The Corner

Politics & Policy

Rationalia, Ho!

Kevin Williamson’s piece on “Rationalia” may be the best thing he’s written in a while — which is quite a high bar. But I may be biased because it is so in my wheelhouse. For those of you who read the Tyranny of Clichés or any of my extended rants on philosophical Pragmatism and “science,” this should be no surprise. 

Kevin is right that Neil deGrasse Tyson’s brain fart fantasy of a virtual country where “All policy shall be based on the weight of evidence” is “school boy nonsense.” We all knew kids in high school — some of us may even have been that kid before we matured — who pompously argued that this or that law or controversy was stupid because the right answer is obvious. The problem is that such thinking isn’t educated out of kids, it is pounded into them. Worse, as Kevin notes, it has been routinely and consistently elevated to a level of intellectual and philosophical profundity. The Jacobins believed they could yoke all policy to their god, Reason (which is why they renamed Notre Dame and other French Cathedrals “temples of Reason”). Marx issued his rationalist fatwa declaring socialism “scientific” and therefore all disagreement with it a sign of “false consciousness” or simply greedy class-interest. The Pragmatists gave philosophical heft to the Progressive crusade for “disinterestedness.” Progressive officials and journalists weren’t pursuing their own interests or privileging their own agendas, they were simply charting the course for the best outcomes based on “science.” This habit of mind, which Hayek dubbed “scientism,” has poisoned the liberal blood stream ever since. Woodrow Wilson suffered from it, as did FDR and JFK. Paul Krugman insists he has no liberal biases, it’s just that facts have a liberal bias. Confidence that planners, armed with reason alone, could outthink markets in particular and reality in general, has been the most reliable midwife of unintended outcomes for the last two centuries.

The epistemological problems with this kind of confirmation bias are obviously bad enough. But the more important point is that this line of thinking is fundamentally undemocratic. The whole point of this line of argument is to take decisions away from the people and put it in the hands of experts who know better. The technocratic freakout over Brexit is just the latest expression of such thinking.

Politics in the most basic Aristotelian and democratic senses rests on the idea that people can disagree about what the right course of action is. If you want to replace a park with a shopping mall, some people will object because they like trees more than stores. Others will says jobs are more important than green spaces. Tyson wants the “weight of the evidence” to win out every time. But everyone can agree on the “evidence” while still disagreeing on whether or not to release the bulldozers. Likewise with abortion. Fundamentally, the fight over abortion isn’t about evidence, it’s about principles. That doesn’t mean evidence isn’t important, just that its importance is entirely contingent on the question you’re trying to answer. Moreover, science — or  ”science” — can’t settle many questions of principle (even if some journalists think otherwise):


Indeed, most meaningful political disputes are fundamentally disputes over competing values. That means people of good will can disagree on what the evidence shows or, more importantly, on which evidence should win out. Tyson thinks that all good and right people will see the “evidence” the same way. I honestly believe only arrogant or naive fools and oblivious dogmatists can think that is right.

Coincidentally, Prager University just released a video I recorded a long time ago on this very subject. I just wish Tyson had promulgated his rationalistic nationalism earlier.



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