Is the Science March too political, or not political enough?

The Science March is today, bringing to a head months of debate about its merits.

On the one hand, “centrists” have tended to rail against the march for sullying the apparently hitherto pristine halls of Science with unnecessary politics. Geologist Robert Young described the march as a “terrible idea” on the grounds that it would just fuel the right-wing perception that science has become “politicized.” Similarly, psychologist Jonathan Haidt expressed tepid support for a march in the abstract, but condemned the real one on the grounds that organizers had the temerity to actually talk about science’s imbrication with salient political issues.

On the other hand, people like my Harvard colleague Andy Jewett have argued that the march is actually not political enough. As Andy writes:

Scientific input into policymaking is a good thing, and the lack of such input is alarming. But science is not inevitably and intrinsically humanitarian in its outcomes. Politically, science is deeply multivalent, comporting with a variety of interests and perspectives… Evidence-based policy is important, and science should certainly play a role in politics. Yet more and better data is hardly enough to ensure equality and justice. Societies employ science in accordance with their leading values, interests, and power structures.

It will come as no surprise that I think Andy is much closer to the mark than Jon Haidt. It is certainly crucial to move beyond the centrists’ visceral discomfort with “politicized science.” In fact, as I have written elsewhere, the ideology of a politics-free science is in fact the profoundly political ideology of the present administration — and in practice it is often an ideology of a fact-free science, preferring “Truth” in the abstract to what messy, “politicized” science actually comes up with.

But I want to add one wrinkle to the discussion, and it starts with this last observation. The entire debate — the March for Science, the “don’t politicize science” camp, and the “science is always political” camp alike — assumes a strangely Platonic, transhistorical conception of science. But “Science” is a bit of a chimera. Are we talking about the scientists themselves? Their conclusions? Their methods? Their institutions? You’re talking about a very different “politics of science” depending on which of these you have in mind.

And when you have them in mind. Andy notes that the meaning of scientific findings varies with political context. Which is, to be sure, a crucial point. Findings of lower average IQ scores among black Americans can fuel pre-existing racism and programs to naturalize social inequality, or they can prompt reflection about the limits of the IQ mechanism, psychometrics more broadly, issues of “averages” and the ability of statistical analysis to mislead, the relationship between structural racism and education in America, and so on. What is the “evidence-based conclusion”? Left-leaning defenders of the importance of “scientific” work on race and intelligence (whom I believe to be profoundly mistaken) typically only point out the second slate of interpretive possibilities, but ignore the fact that American political culture is structured in such a way to all but guarantee that it will be the former agenda that is furthered in practice.

But it’s important to move beyond just the level of scientific findings. Who is a scientist, where they do their work, and what their “scientific method” consists of are also profoundly political questions, and their answers have changed enormously throughout history. These issues are concealed by the calculus that scientific finding + political values = political outcomes. To continue to use the same example, the field of social psychology’s longtime lily-whiteness is surely implicated in the selection of race and IQ as a legitimate object of study in the first place. And as Stephen Jay Gould pointed out long ago in The Mismeasure of Man, issues of statistical models and their “reification” have gone hand in hand with the production of racist conclusions about intelligence.

Perhaps most importantly, “scientists” like Charles Murray responsible for promulgating those racist conclusions have found a platform since the early 1980s in large part thanks to the growing network of privately funded conservative think thanks that have supported their work. Jane Mayer’s excellent Dark Money provides a superb overview of this history for a popular audience; writers like Thomas Medvetz and Philip Mirowski have also tread similar territory in the academic sphere. And it’s not only race science. The same network of institutions have also supported “scientific” work with right-wing implications for climate change, financial regulation, urban policy, and more.

As a vast body of literature has documented, private funding for science from corporations and conservative philanthropists and foundations has also obstructed toxicology research and chemical regulation, pharmaceutical testing, and (thanks to the field of “litigation science”), torts seeking redress against corporate malfeasance once regulatory mechanisms have been successfully ground to a halt. Furthermore, this kind of work is no longer peripheral to science as a whole. Privately-financed research in think tanks, pharmaceutical labs, or corporate-funded “research institutes” within universities is, to a great extent, the name of the game in contemporary social and natural science.

The Science March needs to talk about this! Andy Jewett is right that it’s not enough to just say that leaders have to listen to science. But changing interpretive political “values” isn’t enough either. Those value changes have to take concrete form: by challenging the whiteness and maleness of science (something the March has consistently done, to its credit) and breaking the stranglehold of right-wing private financing on contemporary science (and, as outside analysts, paying detailed attention to how these broader, institutional-level factors are manifested at the level of scientific method).

These issues are bigger than Trump. They won’t be easy to address, because they will require scientists to bite the hand that feeds them. But in order to defend “science” as left-leaning marchers would like it to be, it is necessary to demand changes to science as it is right now, and to explicitly confront the right-wing political and financial infrastructure that stands in the way.

