May 14 2012

The paradox of science and conservatism

I expend a great deal of time and effort in the disparagement of conservative ideologies. They oversimplify complex issues to the point where the ‘solutions’ that arise from such ideologies are often more harmful than the problems they purport to ‘fix’. Reality is a multifaceted state of affairs with a lot of moving parts that defy the panacaea of upper-class tax cuts and ‘common sense’, and yet those who hold conservative ideologies are often openly contemptuous of the nuanced view of the world that is required to make any headway or improvement.

Despite my irritation, I must confess a certain sympathy for conservatism. Not a sympathy borne of pity (considering the way in which conservative policies are decimating not only my own country but others around the world, there is no room left for pity), but one borne of understanding. The conservative impulse, in its essence, is the human tendency to grind to a halt when new challenges face us. To put that another way, it is to address new problems with the solutions that have worked before – tradition and ‘common sense’ (which, in light of this view of conservatism, is simply what we call those things which used to confound us but we have answers for now).

William F. Buckley’s description of conservatives as those who would “stand athwart history yelling stop!” is perhaps an uncharitable view. Not an inaccurate one mind you, but still a bit unfair. Conservatism is the antithesis of progressivism – a completely sane and defensible reaction to new (and potentially dangerous) ideas. Not all change is good – some change is downright deadly. Eugenics, for example, was an idea with great promise for mankind – use our knowledge of heritability to destroy human biological frailty. However, in practice it led to monstrous ethical abuses that could have been foreseen had someone slowed down the headlong rush toward the promise of a glorious new age and given it some sober thought.

It is good, it is vital that we give heed to the urge to stop and carefully think through the likely consequences of our actions. It is helpful to re-use intellectual tools and traditions developed by our forebears rather than trying to re-invent the wheel every time we are trying to figure something out. Conservatism, as an intellectual tool to safeguard our path forward as a society from those impulses which could lead us to calamatous outcomes, holds inherent value.

Science, particularly science that is properly grounded in methodological skepticism, is an inherently conservative enterprise. It is the job of skepticism to wrestle lofty claims to the ground and demand that they justify their continued existence. While new and potentially fruitful ideas swarm around our societal discourse, skeptics are those who stand athwart the conceptual herd and shout “how do you know that?” Failure to ask this primarily important question leaves us vulnerable to ideas that range from merely silly and frivolous (aliens, chemtrails, psychic mediums) to potentially deadly (religion, racial supremacy, “alternative medicine”).

There is an inherent paradox in this reality, though. When we hold traditional ideas up to this conservative process of scrutiny, many of them fall apart. Religious and supernatural claims wither quickly under the searchlight of scientific inquiry, despite the fact that they underpin much of our societal structure. Without the iron-clad certainty that accompanies those claims, we find ourselves awash in liberalism – the practice of developing moral arguments rather than simply obeying commandments; the use of sociology rather than grade-school biology to unpack things like race and gender; the principle of ‘do whatever you like, so long as it hurts no-one else’ – these are all ideas that are in deep conflict with the ‘truths’ we have developed through traditional understanding.

The great irony of this conflict is that modern North American conservatism is deeply distrustful and dismissive of science. Skepticism, of the methodological rather than the knee-jerk cynical kind, is not a practice common to conservative discourse. Rather than weight claims based on observed evidence, ideology and principle reign untrammeled by the inconvenience of fact. What forms as a result is a world that is run through with conspiracies and biases (never defined) wherein reality itself is stacked against you. Any worldview that is grounded in tradition is immediately adversarial to any force that spends its time uprooting everything it touches.

There is further irony in the fact that in order to appreciate and wrap your head around the irony of a conservative force being one of the greatest tools toward greater liberalism, you have to have a certain affinity and capacity for nuanced thought. It is a cognitively challenging thing to find harmony among disparate and seemingly self-contradictory thoughts, and there is emerging evidence that avoiding cognitive challenge is the birth of conservative ideology. It is therefore difficult to see the unity of the ‘liberal science agenda’ with one of the pillars of conservative thought. In a sense, scientific inquiry is the ultimate act of conservatism, because it stands athwart everything and demands answers.

