So the other day, I made the error of reading the comments section on a post relating to climate change denial manifested by a certain prominent national politician. One individual complained about the (accurate and entirely valid) use of the word “denier” in reference to this politician. The commenter went on to state something to the effect that, “Scientists generally cheerfully embrace differing opinions.” (I have altered the exact wording so as to eliminate any identifiable markers that might lead back to the person and the comment.)
Now, myself, I find that I tend to look much less stupid than I otherwise might if I resist tossing about terms and concepts in public of which I lack even the barest scintilla of understanding. This is a rule I heartily wish more people would adopt, the above mentioned commenter being a prime example. Anyone with even the littlest, little notion about what science is and how it works – either logically as methodology, or sociologically as practice, to say nothing of both – will instantly recognize such a statement as the childishly fatuous twaddle it obviously happens to be. Yet the doe-eyed naïf who spewed this foolishness was almost certainly being sincere. This got me thinking again about the lunacy that is currently swallowing the federal House of Representatives, and the recent elevation of Paul Ryan to the position of Speaker. You see, the two issues are connected.
Now, on the side of science, scientists do not embrace opinions, cheerfully or otherwise. If all you have is an opinion, you’re not even allowed to enter the discussion. The basics of rational inquiry (logic, principles, evidence, and facts) must be present in a sufficiently robust form that, at the very least, a functional hypothesis of some form is in play. And, of course, in order for an hypothesis to be functional, there must be some meaningful sense in which the ideas being investigated can be subjected to some form of empirical test.
Now, as I have noted before, “Science is simply ordinary reasoned inquiry refined to a higher degree of logical rigor and observational acuity than what is practiced in everyday life.” When I wish to cook a meal, for example, the issues involve all come back to materials either at hand, or readily enough acquired. The question, for instance, “would diced, sautéed rellano pepper go well if mixed and cooked with fresh spinach (especially if seasoned with Sriracha sauce)?” makes no reference to unknowable possibilities of cooking employed by plasma aliens living in the Crab Nebula, or vegetable forms in the Andromeda galaxy. The inquiry fixes its boundaries, and establishes a readily testable line of approach to the proposed hypothesis. (And for the record, repeated tests have confirmed beyond the possibility of reasoned dispute that the proposed dish is truly delicious.)
Or, as a second example, if the brakes go out on my car, if I were to float the idea that the Divine Flying Spaghetti Monster has intervened in the universe so as to interrupt my travels, I have produced nothing but a noxious opinion; to the extent that I take that opinion seriously, I have committed Peirce’s cardinal logical sin: I am allowing my opinion to block the road of inquiry. Instead, there are concrete and testable hypotheses I can formulate which will drive inquiry forward: Perhaps the master cylinder is leaking fluid? Perhaps the brake lines themselves have degraded and must be replaced?
Not every hypothesis is specifically empirical (hence, at least ideally, scientific.) Philosophical inquiry, even at the most abstract level of metaphysics, still requires of itself standards of test and evaluation. For example, Whitehead, in the very opening of Process and Reality, insists that, “Speculative Philosophy is the endeavour to frame a coherent, logical, necessary system of general ideas in terms of which every element of our experience can be interpreted.” Whitehead then goes on to explain in some detail what each of those terms and concepts mean. There will still be a kind of empirical content involved – it is, after all, about interpreting experience. But this is not a scientific hypothesis, and Whitehead (who was a working scientist for the first 40 years of his adult life, and wrote some genuinely insightful works on the philosophy of science) is well aware of this fact. So even as the “logic of inquiry,” conceived in its most general terms, is in a sense analogous between science and philosophy, the subject matters and directions of the respective inquiries are significantly different.
The point of all this is that anyone with even a casual background in reasoned inquiry – whether it be science, cooking, auto mechanics, or metaphysics – will understand that the reasoned part of that inquiry is demanding of rigor, insistent upon careful critique, impatient of vagueness, and utterly disdainful of arbitrariness.
Which brings us to our current political atmosphere.
Ideology is dismissive of rigor, intolerant of critique, imbued with vagueness, and utterly defined by its arbitrariness. It is impossible in this context to avoid mentioning – again! – Robert Altemeyer and his analysis of “right wing authoritarians” (RWA). While this thought is more mine than Altemeyer’s, one could almost define RWA’s by their rejection of reasoned inquiry; this conclusion is, at the very least, implicit in Altemeyer’s studies. When one recognizes the continuous connections between empirical, common sensical, dialectical, and other types of inquiry, then the failure to grasp what science is (which was the opening motivation for this post) begins to reveal itself as connected to, if not directly implicated in, RWA thinking.
Thus, we have Senator Ted Cruz making the ex cathedra declaration that the well-established science of climate change is religion, demonstrating in the process that, not only does he have no idea what science is, he is absolutely clueless about what religion is. The budgetary proposals of the new Speaker, Paul Ryan, are, for all intents and purposes, patently insane, and betray an ignorance – no, more than that: a willful and aggressive disregard for – basic economics. The entire conservative wing of American politics throws around the word “socialism” with promiscuous abandon, all the while demonstrating that they lack even the tiniest shadow of a clue regarding the word’s various senses. (Recall what I said earlier about looking less stupid when one ceases to use words in public that one does not understand.) These are only a few of the innumerable examples which, at this point, might be offered to demonstrate how completely off the rails movement conservatives have gone. President Obama – a “Rockefeller Republican” who, in many respects, is more conservative than Richard Nixon – is decried as a Muslim and a socialist. A viciously ideological right-wing extremist like Paul Ryan is disdained by members of his own party as insufficiently conservative. The definition of insanity is NOT, “doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result.” (And Einstein never said that, by the bye.) Insofar as there might be a single “definition,” it would involve something like, “the confabulation of thoughts and ideas in one’s own mind and perceptions that is so self-contained, and so emotionally invested, as to preclude the possibility of any experience or line of reasoning from having an impact on the manufactured structure.”
Insofar, movement conservatives in this country have gone insane.
Perhaps, at last, that is the connecting tissue between the genuinely insane, and the galactically stupid: real inquiry plays no role in their lives.