Global Warming, Intelligent Design and the Re-Ascendancy of the Pro-Scientific Political Left

In his State of the Union address, President Bush said something that was sadly remarkable:

America is on the verge of technological breakthroughs that will enable us to live our lives less dependent on oil. These technologies will help us become better stewards of the environment – and they will help us to confront the serious challenge of global climate change.

In a major speech, the President of the United States openly acknowledged global warming, the fact that human activity is having an effect, and that we face a challenge in dealing with it. This should not be news, but that this President has done so, in light of his previous tap dancing around the scientific consensus around the issue, shows a shift in American politics. We are seeing a resurgence of the power of the scientific left.

The dominant progressive voices throughout 80s and 90s were largely from the humanistic, anti-scientific contingent. But the recent excesses of the religious, anti-scientific wing of the conservative movement around issues like stem cell research, climate change, and intelligent design have given rise to a general insecurity about the power these people hold. These are challenges the post-modern crowd is ill-suited to confront, a fact which creates a political opening for pro-scientific progressives to return from the outer darkness. At this time, we are facing an opportunity we cannot afford to squander.

The Uneasy Marriage of Corporate Interests to the Christian Right

The charge to power of the American conservative movement in the last several decades is based upon being able to combine the economic desires of corporate moneyed interests with the social policy aims of the Evangelical Christian movement. Recent books like Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas? and Kevin Phillips’ American Theocracy do a wonderful job of chronicling this union and its clout. While interests of the corporate and religious elements of American conservatism do not necessarily intersect, their combined muscle has been used in concert in a fashion effective beyond any expectations.

But one place the two factions tend to part company has been science. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, advances in science and associated technologies have provided new products and increased efficiency for business. This generated a pro-science movement among conservatives, who not only saw the financial benefits of its results, but warmly received Herbert Spencer’s social re-interpretation of Darwin. The likes of Andrew Carnegie and H. L. Mencken embraced the scientific worldview and saw it inextricably linked to their conservative outlook, which places the wealthy above the workers on the Great Chain of Social Being.

The result of this was that the burgeoning American Evangelical movement, comprised of very religious working class people, became distrustful of science. Led by figures like William Jennings Bryan, the original opposition to the theory of evolution in America was based more on its reaction to social Darwinism than to any concerns about science and particular theological views. These opponents saw biology being used to bolster oppression, and therefore they fought it with a Bible in one hand and a pitchfork in the other. These were the populists and they saw science as politically conservative.

This situation changed radically after the 1960s. The social justice that formed the backbone of Evangelical populism changed into a culture war against modernism itself. The rise of Communism, with its atheistic foundation, allowed the puppet masters of the red scare to refocus religious indignation from the conservative corporate giants trying to consolidate wealth to those who aimed to redistribute it. What had begun as race-baiting in the South was then enlarged into the “Evangelical Strategy” to do for Republicans what Roosevelt’s New Deal had done for Democrats –provide enduring majorities. Where the religious passion had favored progressive causes, it now turned against them with incredible ferocity.

This resulted in an uneasy alliance between corporate and religious conservatives – uneasy because the financial interests of the vast majority of religious conservatives were not being served. But with powerful enough rhetoric and constant baiting with abortion, flag, burning, and gay marriage, these details were kept from view.

The Rise of the Humanistic Left

The populist left was largely focused in the center of the country, especially in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin, with a movement of farmers out to challenge the political and economic structure that kept them struggling. On the coasts, however, the intelligentsia of the left was wary of the full-throated, overall-wearing anger of populism. They preferred the sophistication of Europe to the rhetoric of Eugene Debs. But what came ashore from the Continent because of the World Wars was a divided left – part seeing science as the problem and part seeing it as the solution.

