05 February, 2009

Leftists and Science

VerBruggen at the NRO agrees with John Derbyshire that the Left poses more of a threat to science than the Right:

I insist that ideologues on both sides are science-hostile; but which kind of politics is more of an obstacle to the advance of our understanding, is arguable. Since science is mostly carried out in places where Right Creationists, Geocentrists, etc. have no influence, but blank-slate Left “culturists” and po-mo words-have-no-meaning deconstructionists have tremendous influence, I’d guess the Left has the potential to do more damage, at least in the human sciences.
I'd guess that Derbyshire is speaking largely from his 'gut' and giving his brain a break on this one. The Right is largely founded on assumptions derived from an absolute moral standard (gay marriage, abortion, small government, foreign intervention,...), which it puts before any 'derived' or proven methods or beliefs. In that respect, the Left seems to be less constrained in accepting new ideas and ultimately uncovering new truths, be it in the human or natural sciences.


Elliot said...

I'm not sure, also, just how exactly Derb thinks those "blank-slate Left 'culturists'" and post-modernists are having any sort of influence over research scientists. They're housed in different departments, different buildings, and they probably don't have a lot of social interaction (What I mean, Higgy, is that you're unique in your field for hanging out with treasonous deconstructionists like me).

I guess he thinks they run the universities? In which case he's just wrong because these days business people run universities, and being able to lay claim to world class researchers is one of the main goals of the business model. Maybe he thinks that all those neo-Marxist critiques of Charlotte Bronte will come oozing out of the English department and infect the hard sciences by osmosis?

spencer said...

I want to quibble with hig's assertion that "The Right is largely founded on assumptions derived from an absolute moral standard... ." The "Right" is multifarious and while this statement may describe a few of the many intellectual justifications for right-wing politics, there are many that do not fit this schema. For example, the Burkean tradition is highly empirical in nature; there are plenty of conservatives who are foreign policy realists; many economists want small government for pragmatic reasons; etc. We should not attribute the current state of the Republican Party to the entire edifice of right-wing thought. Conservatives don't have the answers that people want these days, but there's still a great deal of thought there that we shouldn't throw out quite yet.

As for the matter at hand: There are actually two issues that Derb conflates in his post. The first is which ideology is less friendly to science. The second is which ideology has the potential to do more damage to science.

On the second, I'll agree with Elliot that "left-wing culturalists" have relatively little influence over the workings of the hard sciences. Considering that the right has actively sought to distort results from the hard sciences (evolution, global warming), I'd say that's the read danger here. However, the left has quite a bit of influence when it comes to social science, which is I think what the Derb has in mind, given that he says as much.

Maybe those neo-Marxist critiques of Charlotte Bronte don't ooze on over to the laboratory, but they certainly have saturated the social sciences (except economics and psychology). Come to think of it, Marx himself was a bit of an economist, a historian, a sociologist. Not so much a literary critic. The connections should be obvious. Marxism lends itself to ideology (although it doesn't have to--it can be treated as a theory to be tested). Such ideology has considerable influence over history, sociology, anthropology, cultural studies, education, et cetera, and thus great potential to do damage to the social sciences.

Back to Derb's first issue--which ideology is less friendly to scientific results? Again, I think we need to split it up between natural and social sciences. The left doesn't have very many commitments when it comes to the subjects studied by the natural sciences, so they are willing to accept whatever comes out of the lab as truth. But as far as social science, both left and right have plenty of problems with any number of results in, say, economics.

IN SUMMARY, while the right is more hostile to the natural sciences, I think both right and left are plenty hostile to the social sciences, each in their own way.

Eremita said...

From my gut: I think what is really of interest in Derb's opinion is where the potential danger comes from for the Left or Right. It seems that Derb recognizes the damage the Right, when they are in power, can do to science in the form of disallowing scientific results into public policy. I take it the kind of damage the Left can do is inside science, that is, introducing ideological commitments where there should be none.

Both of these kinds of influence are quite feasible. Regardless of who is wielding them at the moment, the interesting question is, which is more dangerous?