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Obama’s misleading climate optimism

President Obama is in Science today playing chess with himself about climate policy. More specifically, about whether we can avert catastrophe without it. Obama’s predicament is understandable, because it’s everyone’s predicament right now: with the Trump inauguration now right around the corner, the question is not whether but to what extent the Obama administration’s environmental regulatory apparatus will be dismantled. On the one hand, Obama wants to underline the extreme badness of this dismantling; on the other hand, he doesn’t want to leave office admitting publicly the severe jeopardy in which Trump’s election places his legacy on climate change.

So it’s disappointing but not surprising that his argument for why climate progress is heading down the pipeline come hell or high water is saddled with internal contradictions and uncharacteristic unclarity.

Obama’s first subsection declares, in remarkably stark terms, “Economies grow; emissions fall.” This claim, that GDP accumulation, technological progress, and other interpretations of that vaguest of phrases, “economic growth,” drive a “decoupling” of human activity and environmental consequences, has long been a staple of “Cornucopian” arguments against the urgency of robust regulatory climate action.

It is thus rather stunning to see Obama parrot it in the pages of Science, and even more stunning to read on and find him actually making exactly the converse argument: that aggressive policy change to encourage decarbonization has economic benefits. Obama presents a compelling case that left unchecked, climate change will have devastating economic impacts; that compliance with his administration’s energy efficiency standards can help businesses save money; and that the renewable energy sector is a more promising site for job creation efforts than the fossil fuel industry. Fair enough, but this is manifestly not a case for the principle that “economies grow; emissions fall.”

This tortured rhetorical strategy — regurgitating, in the name of optimism, well-tread right-wing talking points about the superfluity of federal climate policy and then going on to make a completely different argument — continues throughout the article. So we have Obama crediting the success of his administration’s interventions in the clean energy sector to the autonomous decision-making of private businesses on the breathtakingly vacuous grounds that “ultimately, these investments are being made by firms.” We have Obama enumerating the ways in which federal policy was able to drive increased renewable energy use before suggesting that the credit actually lies with apparently endogenous changes in “market incentives” and concluding that the states can pick up any slack on the federal level. And finally we have Obama asserting that, internationally, the climate action genie is now out of the bottle with or without U.S. leadership before concluding with a desperate plea for remaining in the Paris agreement in order to hold other signatory countries accountable.

When Obama’s argument isn’t running aground on his own far better counterarguments, it is buoyed by a healthy dose of wishful thinking. Obama massively underestimates how slim (or nonexistent) the margin of error on climate change actually is. For instance, he proudly cites an estimate that the U.S.’s energy-sector carbon emissions did not increase from 2014-2015. That’s obviously better than an increase. But in order to meet the Paris agreement’s 2 degree (Celsius) temperature increase limit, beyond which lurk severe and likely irreversible impacts, the entire developed world is looking at something liketen percent annual decline in all greenhouse gas emissions. Next to this benchmark Obama’s ballyhooed “halt in emissions growth” looks quite flimsy. And, pace Obama, we are unlikely to see even that meager progress subsist into the Trump administration.

It’s one thing for Obama to be reluctant to admit exactly what Trump’s election portends for climate change. But it’s another thing for him to promulgate the logic of center-right pseudo-solutions as grounds for his optimism. Natural gas isn’t going to fix climate change. The wisdom of the market isn’t going to fix climate change. The only thing that might fix climate change is a near-unprecedented, federal government-led, economy-wide mobilization towards renewable energy that keeps all existing fossil fuel reserves in the ground — an initiative that we will never see as long as Trump is in the White House. If Obama wants to leave a lasting legacy on climate change, that is the change he’ll have to fight for as ex-president.

 

Scott Alexander is dangerously wrong about Trump

[Epistemic status: extreme]

A blog post from Scott Alexander, whose writing usually stays confined to an insular circle of “Rationalists” (note the capitalization), seems to have broken through to the mainstream. At the very least I have seen it shared by people who I assume are not regular readers of his blog, so I wanted to write some sort of response now that the risk of signal-boosting the post seems rather moot.

Alexander wants us to stop thinking that Donald Trump is racist, or that his presidency will be racist, or that his voters were racist. He pretty much wants us to stop talking about racism completely vis-à-vis Trump. I think this is extraordinarily foolish. But first, to mitigate the risk of being accused of rejecting the post on face, I just want to briefly note two things that I actually do agree with him on.

First, I think it is absolutely correct that there are manifold problems with Trump besides his racism, and that the Clinton campaign and her supporters could have afforded to talk more about those things (though his implication that no one was talking about these things is demonstrably false). Second, I do not think that it is a useful exercise to attempt to parse out exactly which Trump voters, on a sliding scale from none to all, can be justifiably called “racist.” (However, I probably believe this latter point for very different reasons than Alexander).

Now onto what he gets wrong.