The influx of refugee intellectuals around the time of the Second World War brought with it the remnants of a fight over responsibility for World War I. The horrors, death, and futility of WWI are unfortunately eclipsed in our cultural memory because of the death camps and nuclear weapons of WWII, but the effects of the Great War cannot be underestimated. The war brought down the old monarchic order and introduced the world to the brutality that was possible through technology. With the Continent in ruins, the humanists largely blamed science for providing the massively effective tools of destruction. Seeing the mass death caused by new weapons, especially chemical munitions, figures like Edmond Husserl argued that science had become divorced from its social context and therefore capable of the worst evils. Science was to blame.

The European scientific left on the other hand, with Albert Einstein as its great symbol, saw science as a truly international enterprise, rational and democratic to its core, which stood in stark opposition to the religious, militaristic, and dictatorial nationalism responsible for the horrors of the War. The scientific worldview, they contended, would eliminate the preconditions of this sort of war itself. Science knows no country; the brotherhood of science was beyond politics as the world needed to be.

When the many of the major participants in this battle came to this country fleeing Nazism, an interesting thing happened. Whether it was the rise of McCarthyism or a sense of displacement in their adopted home, the European scientific left stopped being overtly political. But the humanistic side, with the arrival of Herbert Marcuse, Max Horkheimer, and Theodor Adorno, continued to wage their side of the battle. With the scientific left quiet, the anti-scientific contingent won the day, largely shaping the character of the intellectual left after the first half of the 20th century.

This was aided in part by events on the ground. The 1900s saw some of the greatest strides towards justice in the history of the nation. The women’s rights, civil rights, and gay rights movements all broke down barriers and enlarged the definition of what it was to be an American. The inclusion of these groups created a wonderful problem. History in the form of our national narrative had been written by the victors, the powerful, the oppressors; but now, that narrative had to be re-written to include the stories and perspectives of those who had been on the outside. How could we make sense of the competing and contradictory accounts? How could we meaningfully re-imagine our history in a way that brought into the story the experiences of those who suffered oppression?

This rewriting of the national narrative was a humanistic problem and a focus of the left, hence it was the humanists who rose to intellectual power. Questions about political power and linguistic meaning inherited from Friedrich Nietzsche became all the rage. Good and interesting questions in social epistemology were raised, and the sociology of knowledge was placed in the spotlight.

But stardom often goes to one’s head and so it was here. This work gave rise to the excesses of post-modernism with its denial of any epistemological meaning beyond the cultural. On the postmodernist view, “All truth is social construction.” The only meaning is political meaning. There was no truth, only the results of as of yet un-deconstructed oppression. The leading voices of the intellectual left became deeply anti-scientific. Science was the ultimate in epistemic domination. It took its socially derived theories and its hegemonic demands for absolute adherence and forced its resultson everyone, despite the fact that they deserved no more legitimacy than any other perspective, than any other testimony.

This ruffled feathers on the pro-scientific left, but with the exception of the environmental movement, they had little influence. Physicist Alan Sokal published an article in a major post-modern organ, Social Text, designed to show that even the experts could not differentiate between an imposter designed to resemble the work in form, but intentionally vacant of any meaning, on the one hand, and good faith attempts to do the sort of social deconstruction they considered legitimate, on the other. It caused a bang, but the revolution did not come.

The Opening

In the meantime, to say that the American left in general lost ground in the larger political arena is a stunning understatement. Overplaying the white guilt card had helped Ronald Reagan get elected. Scandals by elected Democrats from ABSCAM to sexual infidelities had cost the moderate elected base its claim to moral superiority in defending the interests of the common person. The media strategy of conservatives like Irving Kristol, Richard Mellin Scaife, and John Olin allowed the conservatives to tilt coverage of the news. Add to that the joke that political correctness had become and it was unclear whether it was, in fact, a strawman that the right attacked.

But once the right had the power, something interesting happened. Both the corporate and religious side of the movement turned against science. Having the power, the social conservatives declared open war on scientific results they disliked, especially evolutionary biology. With control of school boards and local and state governments, the teaching of science was turned into a battlefield.

