Reality is a constituency

Alan Sokal—who has a history of criticizing the irrational Left—and Chris Mooney—who has come down hard on the anti-science Right—have teamed up to write an op-ed that makes suggestions to keep both sides from falling into the same trap again.

I think the root cause of the problem is that we have a democracy in which education is an insufficiently high priority, and either party can succumb to the temptation of going for votes by appealing to the most uneducated segment of the electorate. The Republican party has thrived in the past by going the other way, and building its base in the wealthy elite (which, unfortunately, has no certainty of being coupled to reason and education); they’ve long since learned that religion is a handy bridge to get votes from the most irrational side of the population, and have ridden the crazy train to power.

Democrats have long been populists, but I suspect that the focus on labor has at least grounded the party in practical concerns. That focus is fading away fast, and I worry that in an attempt to rebuild a solid majority they are also going to cast a covetous eye on the religious masses (hence my reluctance to support Barack Obama) and get there in the wrong way.

Sokal and Mooney propose some top-down safeguards against the further encroachment of anti-science bias into government. These are good ideas.

To address this new crisis over the relationship between science and politics, we propose a combination of political activism and institutional reform. Congress needs to establish safeguards to protect the integrity of scientific information in Washington — strong whistle-blower protections for scientists who work in government agencies would be a good start.

We also need a strengthening of the government scientific advisory apparatus, starting with the revival of the Office of Technology Assessment. And we need congressional committees to continue with their investigations of cases of science abuse within the Bush administration, in order to learn what other reforms are necessary.

At the same time, journalists and citizens must renounce a lazy “on the one hand, on the other hand” approach and start analyzing critically the quality of the evidence. For, in the end, all of us — conservative or liberal, believer or atheist — must share the same real world. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria do not spare deniers of evolution, and global climate change will not spare any of us. As physicist Richard Feynman wrote in connection with the space shuttle Challenger disaster, “nature cannot be fooled.”

To avoid nature’s punishment, we must take steps now to restore reality-based government.

I’d just add that we also need more bottom-up preventive measures: more education. I want a reality-based government, and the best way to get there is to increase the pool of reality-based voters.

(Crossposted to The American Street)


  1. Caledonian says

    I’d just add that we also need more bottom-up preventive measures: more education. I want a reality-based government, and the best way to get there is to increase the pool of reality-based voters.

    More education is useless. Better education might have an effect.

  2. Flex says


    A couple of years ago I floated the idea of a rationalist caucus within the Michigan democratic party. I tried it out on our local democratic club and on an on-line forum which had a large large proportion of self-identified rationalists (the JREF forums).

    The idea of a rationalist caucus would be to provide a focus point for people interested in evidence-based decision making in the political arena. To evaluate the amount of evidence-based thinking various candidates and proposals reflect. To support candidates which use evidence in their arguments. And to generally support the development of critical thinking in all areas, including education.

    As a card-carrying democrat, I would create this as a caucus of the Michigan democratic party, but there would be no reason why a similar republican group couldn’t be formed.

    The members of the local democratic club didn’t appear to understand the concept, or the need. The total response from the JREF crowd was “rationalist caucus is a cool name”.

    Mind you, my street cred was not large in either place, but still…

    …maybe in a couple years I’ll have more time to devote to the development of such a caucus. Once I finish my MBA, quit this job, get a house which doesn’t require rebuilding, and take my position in public office. But if someone wants to take this idea and run with it, and even claim credit for it, I wouldn’t care. Ideas are a dime a dozen. The person doing the work to develop an idea deserves the credit.

  3. says

    Don’t count the unions out yet: SEIU is really kicking butt in the service industry, even in the South. I highly suggest checking them out.

    As for the lefty folks o’ faith: Can’t speak for the Christians, but most of the lefty and even the libertarian Pagans are pretty anti-authoritarian (many of them having grown up Fundie), so they’re not as big a danger as the Fundies (the more woo-woo cult-of-personality types are a danger, but that’s true in most any field of human endeavor). Most of them just want to keep from getting burned at the stake again,; they don’t want to trash high school science courses (that is, they’re not going to ask any HS science teacher to say that Thor makes electricity), and are big fans of inclusivity. Go to a typical Pagan listserv and you’ll find discussions on how monotheism invariably leads to authoritarianism, whereas polytheism allows for a more open mind. (Of course, polytheism didn’t stop the Roman Republic from being overthrown, but hey.)