My gut reaction is to say that disallowing scientific results in policy-making is dangerous in the short-term, and mostly to the populous, not science. (Given the American society where science gets funded significantly by non-government determined funds.) Introducing ideologies into the sciences from the inside is more dangerous to the integrity of science itself and has the potential to do more long-term damage.

Considering that distinction alone, I can see why Derb thinks the kind of influence he claims the Left wields is more dangerous. However, he doesn't consider two MAJOR mitigating factors: DO the Left and Right truly or often wield power in this way? and Is one of the influences more likely, more commonly wielded, or stronger per person/party wielding it?

Elliot said...

"given that he says as much"

Thats not the way I interpreted "human sciences" - I don't think that phrase is in common usage referring to social science, and I assumed it meant something like "life sciences" and referred to the abortion/evolution debates.

But anyway, "social sciences" are not science. Economics gets very close, and political science has made great strides in adopting a certain measure of methodological rigor, but there is really little comparison in terms of testable hypotheses that can generate repeatable results holding other variables constant. Social sciences are interpretive lenses and as such I think it is non-sensical to think about ideologies per se as somehow an inherent threat to their integrity. Ideologies are tools, or approaches, that may or may not be useful in a given circumstance.

As Spencer says, I think the Right is clearly more of a current threat to scientific results. But it would be interesting to see how the Left would react if, say, research somehow definitively concluded that a fetus was a fully sentient human being from the moment of conception, or something else that cut against one of its deeply held propositions.

spencer said...

Elliot, if you read Derb's original post, he cites work on child development as a scientific finding that conservatives might reject. Work like this is solidly within the social sciences, so I'm pretty sure that's what he means.

Now are the social sciences science? I think you would be hard-pressed to come up with any definition of science that includes all of the physical sciences and none of the social sciences. Is it methodological rigor you want? Economics has heaps and heaps of methodological rigor. Testable hypotheses? Most social sciences do in fact produce testable hypotheses and economists are particularly concerned with doing this. Repeatable experiments holding other variables constant? Okay, it's harder to do this in a social science, but by no means impossible. This seems to me to be a statement that social sciences have a more complicated subject than the physical sciences, not that they're not sciences. Where do you draw the line in terms of complexity? There's plenty of work in, say, evolutionary theory that doesn't produce repeatable results.

I don't think we mean the same thing by ideology. What I mean is a set of assumptions that is beyond empirical challenge. I think this definition fits well with our discussion. So it doesn't really make sense that this could be a tool to be used and discarded. If it was such a tool, it wouldn't be an ideology! The danger of ideology to science is that ideology prescribes assumptions and results, instead of generating them empirically, which is, after all, what science is all about. (This is not to say that science is not theory-laden. But in science, the assumptions of the should be open to discussion and/or testing.)

Cassady said...

I think that science should be theory-laden--but the responsible scientist lets the results of testing those theories dictate an ideology of sorts, and not vice versa. That's the danger of what Eremita was commenting on--the Left's "internal" danger versus the Right's "external."

I have to think that a scientist committed to, say the belief that a fetus isn't sentient until after the third trimester begins, who proves himself conclusively wrong would need to change his views. Not likely, but I thought that was how science worked.

I think the external damage that strong right-winger's have already done bears out what we're largely agreeing on, that the Right poses a greater threat. I consider the immense difficulties in stem-cell research imposed by the government. If a few committed scientists hadn't taken it on themselves to continue and enable other's work in the field, we wouldn't be where we are now and potentially have missed the single most important medical advance since...ever.

Despite the setbacks, scientists can now create all the stem cells they need without having to even think about embryos--I think there was recently a great article in TIME about induced pluripotent cells (iPC's).

I can only think of ideology as the type of rigid and largely subjective feeling that prompted the limits on such research. So I agree with Spence on this, and I share Elliot's original confusion. I'm not even sure which people Derb's even really refering to, but I think it has to do with those crazy "liberal arts" schools.