However the formerly pro-science side was also finding itself battling against science. Corporate interests are fickle. They support science as long as and only as long as it bolsters the bottom line. But when the results are undesirable, the loyalty disappears. When business interests ran into conflict with environmental or public health concerns, suddenly science was easy to demonize. Easier still, they could produce their own “experts” to muddy the waters for a largely scientifically illiterate electorate. Political reporters don’t know the difference: if you tell them that something is still unproven and a matter of debate, they’ll report “both sides” in a “balanced” way regardless of the existence of consensus among actual experts.

Thus, the right declared open season on science. And the left, with its humanists in positions of socially constructed power, were unable to stand up to it.

But then…

Dover as a Watershed Moment

In the last couple of years, both the social and fiscal conservatives have overplayed their hands with respect to science. Small scandals related to Bush administration appointees were embarrassments individually. When the Union for Concerned Scientists released its study “Scientific Integrity in Policy Making: Investigation of the Bush Administration’s Abuse of Science” in 2004, the examples of putting corporate interests ahead of public health got some press attention, but the study was largely written off as election year noise. When George Deutsch, a politically connected young man without a college degree, was appointed NASA press officer and began censoring astronomers, he was portrayed as a bad apple, an anti-science lone ranger. Similarly in the case of the appointment of Phillip Cooney, the chief of staff to the White House Council on Environmental Quality, who in order to take the position, had to step out of being a lobbyist for Exxon/Mobil.

But the tide began to turn in Dover, Pennsylvania. When this small school district tried to model itself on Kansas and force Intelligent Design into the science classroom, the right at first saw the national spotlight as an opportunity. Their PR machine, led by the Discovery Institute, put out the “teach the controversy line” and it sold extremely well. Why are scientists afraid of a fair fight? It was brilliant framing.

But not for long. The scientists successfully showed that there was no controversy to be taught. The funding of the movement was exposed. Its connection to creationism was laid bare. The cynical political nature of the entire enterprise became public. At that point, the bubble burst and something that may end up crucially important to American history happened. The seemingly unstoppable tide of the right was not only fought to a halt, but actively retreating because of the pro-scientific left. It was the scientists (and philosophers of science like Robert Pennock and Barbara Forrest) who had won the day.

The pro-scientific left had been relegated to the environmental movement, while the rest of the battle had been led by humanists. But here, the pro-science progressives had shown themselves capable of doing what the postmodern crowd never could: winning. And the tide continued. Chris Mooney’s wonderful book, The Republican War on Science, became a best seller.

Then came Al Gore’s movie, An Inconvenient Truth, which succeeded in a way that no one could ever have expected a filmed PowerPoint presentation to have done. Global warming may be to the corporate side of the right, what Intelligent Design was to the religious fundamentalist faction. The pro-science left is not only organized, but energized. Opposing science is once again being seen as an offense to rationality and the harbinger of danger.

We therefore seem to be at a crucial point now: a time when science may be making a resurgence in terms of policy-making clout. But like any movement, it takes resources and will. We need more scientists like Rush Holt, the nuclear physicist/Representative from New Jersey, to stand up. We need more scholars like Robert Pennock and Barbara Forrest. We need pro-science citizens to make their voices heard, especially scientists who have so much to contribute to society.

Philosopher of science Hilary Putnam describes what he calls the intellectual division of labor. Scientists, he argues, play a crucial role in determining the meanings of words. I would argue that this division of intellectual labor extends into the political sphere. When scientists do not speak up it leaves a vacuum for charismatics and charlatans. We now know what that world looks like. Intelligent Design and global warming may have just provided those who take science seriously with a chance to influence the world, a chance like we haven’t seen since the 1940s and 50s. It is important for scientifically minded people who care about the planet to see this opportunity and not let it pass us by.

Steven Gimbel is a philosopher who blogs at Philosophers’ Playground.

Comments are closed.