Is Postmodernism Inherently Authoritarian?

This is is an article I wrote for Quillette:

College campuses are ostensibly venues for free and open discussion. All ideas should be given an open hearing, and be judged according to their individual merits. Are they supported by good evidence? Are they internally consistent? Will they produce desirable outcomes? That, in any case, is the ideal. More and more, it seems, there is breed of campus activist that disagrees with this view. At Berkeley, protesters rioted to shut down a speech by the right-wing provocateur, Milo Yiannopoulos. In Middlebury, they shouted down Charles Murray and later assaulted Professor Alison Stanger, who was hosting the talk. At Evergreen State College, they are championing the dismissal of a biology professor who expressed concern over the discriminatory nature of a campus event. Groups like Antifa (short for anti-fascist) adopt curiously jackbooted and signally authoritarian strategies to enforce their political will. They seem to be fighting fascism with something that looks conspicuously like fascism.

Read the rest:

Is Postmodernism Inherently Authoritarian? 

Tradition and Progress

Some have attributed the resurgence of right-wing populism as a reaction to the abrogation of traditional values. It’s easy to see the truth of this. However, it is not immediately obvious that it is distinctly right-wing phenomenon. Modern conservatism traces its intellectual roots to thinkers like Edmund Burke, who assigned traditional values and norms an important role in the maintenance of social order. Around the same time, Jean-Jacques Rousseau was laying down the groundwork for the myth of the noble-savage, romanticizing tribal societies as somehow purer and more natural than those in the intensely hierarchical, increasingly market-oriented West.

In both cases, we see a peculiar reverence for traditional order, just differently construed. For Burke, inter-generational change is worthy of resistance. But for Rousseau, it is Western civilization’s centuries long fall from grace that we ought to eye with suspicion. On the right, you can see these views reflected in elderly men and women who hearken back the idealized simplicity of their childhood or a romanticized picture of the world inhabited by their recent forebears as a model for what society ought to be like. Meanwhile, staunch lefties esteem fantasies about the dietary wisdom and delicate conservationism of indigenous and preindustrial societies. What both views have in common is a fallacious tendency to equate antiquity with efficacy.

Large or small, there has probably always been some segment of every generation eager to see evil and decay in the changes wrought by the next. In some ways, it’s a sympathetic perspective. They did things a certain way and that, at least through the biased lens of hindsight, worked out well for them. Now another generation is doing things differently – sometimes radically so. This can range from the “get off my lawn, you damn kids” mentality of old men barking about changing norms around sexuality and recreational drug use to the concerns that genetically modified foods are somehow dangerous.

There is an argument to be made that an exaggerated reverence for tradition is endemic to the human condition. We may have an evolved propensity to replicate existing norms and traditions, either preferential copying the behaviors that seem most prevalent (frequency-dependent transmission), aping the habits of successful individuals (success biased social transmission), or mimicking the traits of individuals widely revered by others (prestige biased transmission). Given the social landscapes that prevailed throughout most of our evolutionary past, this is unsurprising. On generational scales, much of human history has been marked by relative stasis. Doing things the way your parents did them has often been a reliable heuristic for zeroing in on good ways of getting by. Indeed, this kind of social learning is actually quite widespread in the animal kingdom for precisely this reason. It allows organisms to home in on solutions to problems rapidly, giving them an advantage over organisms that have to rely on the accumulation of fortuitous mutations to meet adaptive challenges.

Things are different now. Since the dawn of the Enlightenment and the onset of the Industrial Revolution, the rate of social and economic change has been accelerating. We have since discovered that some traditional beliefs – the divine rule of monarchs, the segregation of races, virtually every pre-scientific explanation for natural phenomena – were gravely misplaced. Further still, in our embrace of liberalized commerce and the free and open exchange of ideas, we have unleashed the most powerful and unpredictable force for social change the human species has ever known. Populations are growing larger and larger and more and more densely interconnected, creating the conditions for a nearly continuous long-run acceleration of social and technological change. In this, we are forced to recognize that tradition and liberty cannot be equally sacred. However deeply set, this may be one of the many situations in which our evolutionary priming leaves us ill-suited to deal with modern challenges.

The trick lies in recognizing that there’s nothing implicitly good or bad about traditional ways of doing things. Nor is there anything implicitly good or bad about the new ideas that replace them. Any change should be evaluated in terms of principles external to itself: harm, fairness, proportionality, the alleviation of suffering, the improvement of human life, and so forth. More fundamentally, it should be recognized that the engines of change – free speech, open debate and criticism, the processes of scientific discovery – are precious.