1. Alexander is wrong about racism

As Jamelle Bouie noted earlier today, Alexander is operating under a deeply limited understanding of what racism is. Alexander seems to believe that “racism” means “David Duke and 4chan Nazis” and not a whole lot else. Having thus stacked the deck in his favor, he proceeds to pile on the arithmetic to demonstrate that, in fact, the literal Ku Klux Klan did not comprise a sizable portion of Trump’s voter base.

Q.E.D.! Of course, when most people talked about Trump’s racism, they were never making the claim that most of his supporters were Ku Klux Klan members. Even claims that Trump is “openly racist,” onto which Alexanders heaps immense amounts of scorn, never amounted to that suggestion. The “openness” to which critics referred was the unprecedented degree to which Trump’s rhetoric and behavior (before and during the campaign) were saturated with racism — more on this in a minute.

The “open racism” label was designed to draw a contrast to past Republican candidates, like Mitt Romney, whose “racism” was largely (though not exclusively; see his infamous “47%” comment about lazy welfare-moochers) confined to his support for policies that, in massively redistributing wealth upwards and rolling back key social-justice efforts of the Obama administration, would have a disproportionately negative material effect on the lives of American people of color.

This point is crucial, because Trump and the party that he now heads still support policies that are racist in that sense. The past week alone has seen the GOP go full-steam-ahead on plans to dismantle Medicare, commandeer the EPA (a key line of defense against environmental racism), and cut taxes on the rich, just to name a few of the most high-profile examples.

The Alexander party line on this sort of argument seems to be (1) it’s unfair to say people are racist for opposing “liberal” policies and (2) it’s actually racist to “assume black people are poor” (he makes a variant of this latter point in this article re: criminal justice). The first point is circular, because it relies on his definition of racism as “holding KKK-style views,” which is what talking about racism enacted subtly through policy is designed to dispute. The second point is even more ridiculous: it asks us to ignore economic marginalization as an axis of racial oppression simply because of the fear that black poverty would then become naturalized — but that is only a risk if you agree, with Alexander, to turn a blind eye to the existence of racist politicians passing racist policies.

2. Alexander is wrong about Trump 

All of this being said, Alexander is also just flat-out wrong when he denies that there’s evidence that Trump himself holds or has espoused racist views. On the contrary, there is decades of evidence for that proposition.

The evidence begins in the early 1970s, when Trump first entered the public eye when he was sued by the federal government for refusing to rent apartments to black people. Alexander provides a pathetic parenthetical response to this story by wrongly claiming that only his father was implicated and then attempting to excuse a violation of federal anti-discrimination law by pointing out that racist views about housing were somewhat au currant among white people at the time.

Later, in 1989, Trump returned to the public spotlight when he spent almost a hundred thousand dollars on a PR campaign in favor of the execution of the wrongly-accused “Central Park Five,” all of whom were people of color. Last month Trump actually doubled down on his lingering desire to send these innocent black and Latino men to their deaths. Alexander provides a contorted statistical argument for why “tough on crime” politics is not racist — which it of course is not a priori. But we aren’t talking a priori. We’re talking about the United States, with its centuries-long history of employing the criminal justice system to wage war on black and brown Americans, and about Donald Trump, with a decades-long history of the same.

Before we even get to Trump’s 2016 campaign rhetoric, it is crucial to point out that Trump emerged in the last several years as a political figure thanks to his sustained campaign to delegitimize the first black American president by baselessly contending that he was not born in the United States — claims that he didn’t back down on until recently, when it became clear that the Birther movement he helped to spearhead had failed and was becoming a political liability.

Now, at long last, we arrive at this year’s campaign. Alexander’s counter-argumentation here largely relies on an out-of-hand dismissal of a generation of social science research on the concept of “dogwhistling.” That is an act of extreme intellectual arrogance, but the beauty of Trump is that it is not even necessary to resort to claims of dogwhistling to cite example’s of Trump’s racism during the campaign. Here I will focus on just the two most prominent examples, but you can scour the internet to find many, many more.

First, there are the comments about Mexican immigrants that kickstarted Trump’s campaign back in 2015. Alexander helpfully clarifies that Trump was not saying that Mexicans were bad people, simply that Mexican immigrants were bad people (specifically rapists and drug lords, in case you somehow forgot). Perhaps this defines Trump in contradistinction to the rigorously taxonomical racists that Alexander deems worthy interlocutors on his blog. But it is hardly reassuring for those of us who live in the real world, understand the practical mutability of constructed racial categories, and are worried about how those who have internalized Trump’s rhetoric might treat the people they see on the street.

Next, there is Trump’s proposed ban on Muslim immigration and proposal for a Muslim registry — ideas which, in case anyone was credulous enough to believe dismissals of them as “just campaign talk,” have received new life in recent days. Alexander, graciously, acknowledges that this is a bad thing but comes down hard on the argument that Islamophobia is a different beast than racism. His assertion that most Muslims are “white-ish” reeks of the taxonomic scientific racism mentioned above, but otherwise this is a distressingly common argument.

