Boston Globe has an interesting article, whose main point, I am sure I will be completely disregarding shortly.
The article is about increasingly abusive use of the term “racism,” to refer to many trivial and careless actions that may arise from biases based on race and may be offensive to some, but are ultimately not in the same league as “genuine” racism, and how those who are guilty of the minor acts of racism see themselves shunned. The part that drew my attention was what the author considers an unhealthy obsession with “societal racism.” In essence, the argument is that social opportunities and disadvantages are distributed unevenly on the basis of race, and while recognition of this, in abstract, may appear enlightened, it raises problems where too much effort goes into people to be superficially polite, often by avoiding the issues altogether and engage in denials, rather than try to address the sources of the problems. As the author puts it, it focuses too much on “teaching the society to be ‘less racist'” rather than asking why people in a certain ethnic group may not be doing so well in certain areas.
This is a tricky issue: when Alfred Binet invented the original IQ scale, he did not imagine that such a thing as a clearly definable and quantifiable IQ existed, but he felt that students who needed extra help could be identified by a set of standardized techniques. He was horrified when he learned that people in America, in particular, were using his scale to classify people on the basis of “intelligence” that it allegedly measured. He felt, justifiably, that this attitude made it difficult to actually identify the students who needed help and provide the help that they needed in order to avoid being shunned and discriminated. But, identifying those who do need extra help is, formally speaking, an act of “discrimination,” and if being identified as in need of extra help does carry with it real and serious disadvantages, it would be foolish for the students to “pretend” that their IQ is indeed high enough, however they might pull off that trick. The same logic applies to entire communities: how can problems within an identifiable community be identified and useful solutions provided, without subjecting that community to an unhealthy and collective opprobrium?
This is not just a matter of “race,” at least conventionally speaking. The election of Donald Trump, as I had often insisted, is the product of many working class voters, of multiple ethnic groups, who had been marginalized finding him more acceptable or, equivalently, finding Hillary Clinton no more acceptable enough to waste time voting for her over Trump. This is reflected in two quick analyses of the election results, which had been apparent not only during the campaign, but also during the primaries. Many counties, especially across the Midwest, that had voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012 had shifted to Trump; at the same time, many areas in the Midwest, especially where African-American populations are numerous, turned out in much smaller numbers even as they remained Democratic. I was amazed, when looking at the Democratic primary numbers from Michigan and Wisconsin, how the African-American participation was mostly female and elderly–yes, they voted mostly for Clinton over Sanders, but that suggested that the male and the younger population just didn’t care for her much. So the voters who supported Trump did so for a complex array of reasons, which may include racism, but many of them were not so racist that they withheld support from Barack Obama. Yet, attempts at making sense of these voters seems to be being met with derision and attacks of racism and smugness, especially now that Clinton lost. At the same time, Politico reports that the Clinton campaign staff remains defiant, that they did nothing wrong. So, instead of “analyzing,” we are making blanket assertions. We are right. You are wrong. We are still right. Yadda, yadda, yadda.
But who cares if we are right or you are right, or whatever? I keep repeating that the premise of “science” is that no theory will ever be exactly right for all occasions, certainly not complete. In a sense, the point of science is to identify where our theory is wrong and needs repairs, not unlike how Binet viewed his notion of IQ, not to find reasons why your side is more right than the other side, because you can quantify your “rightness” vs. their “wrongness” through some magic formulas. I suppose, in a sense, that is why no real Christian should ever subscribe to creationism “science”: if you subject God to science, the real science, then God becomes just theory. No real believer should ever commit that sort of blasphemy. But creationist “science” is not a counterpart to the real science built on fundamental skepticism but wonkish “scientism” that subordinates the truth to a political and social agenda, one that is explicitly anti-religion first and foremost, and uses scientific “facts and figures” to denigrate the faith. The facts and figures are usually true, but that does not make the agenda “true.” Indeed, because the agenda itself is based on “faith” of the believers, or in this case, unbelievers, this is as much of a religious fundamentalism as the dogma that it purports to reject.