Inevitably, change will sometimes be deleterious. Sometimes we come up with new methods of production that are environmentally devastating and sometimes social change encourages tolerance for behaviors an older generation finds strange or anathema. To my mind, only the former is particularly problematic in any practical or ethical sense, but the larger point is that change happens. Any number of perspectives can be deployed to reveal potential problems with its fruits. But, at least in terms of  the grand sweep of recent history, it has tended to be for the best. Diseases have been cured. Global poverty has decreased. The circle of human rights has expanded. Wars have become less frequent and less costly, both in terms of lives lost and treasure wasted. Our scientific understanding of the natural world has grown.  That’s what we call progress. Its existence should serve as a caution to anyone eager to point to the habits of yesterday as the best guideposts for how to live today.

Unintelligent Design at the Local Library

I once worked part time at a small local library. My first temptation would have been to describe myself as an “accidental” librarian, but that’s a bit misleading. I didn’t get the job by accident. A better description might have been “reluctant” librarian. I got the job on purpose, to float me through the final year of my graduate studies after I was unexpectedly left adrift without a research assistantship.

 My duties at the library included the management of books catalogued and shelved among the 500s – “pure science”, according to the Dewey system. My professional and educational background is in science (not pure science, per se, but the peculiar nexus of science and humanities occupied by archaeology) so I approached this assignment with more than a little enthusiasm. It was a good excuse to indulge in a bit of healthy intellectual promiscuity, diving into topics outside the parochial confines of my native discipline.

 It is with this background in mind that I ask you to consider my surprise (and chagrin) when, shelf-reading the 570s, I noticed a book by the name of Darwin’s Doubt. For the unfamiliar, Darwin’s Doubt is a 2013 book by a fellow named Stephen Meyer, advocating the position that certain features of the biological world are inexplicable absent the intervention of some kind of intelligent designer. In particular, Meyer argues that the Cambrian Explosion – a massive flourishing of multicellular life that witnessed the emergence of the majority of currently recognized animal phyla – doesn’t make sense when viewed through the lens of modern evolutionary theory. A better explanation, in Meyer’s view, is that the Cambrian Explosion is the work of some unspecified and generally invisible cosmic engineer.

 This seemed to me a clear classification error. My predecessor in managing the science collections probably hadn’t been particularly well-versed in scientific methodology or the criteria deployed in distinguishing science from pseudoscience. They’d purchased or received a book that had all the superficial trappings of science and made the understandable mistake of placing it among science books.

 Curious, I decided to do a bit of research. Turns out, my predecessor had indeed made an error. Unfortunately, they were far from alone in making it. This misclassification is astonishingly pervasive. The Online Computer Library Center (OCLC) lists catalog numbers in the 570s (Dewey) or QHs (Library of Congress Classification) as the most frequent classification for not only Darwin’s Doubt, but a variety of similar works. I checked the catalogs of public libraries in New York, Chicago, L.A., Seattle, San Francisco, Denver, Philadelphia, Boston, Miami, and the District of Columbia – in each location, the story is the same. Of course, this is hardly a representative sample, but the emerging pattern was distressing nonetheless: public libraries across the United States are failing in their charge to present accurate information to the public.

History of a Bad Idea: the Rise of Intelligent Design

In popular parlance, the perspective peddled in the books I’m referring to is called intelligent design. It is the modern incarnation of creationism, a thoroughly discredited branch of religious dogma that formerly masqueraded as science. The 1975 Daniel v. Waters circuit court and 1982 Mclean v. Arkansas district court decisions gave legal standing to the current scientific consensus on the processes that account for cosmological, biological, and geological phenomena, rejecting creationism as a suitable topic for public science education. In the 1987 Edwards v. Aguillard case, the U.S. Supreme Court did likewise. It was recognized that creationism is a religious perspective on the origins of life, incapable of withstanding serious scientific scrutiny and incompatible with the principles of secular education.

 Thereafter, those inclined to view religious origin stories as an essential component of science education adopted a new tactic. Creationism was stripped of all obvious references to Christianity, Biblical doctrine, and even deity. Subsequently married to a school of rather potent intellectual gymnastics, creationism sired what is now known as intelligent design – a more sophisticated and insidious rebranding of the old campaign to inject theology into the realms of scientific discourse and public science education.

 Advocates of intelligent design have worked hard to disguise their sectarian motivations and present a veneer of scientific objectivity. Despite these efforts at obfuscation, intelligent design has been consistently rejected as an appropriate topic for public science classrooms. Most recently, in the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District case, Judge John E. Johns – a Bush appointee – ruled that, because intelligent design is not science, its presentation in publicly funded science curricula represents a violation of the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

On its own, this legal precedent makes the presence of books like Darwin’s Doubt in public library science collections a real eyebrow-raiser. Why, if it is inappropriate to inject religiously motivated thinking into publicly funded science education, is it somehow permissible to allow religiously motivated thinking into similarly financed science collections at public libraries? According to established legal precedent, every library that shelves books like Darwin’s Doubt and Michael Behe’s equally unscientific Darwin’s Black Box in their science collections stands in flagrant violation of the U.S. Constitution.

