The Corner

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On the Left and Science


The subject of science and the left raises far deeper questions than whether liberals have misused or abused scientific findings. Some on the left certainly have on occasion (just look at the use of language in the stem cell debate, for instance), and some on the right have too.


But the left actually has a much more complicated set of problems with science that are explored far more rarely than those of the right. Scientific advance, for instance, is the great engine behind capitalism, and is in that respect responsible for much that the left has disliked about the west since the 18th century. Much of what progressives oppose is precisely progress. Science, extended beyond its appropriate bounds, is also the chief contemporary threat to our continued allegiance to the principle of human equality, which has been at the heart of the liberal worldview. Put simply, science seems to demonstrate we are not equal—this after all is the problem many on the left had with The Bell Curve. Of course, it only seems that way if you take a very peculiar view of what the principle of equality actually is. We are equal not in our natural capacities—obviously we are not all equally strong, or smart, or tall, or healthy—but in our standing as human beings in relation to something higher than ourselves. But the left is no longer well equipped to offer that defense of equality, since it requires all manner of premises they have given up. And so it has little defense to offer, and grows open to the temptations of the case for inequality, with its attendant abuses of the weak (some discussed around here quite recently). For some of us on the “conservative” side of the stem cell debate, for instance, that is precisely what the argument comes down to (a case I tried to make in unfriendly territory a few months ago, and which Ramesh has made better than I could).


None of this is to say the left has abandoned equality, or the weak. Only that the notion that science is a cause of the left is much more complicated and problematic than it seems in our politics these days. Those on the left, like Al Gore in his new book, who assert sole ownership of “reason” or “science” should think hard about the fine print. The left and right each own a piece of the scientific worldview, and each has their very different problems with it, as with other human enterprises. Science isn’t so different.