The challenge before us then is to learn to make this kind of inquiry, of stopping to think when new information arises, of using these tools for testing claims, a reflexive reaction. Turn the old tradition of relying on revelation and convention into a new culture of carefully considering evidence before deciding a course of action. Make science and skepticism something that qualifies as ‘common sense’ rather than an extraordinary effort expounded by liberal elites hell-bent on destroying our way of life and turning us all into effete atheist Muslims. Yes, of course there is a further paradox in the idea of making it traditional to be skeptical of tradition, but if you think about it too much you’re going to end up looking like Leo:

Leonardo DiCaprio's skeptical face from Inception

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  1. 1
    SC (Salty Current), OM

    The conservative impulse, in its essence, is the human tendency to grind to a halt when new challenges face us.

    In The Reactionary Mind, Corey Robin makes the case that this is a misconception.

  2. 2
    Robert B.

    Wait a minute. Skepticism isn’t inherently conservative, it’s inherently antagonistic. The basic principle is that all ideas must be challenged. Old ideas, new ideas, whatever – the refrain is always “why do you believe what you believe?”

    Now, if we once achieved a state where all our current ideas had survived this antagonistic process, then yes, skepticism would become fairly conservative. New ideas would face challenges that old ideas had already passed. But we’re not in such a state, and we never have been. The prominent place of religion in our society implies that old ideas (or ideas believed to be old, like Christianity’s objection to abortion) have in fact met lower standards before coming to our attention, on average. That means skepticism would tend liberal, which is exactly what we observe.

  3. 3

    This reflects a thought I’ve had fairly often myself, which is this: we need conservatism. We need people who want to hang onto what was good about the past, as a counterbalance to folks who (like myself) thrive on novelty and want to toss everything out in favor of the latest thing.

    The problem comes when it’s dumb conservatism. That is, there’s stuff about the past that’s worth hanging onto, and then there’s the stupid bullshit that we’d be better off without. If modern conservatism wasn’t so flagrantly uncritical about picking which stuff to hang onto and which to get rid of, it would be a constructive rather than a destructive force in society. But since today’s conservatives don’t have any respectably rational criteria for judging what about the past was good and what wasn’t, they end up fucking everybody’s shit up.

  4. 4

    Big chunks of US “conservatives” are more like radical reactionaries, though. They’re not trying to halt or slow down progress, they’re trying to actually move backwards to a (imagined) utopian past, When Things Were Better.

    Consider: Roe vs Wade was in 1973. It’s been thirty-nine years. Nearly two generations, and yet the so-called “conservative” movement are trying to destroy it.

  5. 5

    Snoof–that’s just garden variety fascism.

    Which is what I mean–stupid conservatism shades so easily into fascism, it’s hard to tell the difference sometimes.

  6. 6

    Recent advances in cognitive science reveal clear evidence for a biological basis for bigotry. Which is really the issue we must address. Conservative religious bigots are a problem because they are not open to compromise and negotiation. Were they open to honest and honorable free inquiry there would not be a problem and all issues would be amenable to democratic debate and resolution. We can clearly see this is not the case.

    The science of neuroplasticity shows us the brain physically reshapes the actual neuronal connections that dictate our beliefs and our behavior based on inputs we feed ourselves. This mechanism is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because revolutionary treatments based on the workings of neuroplasticity are showing success in treating OCD, phobias and even schizophrenia. The techniques work by essentially rewiring the brain’s neuronal connections. While these advances are most welcome, we must note that the science poses profound questions for our moral understanding, law, and relationships.

    The curse is that once neuronal connections become “hard wired” in the brain they are extremely impervious to things like logic or simple will power to dislodge. The conjecture that underlies this claim is based on the notion that humans cannot live with cognitive dissonance so people must make a choice between alternatives and live with it. Once a choice is made you cannot vacillate between opposite positions, because that would put you in a state of constant uncertainty. We humans crave certainty so we can get on with our lives and not have to constantly weigh opposite alternatives. In other words the bias towards adopting firm positions (whether right or wrong) exists to prevent us from spinning our wheels, so to speak.