Refutations abound, but the point I’d like to hammer home is this: Alexander wants to explain to people why they shouldn’t be afraid of Trump. If a pedantic explanation of why Trumpian talk of internment camps, registries, and immigration bans is not technically racism is Alexander’s idea of how to comfort alarmed Muslims (and Sikhs, who face the impact of Islamophobia too), he shouldn’t expect any breathless thanks for soothed anxieties any time soon.

Ah, but Trump said he loves Hispanics while eating a taco bowl, so I guess there’s nothing to see here.

3. Alexander is wrong about Trump’s support base

This aspect of Alexander’s argument is the most inexplicable to me, surely the most callous, and in my opinion the most dangerous moving forward. Despite writing after Trump’s appointment of Steve Bannon, the Trump campaign CEO and a ringleader of the white supremacist “alt-right” movement, as his senior advisor, Alexander still stubbornly insists that there is no evidence that Trump’s campaign or his victory did anything to elevate or embolden the people that Alexander would actually deign to classify as “open racists.”

It is inexplicable to me for several reasons. The Bannon appointment is one, but Bannon is just the tip of the iceberg. Reports of elected officials, teachers, bosses, and other authority figures around the country spouting “openly racist” rhetoric after Trump’s victory abound. The Ku Klux Klan celebrated the victory loudly. No matter how small of a fraction of his vote total the KKK represented, this should alarm any conscientious American.

Alexander relies heavily on exit polling to dispute the idea that it’s important to talk about the radical racist right in connection with Trump’s victory, which is a mistake for two reasons. First, it is absolutely stunning to me that someone who talks incessantly about “epistemic status” and regularly scrutinizes statistical data that he doesn’t like in minute detail would treat notoriously fallible exit polling so unquestioningly. There is lots of evidence that this is poor methodology, including on the question of Latino voters that Alexander spends so much time dwelling on.

Second, it ignores the potentially outsized pernicious influence of that small minority (especially when they have reason to believe they will have an ear in Bannon steps away from the Oval Office). This is why I find Alexander’s dismissal of neo-Nazi support and hate crime proliferation so callous. It only takes a few people to damage a lot of lives. Reports of hate crimes since Trump’s victory are obviously small compared to the total number of people who voted in the presidential election but Alexander’s unpitying tone in discussing swastika graffiti, physical harassment, and other mistreatment of hundreds of real human beings is quite distasteful.

In particular, I take issue with Alexander’s decision to blame post-Trump anti-Semitism on the media, rather than on Trump or his anti-Semitic followers themselves. In particular, while everyone online has their favorite bone to pick with Vox, singling them out for putatively causing people to respond to Trump’s denunciation of globalism with anti-Semitism is especially objectionable given how open many Vox writers have been about the unprecedented rash of anti-Semitic harassment they’ve received during this election cycle.

The most staggering irony of Alexander’s piece, by the way, is his unreflective equation of anti-Semitism with “anti-Israel” sentiment, concluding that Trump and his movement can have nothing to do with anti-Semitism because he supports Israel and the Israeli right supports him. The true wolf-crying over the last several years has been done by right-wing activists who responded to evidence of a global resurgence in anti-Semitism by doubling down even harder on the conviction that opponents of the Israeli occupation of Palestine –and no one else — are the real anti-Semites.

I think that Alexander’s willingness to write off pro-Trump grassroots violence is probably the most irresponsible part of the entire piece — and this is a piece, just to reiterate, which ignores the impact of Trump’s economic agenda on the most vulnerable members of society and downplays the danger of Trump’s explicit proposed crackdown on Mexican and Muslim Americans.

Thuggish acolytes are the backbone of any authoritarian/fascist regime. If Trump is able to enact the most destructive conceivable agenda — the sort of agenda that Steve Bannon will be whispering in his ear for the next four years — it will be because he is able to physically intimidate opponents, from community organizers to “moderate” Republicans in office.

And sure enough, as Alexander himself acknowledges, hundreds of people across the country have already declared themselves willing and able to hurt other people in their allegiance to the Trump movement, apropos of absolutely nothing substantive. It’s Day 10.

Wednesday Morning Presentism: Trump Was Not Inevitable

The biggest pet peeve of historians is “presentism,” the assumption, in telling stories about the past, that it was all just leading up to some present state of affairs. Normally we don’t like presentism because it tends to shore up or reflect the idea that history always moves towards “progress.” But in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s victory on Tuesday, a lot of people seem to be in danger of making the opposite error: the assumption after the fact that his triumph was inevitable all along.

