of Sarah Blaffer Hrdy challenged smug dogmas of both left and right, showing how we are simultaneously rooted in our ancestral past and profoundly launched far beyond it all.
 
Perhaps Professor Gelernter has never spoken with such people, or else he is deliberately spreading a known calumny. Either possibility is both troubling and deeply discrediting for a person who would presume to give guidance to the mighty. 

Specifically, almost no modern scientist declares the non-existence of subjectivity or its irrelevance to human life, despite Dr. Gelernter’s claim that most do. That scarecrow accusation is a dodo based on 1960s fads of Logical Positivism and Skinnerism – which were minority views even then -- an obsolete libel that is only raised by postmodernists of the far-left and right, clutching justifications for resentment.
 
Likewise, David Gelernter condemns a purported scientific fixation that our human minds are mere software - a position taken literally by only a few researchers in artificial intelligence. Many scientists who ponder deeply about Artificial Intelligence – for example Christof Koch, director of Seattle’s Allen Brain Institute, or the cosmologist Andre Linde -- reject the mind-as-purely-software model. Most apply the comparison only as a metaphor, expedient for generating experiments and models, contingently useful, with exactly the tentativeness and humility that Gelernter claims technical people lack. Which makes me doubt that this "computer scientist" gets out very much.
 
 Indeed, I need only use two words to cast hilarity upon David Gelernter's absurd strawman. Those two words are --
 
… Roger Penrose…
 
… whose fabulous speculations about the specialness of human consciousness run diametrically opposite to Gelernter's stereotype, yet are backed by one of the most brilliant -- and cantankerously contrarian -- physicists of our age.  A personality trait that is, in fact, prevalent among the best scientific minds.
 
Bridging the "cultures"
 
Where do I come into all this talk of human beings -- individuals, groups and a rising civilization -- bridging the gap between C. P. Snow's Two Cultures? I speak as a scientist and engineer who makes most of his living writing novels that weave vivid subjective realms for readers to roam, exploring everything from interstellar flight to what it might feel like to be a speaking-sapient dolphin, or an autistic person who has been empowered by new tools to take on the world. Like Sagan, Asimov, LeGuin and Clarke, I aim to blend science with artistically-conveyed empathy. 
 
As we do at UCSD -- in America's lower left corner -- where every academic department signed on to help establish the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination, a cross-disciplinary collaboration combining everything from neuroscience to modern dance, in Arthur's polymath tradition. Pure proof that Snow's dream of a healed divide can come true. 
 
But coming back to "The Closing of the Scientific Mind," I confess that my attention started to flag as David Gelernter continued flailing at statues made of hay, slinging one counter-factual assertion after another, bereft of citation, evidence or even illustrating anecdotes, tempting this scientist-artist-humanist to paraphrase the classic womanly-chiding: "Hey! My eyes are way over here. And so is the rest of me." 
 
Still, in an essay rife with fabulations, this one near the end truly took the cake:
 
"Science needs reasoned argument and constant skepticism and open-mindedness. But our leading universities have dedicated themselves to stamping them out…" 
 
Shades of Allan Bloom! But in fact, across the vast and tragic history of our species, no human field ever taught those skills as sincerely and relentlessly as science. Each day scientists – the most competitive human beings our species ever produced – go at each other in a spirited tussle, ever-searching for each others’ errors, with ferocity and transparency and sportsmanship that would make any athletic league proud. And when – anecdotally – those standards lapse, it is always other scientists who bring it to light.
 
In other words, David Gelernter's diametrically opposite-to-fact assertions are worthy of Orwell's Ministry of Truth.  Indeed, it is his warped view of science and its practitioners that makes the prospect frightening, how close he might stand to the elbows of the mighty.
 
If civilization has recently advanced against a myriad ancient crimes like racism, sexism and environmental neglect, it is because science taught us how to refute and cast down comfortable prejudices that all of our ancestors – including each era's scholastics, priests and "humanist" scholars -- took for granted. Preaching didn’t end those horrid, subjective excuses to waste human talent. It was relentless, scientificdisproof of stereotypes about women, minorities and so on, that finally overcame the dismal, filthy habit of blanketing entire groups with slander…
 
…the way David Gelernter attempts (laughably) to blanket libelous slurs across the one field of human life that keeps insatiably asking questions. The one habit that he clearly fears.
 
