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Guardian’s US dish detergent wars begs bigger question: Is Science Inherently Socialist?

October 15, 2010

I’m analytical by nature. Much of my working life has been spent trying to figure out what businesses were up to, how they were run, how things could be improved. A useful trick I learned was that, once in a while, you need to take a breath, step back, see the larger picture. It’s pretty hard to see what lies over the horizon when we are in the trenches.

This last week I’ve been busy with IT stuff, so I haven’t had much time to write. I have had time to think, though. Looking back at recent posts, I can’t help but notice a trend: exasperation with environmentalists who constantly promote hopelessly unrealistic objectives, and contempt for those, like Monbiot who, having realised their objectives were hopeless, then use their platform to moan about it.

Then I made the classic error – what I’ve come to call the Monckton Manoeuvre – of doing exactly the thing I’m criticising. I wrote a piece complaining about how unfair it was that demagogues use sophistry and deceit to further their objectives, all the while remarking about how consistent their tactics have been since the dawn of time. In which case, what did I expect? Why the fuck am I complaining? That’s the way things are, and I’m as daft as the next man if I create expectations that cannot possibly be met.

That doesn’t stop me wanting to understand though. It’s cautionary in that I should seek to avoid hypocrisy, sure. It’s illuminating in that so easily, in all my self-righteous anger, I can become just like that which I fight. It’s a favourite theme of mine – the policeman who, in order to catch them, becomes just like the criminals he chases. The soldier who becomes as brutal as his enemy. The politician who becomes as corrupt as those whose own corruption motivated him to stand. (GF Newman wrote a quartet of TV dramas called Law and Order which brilliantly explored this theme).

And I wasn’t just complaining; my remarks about asymmetric rules of engagement were part of the ongoing process of analysis, trying to figure out why it is so hard to create and sustain progressive solutions, why some people seem more likely to take offence than issue, how I’m subject to a moral imperative that requires me, in effect, to fight with one arm tied behind my back. And the key question: what can be done about any of this? What am I doing? Do I think I can change anything? Is there any point? – this last question being important to me personally, because I become very involved with issues I take up, and to be frank, there are some deleterious effects that I, and those I’m close to, wouldn’t miss at all. I enjoy a roller coaster from time to time, but only when I’m driving.

* * * * * * *

This morning I turned to the Guardian site, and discovered an illuminating article by US blogger Amanda Marcotte: in America’s dish detergent wars she uses protests against the ban of phosphates in washing powders as an example of a greater movement, which she defines really well:

“Political observers trying to understand the conservative backlash movement in America known as the Tea Party certainly have their work cut out for them. It’s a movement primarily composed of Medicare recipients who object to “government-run healthcare”. Its leaders claim they’re more libertarian in orientation, and yet they routinely back some of the most anti-choice politicians ever to run for such major office. One of their key leaders likes to compare himself to Martin Luther King Jr, but the issues that most reliably get Tea Partiers to hit the streets are reliably racialised to exploit their prejudiced paranoia. They are full of contradictions, often making – and then running from – position statements, and seem to be more about just being angry than listing specific grievances”.

These contradictory impulses are equally evident in climate change debates. I often rib my targets with taunts about the fragmentation of the sceptical position, an army comprised of millions of small units without a shred of coordination – and just as well, because if deniers actually worked together on a common cause, we’d be screwed. They do enough damage as it is.

That’s not to say they don’t aim at common targets, however. As I thought about my writing and my understanding – which is always partial – I reflected on the common thread in right-wing argument: the ideological underpinning that defines the protagonist’s political affiliation. When you stand far enough back from any topic, you see the same statements, the same attacks, the same targets and the same ideological values. Everything becomes polarised: everything is confrontational. Ideology has been fought for millennia on adversarial terms: it is the imposition of adversarial ideology on science that really gets us in trouble.

* * * * * * *

In the comments following her article, a poster makes a gross generalisation about ‘both sides’. Marcotte responds below the line, and although the poster later vehemently rejects her position (and, ironically, in the midst of rather overwrought indignation does a bit of Monckton Manoeuvring to boot), to me she nails it:

I’m not sure what the “both sides” you’re referring to are…Either we care about saving fish populations and take steps to do so or we let them die off. The notion that there’s some holy grail of “middle ground” is just that—a myth. It falls apart when you talk about the issues.

What Marcotte doesn’t say specifically is that the assault on reason she is documenting is actually an assault on science. She ascribes to the actions and reactions a distaste for environmentalism, but I don’t think that’s the whole story. Writing about the bilious commentary that claimed the phosphate ban was yet another example of environmentalists merely demonstrating some hand-wringing concern, without any concomitant desire for accomplishment, she observes:

“Except, of course, that a short Google search would have resulted in immediate knowledge of what the “greenies” were trying to accomplish: reducing the amount of oxygen depletion in Spokane rivers and lakes that was killing off the fish. But the first rule of reactionary politics is: don’t learn about the issues, or else you might find your kneejerk anti-liberal reactions weren’t as smart as you thought they were.