Donald Trump is a white supremacist. His election is a victory for white supremacy and for the well-off white supremacists, lurking in white flight suburbs and on alt-right internet message boards, that always comprised the core of his base. The coming years just got a lot tougher for people of color and immigrants, along with women and LGBTQ people, across the country. And when he enacts gargantuan tax cuts on the rich, when wages continue to stagnate and wealth fails to accumulate, his “populist” rhetoric will be unmasked all too late. It is crucial not to lose sight of  what his election represents.

But identifying what his election represents is not the same thing as identifying why his election happened. The preferred candidate of well-off racist white people has lost before. If we want to understand why white supremacy won this time, we have to get a lot more specific and a lot more contingent.

My own explanation would begin with legal and institutional change that destroyed the ability of core Democratic constituencies to organize and turn out. The Supreme Court’s dismantling of the Voting Rights Act paved the way for racist voter suppression legislation across the country. Every state that flipped from Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016 enacted some policy designed to limit the ability of people of color to get to the polls in the last four years.

Many of those states have also seen the gradual demolition of unions. That effort was spearheaded by Republicans eager to smash the political power of reliably Democratic working class voters, including working class white people. But it was also aided and abetted by Democratic elites, including many long-time Clinton allies like Rahm Emanuel, caught in the throes of privatization-mad neoliberal ideology and mistakenly convinced that centrism and electability are the same thing.

It’s also important to hammer home the failure of the American media during this election cycle. The media spent more time talking about utterly non-scandalous emails found on Anthony Weiner’s computer than about the tape of Trump bragging about sexual assault and the subsequent on-record accusations from a number of different women. They unreflectively perpetuated Trump’s fictitious claims to be a populist, refusing to subject his policy proposals, as few as they were, to a modicum of scrutiny. In their insatiable desire for clicks and for a horserace they failed the nation.

All that being said, it would be irresponsible to let the Clinton campaign off the hook. They made almost every single strategic decision incorrectly during the general election campaign. No one who held a position above field organizer in this campaign should ever be able to work in politics again. Every time a scandal arose, they blamed Russian interference instead of providing an explanation or an apology in terms that would resonate with voters outside of liberal Twitter. They inexplicably welcomed the support of America’s extremely unpopular foreign policy establishment, from Henry Kissinger to Bush administration neoconservatives.

Even after a remarkably close call in the primary campaign against Bernie Sanders, the Clinton campaign, despite their highly touted reliance on data, ignored the empirical evidence and concluded that his message resonated only among far-left, reliably Democratic voters, and therefore failed to emphasize any of his most successful talking points in the general election. With Sanders voters purportedly in the bag no matter what, Clinton neglected the Rust Belt, ignoring Wisconsin entirely after April and, except for a last-minute appearance with LeBron James, largely ignoring Ohio down the stretch as well.

According to exit polling, Trump cleaned up among voters who said that they thought the economy was rigged to benefit elites. This is a man who pledged the largest tax cuts for the wealthy in US history during the campaign. The voters who swung the election to Trump were not the Nazis who had been in his camp since day one. The reason those Nazis are now celebrating across the country is because Clinton couldn’t seal the deal with millions of people who voted for Obama in 2012 and decided for Trump in the last week of this year’s campaign because at the end of the day, it was Clinton who reminded them more of Mitt Romney than Trump.

And yet, despite all of this, she won the popular vote. Most voters actually chose to repudiate Trump. To understand why he nonetheless scraped out a razor-thin margin of victory, we have to abandon our grand narratives, stop treating his win as retrospectively inevitable, and identify the details of the system’s failure. If we want to prevent Trump and his white supremacist base from winning next time, we have to figure out everything that went wrong, from our state legislatures to our newspapers to the Democratic Party, and work to rectify it. Throwing in the towel and resting on our moral superiority is not an option.

Donald Trump Is Not Beyond The Pale

This week many men in your life will tell you that they have never once heard another man say the sorts of things that Donald Trump was heard saying last Friday, even in an all-male space like a locker room.

They will be lying.

Or, perhaps more accurately, they will be bullshitting: talking without regard for the truth or falsity of what they’re saying for convenience’s sake. This bullshit will, in part, come from a good place: the desire to signal exactly how loathsome they find Trump’s words and behavior. But it will also come from a place less savory, but crucial to acknowledge nonetheless.

Because the elephant in the room is that almost every man has heard another man talk like Trump. Trump is not an outlier, but rather the epitome, the apotheosis, of the culture of masculinity that American men (and I emphatically include myself here) are born into, raised amidst, and always, at the best of times, somewhere in a long process of unlearning.

I don’t say any of this to try to excuse Trump. It may not have been his fault that he grew up, as every boy does, surrounded by men who valorize male entitlement and view sex as a conquest, but it was his fault that he took those lessons and ran with them. It is his fault that he has exploited untold numbers of women, a small fraction of whom are finally having their stories told, and it is his fault that he will serve as a role model for a new generation of American men who will grow up attempting to emulate the projection of power and casual misogyny that has made him so successful.