    Neuroplasticity makes it crucial for everyone to understand that their choices must be based on evidence and facts and not dogma, folk wisdom, tradition, intuition or religious cant. President George Bush was famous for saying that he went with his gut instincts. Which led me to ask if he used his gut to think with, did he digest food with his brain?

  7. 7
    Pierce R. Butler

    Adding to the paradoxes of what we call “conservatism”: the forces now operating under that name have been, for the last few decades, the major promoters of change in a nation which used to abhor torture, respect habeas corpus, adjure racism, and admire the hardworking “little guy”.

  8. 8
    Pierce R. Butler

    (ahem!) … a nation which used to … abjure racism …

    At least we haven’t officially and formally reached the stage of adjuring racism, except arguably in Arizona and Alabama.

  9. 9

    Scientific skepticism is inherently conservative. Basically, the more something goes against prevailing theories, the less we trust it. And those scientific theories which have stood the test of time are likely to continue to do so.

    There’s a sense in which it’s useful to be “skeptical” of, say, Newton’s laws of planetary motion or the Darwinian-Mendellian synthesis. But it’s hard for that to be a real skepticism in the way that we should be skeptical of, say, subatomic particles moving faster than the speed of light, or political orientations lining up neatly with gross anatomical differences in the brain.

    Once we move outside the realm of science you’re right, though. But I think that was also Ian’s point.

  10. 10

    One of the things we should be really skeptical about is how strongly we interpret these sorts of neurological results. I work in the field, and I’m a lot less comfortable making these sorts of blanket statements, particularly the stuff about political orientations and gross anatomical differences. The data’s a lot messier than all that, as Ian’s been doing a good job of showing over the past month or so.

  11. 11
    d cwilson

    William F. Buckley’s description of conservatives as those who would “stand athwart history yelling stop!” is perhaps an uncharitable view.

    But amazingly, he thought that would be a good thing.

  12. 12

    When you’re talking about neuroscience or evolutionary psychology, both fields in which it is very hard to acquire and interpret good data, it is important to be precise and to avoid spinning narratives. You wrote first about some developments in neuroscience, and that’s fine, though citations would be useful. But when you said that we are wired to make decisions and move on, not spin our wheels, that gets into the realm of evolutionary psychology. It would be good to say so explicitly, as you are using neuroscience for description and evopsych for explanation.

    The danger of making narratives out of these scientific findings is that in doing so we find the narratives themselves to be appealing, and neglect the importance of being precise about what we do and don’t know, as well as covering a range of explanations. I assume you know about confirmation bias.

    A common fallacy in evopsych is the idea that every evolved trait is adaptive, rather than coming about as a secondary effect of some other trait that was selected for. I see you doing this in the bit about resolving cognitive dissonance.

  13. 13

    This is the case with Ireland as well. But it’s not a big secret that our conservatives are armed, radical reactionaries who just want to go backwards to a golden, pre-British utopia that only exists in their imaginations.

  14. 14
    Robert B.

    Oh, okay. Yeah, science has that body of critically examined knowledge going already, which society generally and politics specifically do not.

  15. 15

    Posting on an old thread I know, but I tend to find that most conservatives I’ve encountered or listened to wanted to believe in simplistic answers. They want to believe that if you go to church and pray all the time, everything works out because God will bless you. They want to believe that if you have a good attitude, everything will be fine, you’ll get a job and make plenty of money. They want to believe that if you fall on hard times, the good old fashioned institutions of church and ‘charities’ will be there. Most of these ideas were never true, but it’s easy to believe in a past golden age.

    The idea that we live in a world where the simple, easy answers don’t necessarily work, and where just being a good-natured Forest Gump type isn’t going to guarantee you a great life doesn’t sit so well with these people.

    As for science, science doesn’t allow anybody to be just a friendly dolt with a good heart – you have to *think* and it seems that conservatives hate thinking, since they believe so strongly that the old answers (platitudes) are always enough. The idea that we need new answers and new information and that we don’t already have the answers is deeply troubling to them, mostly because they believe all answers lie in tradition or ‘common sense.’ Science goes totally against that, and so they just dismiss science.

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