Large parts of America have been primed…to believe they don’t need to know the actual facts behind an issue because they can simply substitute their paranoid hostility towards liberals for understanding”.

The observation made in the second paragraph will be utterly familiar to anyone who has participated in the climate change debate. It speaks as well to the fragmented nature of the assault – big government, Marxism, rampant capitalism, venal politicians, self-serving scientists, hidden cliques of uber-powerful, secretive men (no women), eco-fascists, oil companies, bankers. Bilderburghers and Trilaterals – they are all behind this from time to time, depending on which day it is. Perhaps they work in shifts?

That’s a list of ‘usual suspects’, but I return to my big picture; science as an ideological precept, one in which there are ‘sides’, an adversarial system as if science can be voted on according to preference. I come to a strange conclusion: do the right think science is basically socialist? That within the architecture of the scientific method there is some deeply buried ideological imperative?

On the surface this looks rather daft, but I can easily see how it would be possible to construct a personal narrative that embodied such a mistaken idea. Consider this: science is, by its very nature, absolutely egalitarian. It is scrupulously fair, its rules being inviolable no matter race, creed, colour, status, economic position, gender, religion…the laws of science don’t give a shit, to be blunt. And is there not a remarkable similarity between the rigorous fairness of science and the best intentions of socialism? To the political right, science has all the hallmarks of the left, including its centralisation, for nothing is less culturally diffuse and more ‘joined up’, more socially inclusive, than science – identical in principle absolutely everywhere on earth (while less so in practice).

Science does not recognised the rights of the individual, for there are none that can apply to the findings of science. Where science makes discoveries that impact on society, then we must necessarily debate our actions and reactions in a political context. What we cannot expect is to be sufficiently well-informed to debate constructively when we confuse the adversarial methods of debating opposing beliefs – be they political or religious – with the immutable laws of nature. There are no sides in science, just that which we know, and that which we don’t. Yet.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Dr. Tom permalink
    October 15, 2010 6:37 pm

    Graham, good post, well thought out, provocative. As a scientist (Ph.D. in Environmental Science and Geology), I have become very much the advocate for the science of climate change/global warming and I started out as a semi-skeptic. I wasn’t certain and I think that’s where science begins (assemble facts and draw conclusions). The scientist must be curious about a subject, then apply the scientific method to find some answers, always questioning the results, then searching for more answers. It’s a never ending process but along the way some things become obvious. The Earth is warming at an ever increasing rate: sea level is rising, glaciers are ablating more rapidly than the IPCC predicted (they didn’t account for large chunks of calving of ice shelves, etc), CO2 is increasing ever more rapidly as more and more fossil fuels are consumed, the world ocean is acidifying, species that can’t adapt are becoming extinct, etc. The evidence is there for those willing to look at it. I am no longer a semi-skeptic. I am a strong advocate in the local community and regionally. The skeptics are here and they have the same arguments that we see over and over. Your site, John Cook’s and others do a great job. Keep it up. I learn a great deal from you and your critical thinking. That’s what we have to get the public to do more of; think critically. It’s a difficult struggle but we’re winning. The US congress will pass some kind of legislation to limit carbon and there will eventually be international agreements.

  2. Watching the Deniers permalink
    October 18, 2010 5:32 am

    Within the philosophy of science much debate and discussion revolves around the “demarcation” issue. What is science? What is pseudoscience? How do you tell the difference? Good questions, well worth discussing.

    However there is another demarcation issue – where does science end and public policy begin (and politics)?

    Essentially, the argument the deniers put forward is that climate science is political. They’ve made this category mistake because our response to AGW is public policy. They therefore assume that the science MUST be political, a kind of genetic fallacy.

    A curious post-modern argument, which they vehemently deny. Ironically they scream abuse at liberals/academics for their post-modern relativism.

  3. Graham Wayne permalink*
    October 18, 2010 8:59 am

    Watching the Deniers: Hello again.

    “However there is another demarcation issue – where does science end and public policy begin (and politics)?”

    I know this is a rhetorical question in most respects, but my quick response would be to say that science ends where proofs run out, and we move into the realm of equal validity of ideas, for no political concept can be ruled out by experiment (and regrettably, virtually any political theory or system can be made to work if you are prepared to use enough violence – and you are willing to define a working system as one that meets your own criteria, irrespective of what others may suffer to achieve it).

    But your later point, about category mistakes, is not in my view the best analysis. I’m going to write something about this point to enlarge on it a bit. Pop back if you have the time…

  4. Graham Wayne permalink*
    October 18, 2010 9:01 am

    Dr. Tom – thanks for the kind remarks. I wish I could share your optimism about the US Congress…

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