Progressives claim to love science, but what they truly love is power.To be a good progressive is to adhere simultaneously to two incompatible notions: one, that science provides the final word on any question about which scientists offer any opinion; two, that the scientific method is illegitimate, a tool of the sundry atavistic forces conspiring to keep down the female, the black, the brown, the poor, the gay, the disabled, the gender-fluid — everybody except Mitt Romney.
If you were looking at the college campuses with the right kind of eyes in the Eighties and Nineties, you could have seen this coming.
The more philosophically self-aware progressives have long been ensorceled by the belief that science — or, really, Science — could be pressed into service bearing loads of social management too heavy for a mere bureaucracy. The Soviet Union invested a great deal of its scarce capital in something it called “Soviet cybernetics,” a sort of Stone Age attempt at using what we’d now call Big Data to analyze and solve social problems, especially those related to the management of economic production. The old Marxists took their “scientific socialism” seriously.
In the English-speaking world, progressives, under the influence not only of political philosophers such as John Dewey but also of the engineer and management theorist Frederick Winslow Taylor, fell into something like a cult of expertise. Experts under the tutelage of Science could, would, and should decide . . . almost everything. How much steel should U.S. firms produce? How should they produce it? What should the line workers at the factory be paid? What about their supervisors? Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management, published in 1911, provides a testament to the ambitions of the Progressive Era: He and his contemporaries believed that, using such new technological tools as stopwatches and motion-picture cameras, one could study industrial processes at the most granular level — how a certain employee turns a certain screw — and produce a single, best way of performing any task.
There is a great deal of ideology embedded in that belief, along with a great many political assumptions, but Taylor and the others denied that they were engaged in any sort of politics at all: Their business, as they saw it, was Science. There is a reasonably straight line from early-20th-century progressivism to contemporary, Barack Obama–style “pragmatism,” which is dishonestly and glibly characterized as simply “doing what works.” In reality it means “doing what I want done, in the most convenient way.”
But managerial progressivism, with its implicit faith in hierarchy and its inescapable elitism (not everybody gets a Ph.D. from Harvard), was always set for conflict with the more populist and emotional tendencies on the left that came to prominence in the Sixties, political currents originating largely in issues of identity (from black power to Chicano power to what we used to call “women’s liberation”). Such concerns exist uneasily alongside a managerial progressivism based on the wisdom of people who were — and are — overwhelmingly white, male, and highly educated, working in institutions built by (and, the identity Left would argue, for) people who were overwhelmingly white, male, and highly educated. For years, this played out as old-fashioned progressive elites’ exercising a kind of managerial veto over the wilder ambitions of the identity Left: Bernie Sanders proposes reorganizing the American economy around the cultivation of organic hemp, and somebody responsible tells him, “No.”
You will not hear Democrats complaining about the fact that the Affordable Care Act clears the way for subsidizing such hokum as acupuncture and homeopathy.
This gave the identity Left a very strong incentive to work to undermine the prestige of Science, a project that was undertaken with great enthusiasm back during the heyday of postmodernism. The academic world endures a lot of voguish nonsense about “African science” and “feminist mathematics” and “queer physics” (“My early postulate is that queer physics speaks about knowledge-making in physics that takes the form of subverting the hegemony of a dominant and mainstream discourse”). The extreme, Foucauldian version of that analysis was ridiculous and lame and easy to write off if you were not an academic. But the more moderate version of that view became quite mainstream: We may not hear very much about feminist physics, but we hear about “women’s ways of knowing,” gay perspectives on this, black perspectives on that, etc., as if there were not as many black perspectives as there are black people. Michel Foucault’s lurking malice was reinvented as the motive force in the rhetoric of “intersectionality,” the belief that the oppression of people with certain characteristics (black, gay, disabled, etc.) isn’t a matrix of attitudes and discrete episodes but a complex nest of social relationships that can, conveniently, explain anything — the phlogiston of identity politics.
The Indiana Jones heuristic — the search for fact is science, the search for Truth is philosophy — can go only so far in finessing the inherent conflict between science, which is organized around assumptions of objectivity, and the poisonous identity politics holding as its fundamental principle that everything is subjective. The scientific view is that true is true and false is false, irrespective of any particular demographic or political characteristics of the speaker. (Though these of course may provide grounds for skepticism: “Who paid for your study?” is not an entirely unreasonable question.)
