Friday, March 7, 2008

Doubtfully Anti-Science

Jake Young at Pure Pedantry has written a thoughtful post attempting to explain the hostility to science among conservatives, which he offers as as a corrective to a John Quiggin piece on the same subjects posted at Crooked Timber.

Young divides anti-science conservatism into two distinct camps, a religious and anti-planning, the former being those who simply refuse, on ideological/religious grounds, to accept that science has any ultimate purchase on anything important.

Young is pessimistic that the religious anti-science camp will ever be reached no matter how science is framed or what benefits it delivers. I genuinely hope he is wrong about that, but looking around, it's easy to find religiously-motivated opponents of science. It seem undeniable that making headway against that camp involves challenging faith-based thinking per se. Whatever the shortcomings of that approach, I don't see a practical alternative.

He does hold out some hope for the anti-planning camp, which he describes as follows:

The core philosophical argument of the anti-planning camp is not the facts do not exist, nor is it that science is not the best method available to elucidate those facts. What they reject is the notion that facts provide predictive power over systems as complex as the climate and the economy ... it recommends a Burkean approach to policy based on incremental changes that emerge organically over time.
I think Young has accurately depicted a set of ideas that are actually floating about the world. I have only one problem with it: I don't believe a word of it, and I question whether anyone truly does.

To be exact, I think people accept and embrace "Burkean gradualism" when they don't care about the outcome, which often is the same as saying they have incentives or motivations not to care about the outcome -- a VP at Exxon can rather readily convince himself that climate change is a matter best left to unconscious mechanisms that, incidentally, won't have any foreseeable tangible impact before he's retired and gone fishing.

Whereas the same executive would have no qualms about, say, invading an oil-rich nation whose leadership started making noises about disrupting international oil markets in realistically-foreeseable ways (as by seizing Kuwait and its massive oil reserves). This executive and countless more self-proclaimed Burkeans would gladly support such a far-flung mission, notwithstanding the notorious uncertainties of launching wars on a global scale.

Self-labeled Burkean gradualists likewise never seem to shrink from confident predictions about the consequences of particular forms of sex education, particular school funding schemes, particular welfare policies, particular law enforcement-sentencing regimes, particular health care plans, etc. Not only are they serenely confident of their ability to predict the impacts, they are willing to enact sweeping social policies on their basis.

The false modesty involved in Burkean gradualism is a close cousin of faith-based yodeling about humility and sinfulness. Believers weep, gnash teeth, and bewail the heavens with cries of mankind's wretched finitude and paltry share of wisdom, only to rise from prayer and state exactly what god himself wants.

I prefer honest doubt.

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