In order to break that cycle, men, especially men in the public eye, need to take this moment to acknowledge that yes, they actually do know a lot of men like Donald Trump. In fact, they themselves — I really should say we ourselves — have all had moments, perhaps in the adolescence to which many Trump defenders have imagined all male misbehavior is confined, perhaps later, where they have been more like Donald Trump than they would like to admit.

The paradox of a lot of discussion about the Trump tape is the coexistence of reminders of the prevalence of sexual violence and earnest insistence that, actually, men don’t talk or act like Trump in real life. This is rape without rapists, a view that treats sexual violence as more like a natural disaster than a pattern of behavior that flows out of the same sorts of attitudes that many men who don’t habitually assault women nonetheless hold consciously or unconsciously.

A lesson that it has taken far too long for me to learn only imperfectly is that defensiveness and male entitlement are two sides of the same coin. Donald Trump thinks that he has never done anything wrong before in his life. The proclamations of so many men that they and their friends aren’t like him comes from exactly the same place. The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem.

Trust Me, I’m A Scientist

Scientific American published a fascinating article today in which they grade the four presidential candidates “on science” by crowdsourcing feedback on the candidates’ answers to twenty questions to their many bedoctorated readers. There is a lot to say here.

First, the results! They conclude that when it comes to “science,” the candidates can be ranked as follows: Hillary Clinton, Jill Stein, Gary Johnson, Donald Trump. If you think that the readers of Scientific American would have compiled a different candidate hierarchy before reading their responses, I have a used car to sell you.

The point is not that the graders were reading their pre-existing political biases into their analysis of the candidates’ remarks on “science.” Rather, the point is that pretending that “science” is some area uniquely carved off from normal “politics,” where people with PhDs in biology can hold forth with unsoiled objectivity on the merits of the candidates’ points of view, is absurd.

As the scope of the questions — ranging from “innovation” to climate change to “the global economy” — suggests, there is not a single political question that can be discussed without reference to science and technology. And therefore it is impossible to talk about science and technology without also talking about the broader sociopolitical networks into which they have been assembled.

This is not a bad thing. Of course Scientific American posed questions that were inherently political: those are the questions people care about! The problem comes when the classification of certain questions as scientific masks the politics involved and restricts access to decision-making and debate.

Witness, for instance, Scientific American‘s dismissal of Jill Stein’s call for science policy that is “more responsive” to the “preferences and needs of average citizens.” They write that this “raises some concern because it could be a recipe for allowing anti-scientific beliefs to influence science policy.” The subtle tautology of this evaluation is remarkable: the scientists that Scientific American sets up as the ultimate authorities on questions of science policy conclude that scientists in fact ought to be the ultimate authorities on questions of science policy!

The article was thus logically fated from its conception to be, more than anything, an exercise in determining the candidates’ adherence to the liberal-technocratic paradigm for which “pro-science” often serves as shorthand (hence why one could have easily predicted how the candidates would ultimately rank without actually reading any of their answers).

So the democratization of science policy is rejected out of hand, even though it is wealthy, educated elites and not ordinary voters who are driving the Republican Party’s opposition to climate action. Stein’s preference for renewable energy over nuclear power is castigated by referencing “cost” and “political feasibility” even though these are highly debatable assertions. Comprehensive climate action will indeed be politically difficult. That is precisely why it is important for people who care about addressing climate change to admit that their agenda is a political project. We’ve tried to have science speak for itself on climate change. That strategy has unequivocally failed.

I’m voting for Clinton, not Jill Stein, even though my own views are far to the left of Clinton’s. I’m not afraid to admit that I am making a political choice, not simply voting the way “science” tells me I ought to. That kind of hatred of politics, that desire to wipe out messiness and disagreement in favor of someone speaking the authoritative truth, is what has actually driven many people to Stein, and, I think, to Donald Trump as well. I know firsthand that scientists wrestle with uncertainty, negotiation, strategy, and complexity more frequently than just about anyone. It is crucial for them to embrace those aspects of their experience in public.

The Dakota Access Pipeline: Two Lessons

In a major victory for the Native protestors who have been putting their time, energy, and bodies on the line this past week to oppose construction of the Dakota Access pipeline, the Obama administration announced this afternoon that the US government would temporarily halt work on the pipeline project.

This case is important for a variety of reasons, but first and foremost for the striking way that it challenges us to think about “human rights” and “environmental” issues as two sides of the same coin. After all, this one issue could be framed both ways: as a act of institutional violence against indigenous communities and as a massive engineering project designed to facilitate fossil fuel extraction. The point is that it is both at the same time. Because humans are inextricably embedded in their environmental surroundings, the way that we treat humans also affects non-humans and vice versa.