At the same time, the identity Left has its uses for Science. For one thing, it was a convenient cudgel to use against conservative-leaning Christians distressed by certain implications of evolution or discombobulated by the possibility that homosexuality is a phenomenon with roots that are biological rather than diabolical. That sort of thing is usually the stuff of low-value conversation: A certain kind of eternal adolescent never stops getting a thrill out of scandalizing his retrograde Lutheran grandmother. But if you have a sufficient number of such interactions — and we have no shortage of them — they can become a part of the tribal identity that is the real basis of our politics, however much we might pretend that what we are really talking about is public policy. As the identity Left moved out of the communes and into the suburbs and progressivism became much more strongly associated with the interests and habits of affluent, educated, coastal elites, professing one’s love of Science became an exercise in telegraphing status.
But if it were really about science, we’d be hearing more from scientists and less from people who have batty, superstitious attitudes about modern agriculture and evidence-based medicine. You will not hear Democrats complaining about the fact that the Affordable Care Act clears the way for subsidizing such hokum as acupuncture and homeopathy. Seventh-day Adventists may make some claims about the world that sound ridiculous from the scientific point of view, but so do practitioners of yoga and sweat-lodge enthusiasts. The public adoration of Science isn’t about science.
Which brings us to the recent March for Science and the popular poster boy for all things Science, Bill Nye. The March for Science was no such thing; in the main, it was a march for the one thing almost every faction of the Left can agree on: a larger public sector. Progressives are culturally at home in large institutions (universities, federal agencies, Fortune 500 HR departments), and they have learned how to game those systems pretty well. More funding for “science” means a lot of funding for things tangentially related to science and a lot of comfortable sinecures related to science in the vaguest way: A great many people with degrees in women’s studies or Latino studies have jobs in “science” as community-outreach coordinators and program officers with responsibilities that might charitably be described as “light.” It’s a safe bet that $100 spent on “science” gets you about $17.50 worth of astrophysics with the balance going to “community development,” paid political activism, and overhead. That is not an argument against spending on science — it is an argument for better and more responsibly run programs.
And that would be a fine argument to have, if we could have an argument. Which we can’t.
The partisans of Science believe themselves to be part of an eternal war between Galileo and the Inquisition, but they have in fact chosen the Inquisition’s side.
Charles Murray, who wrote one of the world’s most famous books bringing scientific research to bear on social questions, has in effect been forbidden to speak at college campuses. In one of the most shameful spectacles of contemporary academic malfeasance, Bert Johnson, the chairman of the political-science department at Middlebury, has apologized for the episode in which Murray was prevented from speaking on campus by rioters: Professor Johnson apologized to the rioters for having had the poor judgment to invite someone to campus whose views are at variance with their own. It could be that Murray’s work represents poor science; some respected parties have made exactly that argument. But what does Science have to say about the disputation of claims?
The postmodernists were correct in one thing: There is some politics built into the scientific method, in that the scientific method assumes an environment in which people are at liberty to speak, debate, and publish — a liberty with which the American Left, particularly on college campuses, is at war. They are not interested in debate or conversation. They are interested in silencing those who disagree with them, and they have high-profile allies: Democratic prosecutors around the country are working to criminalize the holding of nonconformist views about global warming (some prominent activists have openly called for jailing “climate deniers”), and Howard Dean has taken up the novel argument that the First Amendment does not actually protect political speech with which he disagrees. (It is, he insists, “hate speech,” a legally null term in the American context.) Dean has argued that the federal laws governing the conduct of political campaigns could and should be used to regulate all public speaking.
The partisans of Science believe themselves to be part of an eternal war between Galileo and the Inquisition, but they have in fact chosen the Inquisition’s side. They have chosen the side of the Censor and the Index — so long as they get to choose who serves as Censor and who manages the Index. That is how they have reconciled Science and its claims of objective fact with identity politics and its denial of the same: They are engaged in neither the pursuit of fact nor the pursuit of Truth — only the pursuit of Power.
— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent. This story first appeared in the May 15, 2017, issue of National Review.