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Posted by on Jan 25, 2013 in Bioethics, Politics, Science | 12 comments

Michael Shermer on the left’s war on science

Michael Shermer has a controversial piece in Scientific American in which he complains about what he calls “The Liberals’ War on Science”. Perhaps I should start by questioning the term “liberal” here. Apparently the piece was originally published as “The Left’s War on Science”, which sounds much more apt. Although the views that Shermer describes can be found on the political left, in my experience they do not tend to come from liberals so much as from various kinds of socialists, anarchists, social democrats, and the like. Indeed, the body of Shermer’s article  refers, not to liberals or to social democrats but to the far left.

In fact, I see little reason for liberals in the tradition of, say, John Locke and John Stuart Mill to embrace anti-science or technophobic attitudes.

However,  the terminology is often confusing. For example, some American philosophical “liberals” are actually more left-wing on economic issues than European style social democrats. Thus, it can get messy. But “liberal” should not be used as a synonym for politically left wing, let alone for any far-left position. Liberals are not necessarily egalitarians or anti-capitalist. We are basically the opposite of conservatives – we value social and ethical pluralism, distrust the traditional “conservative” institutions of Church and State (even if we also distrust the power of large private corporations), and above all defend individual liberty. Our nearest thing to a holy book is John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty (1859), with its powerful defence of the harm principle and freedom of speech. None of this in any way suggests an anti-science or technophobic viewpoint.

However, as I’ve discovered over the years, many people on the political left are not liberal at all – they are anti-liberal, and have much in common with conservatives on the religious right. Often, they embrace a kind of religion based on ideas of a natural order that must not be violated. These sorts of people have a great distrust of science and technology, which manifests in many of their political positions, as well as in much of the art and popular culture that they favour (or, in some cases, produce). Some of them can be quite authoritarian.

Much of my own research over the past decade and a half has been in the field of philosophical bioethics, where many people on the political left adopt technophobic stances that have little to do with liberal thought, though they may something to do with a perception of science and technology as imperialist and oppressive forces, or something of the kind. Accordingly, I never make the easy assumption that someone who identifies as being on the political left is an ally of mine when it comes to, say, attitudes to assisted reproduction. Such developments as IVF, “saviour siblings”, sperm sorting for sex selection, surrogacy arrangements, and many others are (almost?) as likely to be opposed by people on the farther end of the political left spectrum as by people on the right of politics. Genuine liberals, by contrast, are likely to be relaxed about all of these innovations, perhaps advocating some relatively basic regulatory safeguards to counteract obvious forms of exploitation and to address safety issues.

There seems to be a bit of angst around about Shermer’s piece, but in my opinion this is misplaced. While it may not be strictly correct to talk about “liberals” in this context, I’ve encountered the phenomenon that Shermer describes again and again. Perhaps there’s a problem about moral equivalence – surely, you say, the political right is much more dangerous? Well, that may be true in the US, and not only because the American political right is so spectacularly crazy. In the US, there are many impediments to enacting laws that, for example, impose draconian restrictions on, say, IVF or GM foods. In Europe, things look very different, and in those relatively more left-leaning societies it is often possible to enact such restrictions, with the impetus coming from the political left – technophobic socialists and the like – as much as from the churches and other right-wing groups.

I’ve been complaining about this development for a long time, on and off, going back over a decade (e.g. I published an article called “The Left’s Defection from Progress” in 1999). But good for Shermer for raising the issue in a high-profile way. Irrationalism, anti-science, technophobia, and outright Luddism on the political left are phenomena that we don’t talk about often enough.

  • Couldn’t agree more.

    I actually read Shermers piece and, whilst I sympathised with much of the criticisms I had read in advance, could see a nugget of truth in what he was saying.
    I think you are right that the issue here is between conflating liberalism with other left leaning positions

  • I had a piano teacher in Seattle who used “liberal” to denote anyone left of Ronald Reagan.