What does that mean for environmental politics? This is the second lesson of the #NODAP movement: environmentalists interested in decarbonizing American society need to make alliances with and amplify the voices of the real human beings (often already marginalized) that fossil fuel extraction hurts, and focus on challenging the powerful forces at the top of the carbonized economy rather than attempting to convince fossil fuel executives and conservative politicians that climate action is actually in their best interest. Because this is the unfortunate truth: serious action on climate change will come at the expense of the free-market society that conservatives hold dear. It will have a real cost in money and power for the kinds of people who are trying to use the DAP to improve access to crude oil and don’t care who gets in their way.

Today’s victory shows that it’s possible to achieve success with the confrontational, agonistic politics that this situation requires. Bottom-up action works, people! “Realism” and “pragmatism” are far too often held to be synonymous with moderation and capitulation. Environmentalists need to disabuse themselves of that notion ASAP.

N.B. The DAP issue is not permanently resolved with this decision. Keep the momentum up: donate to the legal relief fund for arrested protestors and keep the pressure up on the administration to turn this temporary hold into long-lasting policy change.

 

 

Science and politics: two recent mistakes

One common theme in science studies is that the traditional distinction between facts and values (or “is” and “ought,” or science and politics) ought to be abandoned. On the one hand, there is no such thing as “value-free” science; supposedly “extra-scientific” factors influence the course of science at every step from initial funding to final publication of results. On the other hand, pronouncements about values are never a “view from nowhere,” but instead are made by embodied actors living within and thinking about the world that the sciences also aim to describe.

Two items caught my eye in the New York Times this week that illustrate the potential pitfalls of clinging too closely to this dichotomy.

First, Ushma D. Upadhyay issues a clarion call for “abortion laws based on science.” What a perfect example of the technocratic dream: all we need to put one of the most contentious contemporary social debates to rest once and for all is an appropriate regimen of scientific studies. Where politics has failed, resulting in irrational anti-abortion legislation, science will succeed.

But, of course, this is pure fantasy. The distinction between clear-headed, rational science and muddled, irrational politics is a convenient fiction. Empirical evidence that restrictions on medicated abortion harm women’s health is undoubtedly useful, but it only matters once it is situated within a broader network of concerns that has already agreed upon “women’s health” as the salient criterion for deciding abortion policy. That value is not external to the scientific facts in question but rather constitutive. If there was an unshakable socio-political consensus that abortion is murder and thus ought to be banned ipso facto, Upadhyay’s PLOS Medicine study would likely never have even been conceived, much less shepherded all the way to publication. The transformation of a set of goings-on in the world into an actual scientific fact required a value judgment.

We do not have laws that restrict abortion access in the name of women’s health because conservative lawmakers are genuinely mistaken about the likely ramifications of those laws on women’s health. We have them because those lawmakers want to restriction abortion access and are willing to deploy any rhetorical strategy that they think will bring them closer to that goal. All the science in the world about the disastrous consequences of anti-abortion laws for women’s health will only make a difference — will only begin to function socially like “knowledge” — when pro-choice campaigners have found a way to ensure that the abortion debate is had on their terms.

In other news, New Journalism eminatus Tom Wolfe has a new book out that illustrates what can go wrong with conceptual models that have no room for unruly science, science that muddles the clear boundaries with which we like to try to circumscribe it.

Wolfe’s contention in The Kingdom of Speech is that the power of speech proves the ridiculousness of the Darwinian account of evolution. He is especially scornful of Noam Chomsky and his thesis that humans are all born with an innate biological capacity to use language consistent with the rules of a “universal grammar.” Plenty of other people have done the work of demolishing Wolfe on a content level, so I won’t rehash their arguments here. Instead, I just want to remark briefly on why Wolfe thought this screed was worth writing.

First, Wolfe seems to have an intuitive-aesthetic displeasure with the theory of evolution. Evolution looks to him like “a messy guess – baggy, boggy, soggy and leaking all over the place,” and thus nowhere near deserving of its preeminent place in intellectual culture. Second, Wolfe’s distaste of Chomsky in particular stems from his conviction that Chomsky almost singlehandedly unleashed a new generation of science professors overstepping their bounds to weigh in (usually from the left) on politics.

These objections seem quite distinct but they really come from the same image of science, the mirror image of Upadhyay’s technocracy but built on the same view of science and politics as easily separable enterprises. Wolfe is repulsed by “messy” science, the sort that “leaks all over the place,” especially into the political realm. Similarly, Upadhyay also wants to confine the sciences to their own neat boxes, where they can come up with pure facts to guide lawmaking in lieu of the process of political debate. Both of these visions bear no relation to the way that the sciences work in practice.

Science is always messy; if it is inappropriate to describe it as “leaking” that is only because it is inappropriate to suggest that there is ever a period (before the leaking) when scientific knowledge can gestate in isolation from the outside political world. It is certainly easier to pretend to live in a world without that messiness, where on the one hand Tom Wolfe can insist that scientists have no right to tell him that his own personal beliefs are mistaken and on the other hand Ushma Upadhyay can imagine that we are one research program away from securing reproductive justice. But it is also irresponsible.