This brings us back to the ugly fights that were breaking out all over the internet, and presumably, many areas of real life if people actually talked politics in real life conversations (I don’t know if they can without getting ugly so you avoid talking about it with people whom you actually have to see, while pissing off strangers on the internet seems a fair game). In the end, beneath all the alleged facts and figures, all the arguments boil down to “I believe I’m right,” with the word “right” oscillating between being “factually right” and “morally right,” but, ultimately, tending to the latter. The facts and figures are just props, to bolster the claims of morality. Where the facts and figures are proven wrong by the real life, they are deemed as justification of moral inferiority of the side that relied on them. This is where wonkism comes down to, and when the wonks are wrong–as per the Clinton campaign–then it becomes a crisis of faith. Their idol, built of the facts and figures that have to be true, is broken.
I’m not picking on just the Democrats. This is the attitude that I’ve seen from both sides time after time. There was a similar bout of denialism among the Democrats in 2004, when the polls seemed to confirm their sense of moral superiority. The denialism shifted to the Republicans in 2012, when they insisted that the polling aggregators who predicted Democratic victory were manufacturing facts, while the Democrats smugly ridiculed them as irrational and ignorant. In 2016, many polls were wrong and, notwithstanding the insistence by the pollsters that their numbers are uncertain, many Democrats used them as the basis for feeling better about themselves, and once their errors are exposed, they are despondent, while the partisans of victorious Trump are ridiculing the entire polling enterprise as packs of lies.
As someone who spent a long time studying epistemology of science and undertook a serious research at the linkage between creationism and political and social attitudes, I actually sympathize with the Trumpist Luddites more than the wonkish Democrats. This is, however, unfortunate, since, in a sense, this actually downplays the remarkable electoral coalition that Trump forged: he won the votes of the college educated Republicans, most of whom, as predicted by the political science theory, ultimately voted their partisanship, while drawing in the votes of the less educated, normally apolitical voters who were attracted to him for factors other than what often constitutes “politics” and “ideology,” other than economic questions that is. The earlier analyses of the Obama victory already downplayed the role played by these voters in securing both his nomination and victory–remember that Obama train started rolling because he won the caucus in IOWA of all places, by drawing in many of the latter group of voters! Ignoring them led to the smug attitude of the Clinton campaign. Will the Republicans, drunk with their own self-righteousness, make the same mistake? (In a sense, this very attitude cost Eric Cantor his job, but very few people seem to have thought about this seriously.) But all these nuances, for those interested only in the simple question, who wins and, implicitly, who’s more moral, are irrelevant “weaseling around” in search of “excuses.” Unfortunate, since this is the important part for the real science–where did the theory go wrong? For this, I lay the blame squarely on the wonks, who used the “science” as the prop to bolster their righteousness, only to have the real science subverted to nothing more than props for their not-so-enlightened agendas, and the phoney “scientists” who thought it fit to sell their soul to curry favor with the politicians.
I think, in a sense, all the polls going wrong and the wonks being humiliated is a great thing for science, the real science. Science progresses because it is wrong–but we can identify where it wrong and where the fixes are needed. But all science, especially social sciences, which are not exactly that reliable–especially the newfangled theories–is fundamentally and potentially wrong, at least in some aspects, and enlisting it as if it is “the truth” is just asking for a catastrophe. Being drawn in to the fight by the partisans, or worse, with the “scientists” themselves acting as partisans and using their craft as weapons, tempts fate. This sort of “science” deserves to be consigned to dustbin of history. Unfortunately, they will have discredited many legitimate endeavors along with their own hubris. Weber felt that the ideal bureaucracy cannot be political–the bureaucrat traffics only in facts and figures that nobody can object to, without an agenda of his own. He simply sets the stage where those who do have agendas–the politicians–can agree or disagree on the common set of facts. If the participants in a debate are entitled to their own facts and figures, their own “truths,” as it were, then we no longer have a “rational” society. But, in order to maintain a rational society, “facts and figures” have to be separated from the agenda by an adamantine wall that cannot be crossed.
This is the last act of the New Enlightenment. The New Romantic era is dawning. But, for the real science, hopefully it will be a good thing–we can actually learn stuff while we are not too busy trying to remake the world and drench it in blood according to some crazy Corsican notion of rationality.