    “Liberal” has become such a derogatory term in the great liberal democracy, that it’s very hard to read a lot of such articles without spending more time unpicking the weight of connotation from the meat of the argument. In particular it’s very hard to read anything about US foreign policy when most of the US’ allies are secular liberal socialist countries, and its enemies are exemplars of the sectarian anti-liberal society that the Republican Right eulogizes.

    It’s time to unpick the political associations here and simply recognise that technophobia runs across the political spectrum.

  • Kevin S.

    Part of Shermer’s problem is that one of his most prominent points against liberals with regard to science is criticism of evolutionary psychology. He talks about the early blanket ideological criticism of EP as heresy against the doctrine of tabula rasa, but he doesn’t mention the scientific critiques of EP methodology. In light of the criticism leveled at him for comments attributing gender differences in skeptical activism to inherent differences between men and women, the article kind of comes off as a hit piece because liberals have criticized Shermer recently. Especially since he deliberately conflates overlapping but different groups like Democrats and liberals (lots of ConservaDems in the U.S.) and labels as “liberal” some movements that cross the spectrum, like the antivax movement (endorsed by Michelle Bachmann in the Republican primaries).

  • Vic

    Is that really the issue “here” specifically?

    “Right” and “left” seem to make as much sense nowadays as saying “people” and “other people”.

    There are right-wing politicians in Europe who would feel insulted to be mentioned in the same breath as the American Republican Party. In the US, “liberals” are considered the supporters of state power, while the conservatives favour a minimized government.

    If I called members of the liberal party of Germany “left-wing” I would get laughed at and I would deserve it.

    Oldschool conservatives are seen as propriators of the nationalist police state which bludgeons hippies and pacifists on the weekends, the realpolitik-socialists are their unhinged mirror images on the “left”.

    Depending on who you are talking to being a “social progressive” means anything between equal rights for homosexuals to selling out Europe to islamofascism.

    Criticising Isrealian war politics makes you an anti-semite, demanding a Palestinian state makes you a radical leftist, criticising Islam gets you in the lovely company of right-wing proto-fascists.

    Speaking out against environmentalism puts you into the conservative basket, wanting any societal change at all makes you a anti-democratic marxist.

    Left and right have had different meanings when applied to economics, culture, social issues etc. in different eras of history. Now they have lost all meaning, because depending on where you live, the same words have different meanings for different persons depending on their preferences and upbringing and what conspiracy blogs they read; and on the internet, we all come together and speak at the same time about the same words while talking at cross-purposes. We just haven’t realised we are trying to manage madness.

    “You just don’t understand what libertariansim really means!”
    “Oh, that is not a REAL socialist!”
    “A liberal would never do that!”
    “Why should I listen to a fundamentalist christian?”

    If Shermer’s article was about anti-science of liberals it would be america-centric, if it was about anti-science on the left it would have as much meaning as “if you take a billion people you will find males and females among them”. Wohoo, am I a journalist yet?

    When we talk about right and left without further specification we might as well say nothing, because that’s as much information as we convey.

    Pessimistic useless ranting is now over. I blame the mainstream media.

  • MosesZD

    However, as I’ve discovered over the years, many people on the political left are not liberal at all – they are anti-liberal, and have much in common with conservatives on the religious right. Often, they embrace a kind of religion based on ideas of a natural order that must not be violated. These sorts of people have a great distrust of science and technology, which manifests in many of their political positions, as well as in much of the art and popular culture that they favour (or, in some cases, produce). Some of them can be quite authoritarian.

    I have pointed that out many times. So-called ‘left’ groups/movements are as authoritarian as those on the right. The examples abound everywhere: environmentalism, feminism, lots of the more radical-left socio-economic movements (socialism — see David Horowitz — socialist turned neocon — as a prime example of how easy they move) and I’m sure there are many others.

    My feeling is that sociopaths are attracted to causes (which are political in their implementation) for power, not for policy, and will eventually end up on the top of the heap. So, while the causes may have started out noble, they are ultimately corrupted.