Intelligent Design Isn’t Science

This alone should offer sufficient reason for any publicly funded library to take the simple step of booting these books out of their science collections. But to drive the point home, let’s push a little further. Surely it will be protested that the courts do not decide what is and is not science. This is true. But if the courts don’t decide, who does?

 One answer might be that the scientists themselves decide. And there is a sense in which this is true. Consensus does play a role in shaping the course of scientific progress and the vast majority of scientists reject intelligent design as junk or pseudoscience. This is especially true among life scientists, who tend to have the most relevant expertise when it comes to evaluating the scientific validity of an idea like intelligent design. Scientific organizations like the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) have issued unequivocal repudiations of intelligent design, denying its credibility as a scientific theory and urging educators to guard against its intrusion into public science curricula.

 Of course, science doesn’t work by consensus alone. This means that the deepest reasons for doubting the scientific veracity of intelligent design come from the nature of science itself. Individual scientists have different ideas about what exactly differentiates science from non-science. But one defining feature about which there is virtually unanimous agreement is this: science must make some appeal to observable reality. Its special standing as a knowledge-gaining pursuit is granted by a thorough dependence on the fruits of observation and experimentation. Scientific claims must be testable and, more fundamentally, falsifiable. If there is no conceivable way in which your idea can be proven wrong, then it is extremely likely that it is not science.

 This is where intelligent design is dealt its fatal blow. The entire program of intelligent design consists of stubborn attempts to poke holes in a Darwinian understanding of the origins and diversity of life on earth. Intelligent design advocates do not formulate testable hypotheses, in no small part because their central claim – that the existence of life hinges upon the intervention of an intelligent designer – can’t be tested. Those sympathetic to intelligent design posit scientific-sounding notions like irreducible complexity – the notion that certain features of the biological world cannot have evolved by natural processes because they depend on an intricate interplay among essential components – as a smokescreen for the credulous, hoping clever branding will mask a paucity of strong ideas.

 Various intelligent design proponents have posited candidates for irreducible complexity in the form of biological traits like flagellar motors and complex eyes. Each of these features rests well within the explanatory wheelhouse of modern evolutionary theory. Insofar as an irreducibly complex flagellar motor is an intelligent design hypothesis, the theory has been falsified. But this is too permissive. Look deeper and you’ll find that there are no objective criteria for recognizing irreducible complexity when you see it. The claim that the camera eye is irreducibly complex doesn’t flow from the logical structure of intelligent design, so it can’t actually be seen as a hypothesis with any relevance to said idea’s explanatory potential. What is and is not irreducibly complex is all in the eye of the beholder. The notion that the Cambrian Explosion can’t be explained by established Darwinian principles isn’t a hypothesis – it’s an opinion. It is an argument from incredulity that offers no fodder for experimental or observational evaluation and therefore disallows intelligent design entry into the scientific fold.

Lying in Place: Misleading the Public Through Careless Shelving

None of this is particularly groundbreaking stuff. These ideas have been spelled out repeatedly in ponderous legal decisions, dense philosophical tracts, breezy popular science bestsellers, and from countless university lecterns across the globe. Yet somehow intelligent design books like Darwin’s Doubt and Darwin’s Black Box have managed to sneak into public library science collections across the United States.

 A mislabeled book here and there is a small thing. Surely the vast majority of the books on the surrounding shelves represent good science. Those good ideas should swamp the bad. But think of the disservice done to the laypersons that come to these topics with fresh eyes. It’s a simple thing, but the placement of books can say a lot. In this case, it may say that intelligent design – an idea regarded by the vast majority of actual scientists as either junk science or pseudoscience – should be granted the same credence as any other book in the science section. In which case, the library will have done the job of carelessly misinforming its patrons. Placing intelligent design books in science collections is a decision that carries with it an implicit suggestion that they have the same explanatory merit as Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection or Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

 Darwin’s Doubt and books like it belong in the library. Public libraries have a duty to serve the interests of the theologically minded as much as the scientifically curious. These books might make good candidates for entries in philosophical collections dealing with the metaphysics of change or teleogy. More aptly, they might find a place in religious collections. Collection managers ought to have some discretion in this regard.

 There is, however, one place in the public library where these books do not belong: the science section. Most libraries weed out books on discredited ideas. If a library is doing its job, patrons shouldn’t find books advocating the phlogiston theory of combustion or offering astrological explanations for the condition of their love life in the science collection. Intelligent design is equally unscientific. Let’s do the public the service of cataloguing it accordingly.