One final example
 
Let me conclude by offering an even better refutation. I invite you to acquire and watch Jacob Bronowski's "The Ascent of Man," the groundbreaking 1970s television show that led to Carl Sagan's Cosmos and so many other joyous celebrations of a great irony -- that science is simultaneously cheerfully youthful and soberly mature, eager to challenge all limitations, to construct ever-better world-models, and yet always aware that every theory is imperfect. 
 
See especially Bronowski's episode "Knowledge or Certainty," in which he shows how much interplay there is between science and the arts/humanities.  How science, unlike any other "priestly" system, never claims and never can claim perfect knowledge. Amid its greatest triumphs, science reminds us that our models of the world are always contingent, improvable, and perpetually fringed with a chastening aura of uncertainty.
 
It is in this combination of adolescent-voracious curiosity and perpetual humility that humanity's ascent continues, by climbing out of the pit of monstrous certainty that infested and infected most dogmatic systems of the past.  Indeed, this cheerful sense of contingency is the trait of science -- far more than all of its accomplishments and power -- that most unsettles and terrifies those wanting some zero-sum absolute to cling-to.
 
It is in the dismal trap of platonic essences -- with their declarations of derived or heavenly or scholastic certainty -- that hell truly resides.
David Brin Ph.D. is a scientist and best-selling author whose future-oriented novels include Earth, The Postman, and Hugo Award winners Startide Rising and The Uplift War. David's newest novel - Existence - is now available, published by Tor Books."



COMMENTS

This comment is slightly tangential to the main discussion in your article. However, I enjoy thinking about Snow’s “two cultures” and I thought these ideas might interest you.

Humanists study the phenomenology of human experience — including the history and possible future of human experience, while Scientists are attempting to create pragmatic explanations for intersubjective phenomena - where those explanations are consistent, comprehensive and comprehensible.

Scientists can help Humanists to explore how to characterize human experiences through a set of pragmatic conventions for mapping out intersubjective space. They can also help Humanists by discovering ways to reliably meet human needs and desires by leveraging regularities in intersubjective space. Examples of Scientists aiding the humanities include the science that goes into creating artistic tools, supplies, and, techniques, and the means to obtain the humanist goal of a “good” society where citizens are well educated and well fed.

Perhaps Humanists could attempt to help Scientists by indicating to them when they are failing to achieve their own stated goals — namely, indicating when scientists theories do not fully account for human experience (subjective or intersubjective) or when they fail to be comprehensible by reasonable standards. Humanists could work to propose summaries of scientific ideas that correspond to human experiences in ways that are ergonomic. Ideally, scientific theories and explanations should take little effort for human minds to understand, recall, and apply. They could also help Scientists understand probable human responses to technological and scientific tools and explanations, and the types of civilizations they are likely to produce.

By the way, the new online machine learning journal “DISTILL.PUB” proposes a new academic discipline called “research distiller” that I think expresses something about the ‘ergonomics’ role that humanist can play in scientific research:

http://distill.pub/2017/research-debt/

We’ve seen the same pattern with successive expansions of perception and memory – from newspapers and radio to television and the Internet. Each knowledge revolution at-first fostered abuse by demagogues, followed later by enlargement of citizenship and empathy, as average folk adapted to drinking information from an exponentiating fire-hose

The Internet was and is supposed to be a quantum leap- therefore your linking of the Internet to newspapers, radio and television is fuzzy. We can’t postulate true-linkage between allopathic medicine and transhumanism, can we? The latter is a quantum leap away.
(The election of Trump has validated a suspicion that the Internet’s potential for abuse by demagogues is what has progressed. In roughly a dozen yrs, the demagoguery of celebrity culture [citizens living vicariously via flashy celebrities] moved from the statehouse in Sacramento under Schwarzenegger, to the White house in DC. A slick and quick move. The Internet was indispensable for this move to occur.)

blames “belligerent leftists” for purported disintegration of patriotism and traditional family values

Not to blame for lack of patriotism, no; though leftists do want to alter—for better and worse—the definition of family. Family values become no longer traditional. Better to admit this than equivocate.

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