    And it’s not like this is some brilliant insight. Orwell wrote as much in Animal Farm. Just as Orwell wrote 1984 and we are living in the unending “War on Drugs” and “War on Terror” and all the side crap from both.

  • Arcus80

    “We [Liberals] are basically the opposite of conservatives – we value social and ethical pluralism, distrust the traditional “conservative” institutions of Church and State (even if we also distrust the power of large private corporations), and above all defend individual liberty.”

    You started off fairly well in pointing out that the US concept of “liberal” is far from how that term is used in the rest of the world, but the quoted above adds confusion. I think the most apt description of conservatives in the US is that they are actually reactionary, as evidenced by the “take America back”- style argumentation.

    In most of Europe there has been a liberal-conservative fusion in opposition to socialism (or, more correctly, social-democrats), and there is little opposition between the groups. Generally the outcomes are parties which are centrist-left on social issues and centrist-right on economic issues. The good example is the current coalition government in the UK between conservatives and liberals.

    I would label myself a conservative first, and I also value social pluralism. I presume you value ethNical pluralism, I am personally ideologically in favor of open borders – ethical pluralism sounds like something which could become very messy. 🙂

  • It’s interesting to hear some (usually European) conservatives embrace gay marriage because it offers individual and social stability, while others see it as a threat to the “institution”. So the conservatism varies in what is being conserved: the foundations, or the often-replaced edifice built on top.

    “I would label myself a conservative first”
    The labels don’t really have much use except as a rallying point when targeting particular supporters who look for matching labels. I can’t presume to infer someone’s position on any issue using a label like that.

  • Arcus80

    I think most conservatives in these parts see sexuality as being *far* outside the scope of what the state should regulate in any way. While religious people often identify as conservatives in the more colloquial sense of the term (as in a conservative estimate), secular conservatives such as myself see government as a tool to fix problems private initiative and the market can’t find solutions to.

    I agree that (self-)labeling is fairly useless, though it does give an inkling of where ones ideology lies if the content of the labeling is agreed on. In this particular example I found it necessary to point out that I was in full concordance with the issues stated even though the label proposed didn’t fit, or, rather, it was misapplied in a generalized sense.

  • I think we could split the same hair if we were speaking about the right/conservatism, though. It would be easy to note that not “all” conservatives are anti-science climate change deniers, just some groups. Many conservatives have jumped on the industrial-eco bandwagon, building wind farms and making lots of money off it.

    Shermer’s “nugget” of truth, in my estimation, is that we’re very quick to paint conservatives with that broad anti-science brush and much more reluctant to do so when it comes from groups on the left.

  • Mike W

    I’m assuming “these parts” = USA, so I’m surprised by that statement since both religious conservatives and the GOP have and continue to strongly campaign on matters of sexuality, mostly to the detriment of everyone who is not a straight white male. Is there any power-base or significant voice for ” secular conservatives such as [your]self” in the USA? I didn’t hear much of it during the years I lived in the US, and even less in the decade since.

    ” if the content of the labeling is agreed on” – but where does this happen in anything but one on one conversations? Even a science writer like Shermer is disarmingly imprecise in his labeling.

  • Arcus80

    These parts refers to Europe, and in my case Norway. Conservatives in the negative zulus share very little these days with those on the other side of the pond, homophobia being among those. I wouldn’t exactly say there’s much of a secular voice at all in the US politics, though perhaps the Ds are a few smidgens less religiously nuts than the Rs.

    I believe I stated already that labeling is fairly useless, unless the specific caveat of mutual understanding is fulfilled. It should follow that I believe this is usually not the case, otherwise it wouldn’t refer to it as useless. However, I wasn’t reacting to Shermer, I specifically responded to Blackford’s statement of positions conservatives supposedly have by stating that I, as a conservative, don’t hold these, nor do I know of such positions generally being held among conservatives outside of the US.

  • Mike W

    I just watched an interview Bill Maher did with GOPAC president David Avella, who complained that when President Obama referred to the Republicans in his inauguration address as “right wing”, he was “name calling”.