Free speech hypocrisy roundup

Kevin Gannon in Vox makes a similar argument to mine about UChicago’s recent political correctness diatribe: it’s not actually about freedom of speech. A few more pieces of evidence that conservative PC fear-mongering is really just about discomfort with leftist activism and not a broadly coherent pro-free speech ideology.

  1. Via Sean McElwee, the University of Texas’ new concealed-carry policy is already creating an intellectually suffocating environment on campus.

    Surprise, surprise: the awareness than anyone around you could be carrying a firearm makes you watch what you say a little more than the occasional professor letting their students know that a film they’re about to watch has a rape scene.

  2. In an almost-too-good-to-be-true bit of irony, former UChicago student body president Tyler Kissinger points out that the administration’s enthusiasm for “discomfort” and free expression actually has some limits in practice:
  3. San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick announced today that he will no longer stand for the national anthem before football games in recognition of the way America “oppresses black people and people of color.” Twitter predictably exploded with calls for him to lose his job, get deported, and much worse. I would hazard a guess that many of these same people were praising the UChicago administration for standing up to censorious social justice warriors only a few days ago. There’s an important congruence between criticism of Kaepernick for “politicizing” sports and criticism of students who dare to point out the political implications of classic literature: what is at stake is not anyone’s right to free expression but the security of the status quo, imagined as politically neutral.

And this is just stuff from the past 48 hours or so. Bottom line: if there is a real threat to “free speech” in American society today, it stems from institutionally embodied conservative discomfort with anti-oppressive critique, not from nineteen-year-old “McCarthyists” on college campuses.

Update: “A Startup Is Automating the Lawsuit Strategy Peter Thiel Used to Kill Gawker”. I’m not holding my breath waiting for the mea culpas from the folks who said Thiel’s campaign was a one-time thing that was just about Gawker’s idiosyncratic sins.

But what about cancelling speakers??

The UChicago letter I wrote about yesterday mentioned three practices that the administration would unequivocally refuse to condone: trigger warnings, safe spaces, and “cancelling invited speakers.” Reading defenses of the letter yesterday, it has become clear to me that the latter is the real bogeyman here, the trump card whose seemingly self-evident badness is deployed as evidence of the necessity of throwing the entire “political correctness” baby out with the bathwater.

Three thoughts about this.

1. Where is the empirical evidence that this is actually a thing? How frequently does this actually happen? When I was at Northwestern, we drew national headlines for our student activism — and I don’t think an invited speaker (and that includes some really reprehensible people, like Dinesh D’Souza and Newt Gingrich) was ever canceled once. Once more, I suspect that the moral panic about speaker cancellations is more likely a cipher for broader anxieties about leftist politics among college students than a proportionate response to a demonstrable trend on campuses.

2. One more reason I suspect that this is true is because the fault for the purported “free speech” violation involved in speaker cancellations lies completely with college administrations, and yet it is student activists who bear the brunt of media criticism. Activists who protest speakers are just exercising their own right to free speech. No one is “censored” until administrations make the decision to disinvite the speaker. The reason that criticism of speaker cancellations focus on student activism, then, has nothing to do with free speech and everything to do with the fact that critics simply don’t like students protesting the speakers in question. No cogent pro-free speech ideology would call for less activism.

3. The typical explanation of why speaker cancellations are such a heinous crime on college campuses typically invokes the importance of students exposing themselves to “new ideas.” This argument relies on an ahistorical conception of “ideas” that is truly bizarre and would never be defended in any realm besides politics. In this conception, political ideas are eternally new, never discredited by real historical events, and always worth validating.

Take perhaps the most notorious speaker cancellation of the last several years: Condoleezza Rice at Rutgers in 2014. First, it’s worth noting that there was absolutely no “free speech” violation wrought by students here. Rice declined to speak of her own accord, and faculty condemned her as vociferously as students. Second, what exactly were the “new ideas” to which Rice was supposed to expose students? Rice’s ideas were a key influence on many of the most reprehensible policies of the Bush administration, including the invasion of Iraq and torture. Rice’s neoconservatism is not a “new idea.” It is an idea to which every student at Rutgers in 2014 had been exposed in one way or another, because it was arguably the most important idea shaping global affairs during their childhood. And there is an enormous amount of evidence that it shaped global affairs much for the worse.

The incalculable damage that Rice and her ideas have inflicted on the world is a reason why today’s college students do not need to hear her continue to pontificate about the way the world works, just like we would not expect college students to listen with open minds to an advocate of a scientific theory that empirical evidence has thoroughly discredited. But the tireless defenders of the status quo have an interest in pretending like political debates are always open. As long as politics is a matter of interminable intellectual exchange, not responsive to historical evidence, little different now than in the dialogues of Plato, it’s impossible to change the terms of debate, to achieve consensus for radical action, and to bury destructive ideas in the graveyard of history in which they belong.