  4. says

    Caledonian said:

    More education is useless. Better education might have an effect.

    Well, I think now you’re just picking nits.  Poor education is hardly education at all.  It is a waste of time at best and simple indoctrination far more frequently.

  5. Greg Peterson says

    I’ve said to some friends that maybe it’s time for one of us secular liberals to raise the ante on Couters moronic “book” with something like “Not Godless ENOUGH.” If anything, the “spirituality” on the left can be even flakier than that on the right–although it probably causes less immediate physical harm.

  6. says

    Caledonian said:

    More education is useless. Better education might have an effect.

    Well, I think now you’re just picking nits.

    I agree that “poor education is hardly education at all”… but I also think that much of what makes our education “poor” (to the extent that it is poor, that is; I think much of the public-schools-in-crisis talk is really right-wing scaremongering, but that’s another topic) is lack of material support. If by “more education” what you mean is more buildings, more teachers, more computers, more books in the library, more microscopes, more tubas… well, then, in that case I’d say there’s a very large intersection between “more education” and “better education.”

  7. says

    Bill Dauphin:

    I agree that “poor education is hardly education at all”… but I also think that much of what makes our education “poor” (to the extent that it is poor, that is; I think much of the public-schools-in-crisis talk is really right-wing scaremongering, but that’s another topic) is lack of material support. If by “more education” what you mean is more buildings, more teachers, more computers, more books in the library, more microscopes, more tubas… well, then, in that case I’d say there’s a very large intersection between “more education” and “better education.”

    Yes. The goodness of education depends in part on the quantity available.

  8. Sonja says

    In the early 1990’s, hanging around with hip, south Minneapolis progressive political activists, I began to realize that I had a significantly different understanding of how the world worked than most of my friends.

    While they had all rejected their traditional religious upbringing, as I had, they had replaced them with ideas I found equally ridiculous. Eventually I got the reputation as a total kill-joy because I would roll my eyes when cocktail party conversation drifted to topics such as hauntings, past lives, food toxicity, fish falls, eyeball readings, UFOs and you name it.

    In one discussion with a friend, he suddenly shouted at me saying “You’re a Materialist!” It was said with the same accusatory tones that a right-wing Republican might point at you and say “You’re a Liberal!”

    Then in 1996, I ran across Alan Sokal on the IgNobel Prize award page. I didn’t know anything about the controversy, so I followed the link to the article he had published. As I read it for the first time I thought “This guy is an idiot — this article is not rational.” Then I read further about the hoax. Because I as a layperson was able to see through Sokal’s article, I found it even more shocking that the thing had been published in an academic journal.

    This led me to read more about Alan Sokal and I discovered he was from the political left. Hurray! I had finally found someone on the left who valued facts, evidence, and reason. Alan Sokal is one of my heroes.

  9. says

    It seems to me that one element of education that is not emphasized enough is the general epistemological underpinnings of science, that is the scientific method in general terms. In my (admittedly long ago) experience, to the extent the scientific method was covered at all, it was done so on a detail basis as it applied to the particular science under study (mostly physics in my case) and not at a level as it applied to the acquisition of knowledge in general. Room in curricula should be made for addressing this for at least an hour or two at the high school level, if not before.

    Phoenix Woman:

    By the time the Roman Empire was swirling in the bowl of history in its final and fast circles, it was predominatly Christian. At least on the surface. And Christianity had a lot to do with it, as historians since Gibbon have recognized. Among the detritus that went down the drain was the tradition and documents of rational inquiry the Romans adapted from the Greeks. Thus the descent into the Dark Ages. A fascinitating recent book on this topic is The Closing Of The Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason, by British scholar Charles Freeman. Here’s one of the more pithy passages I copied from the book for my “Quotations” file:

    “It was perhaps particularly unfortunate that the silencing of debate extended beyond the spiritual and across the whole Greek intellectual tradition. The effects of Paul’s condemnation of ‘the philosophers’ could not have been put more clearly than by John Chrysostom, an enthusiastic follower of Paul. ‘Restrain our own reasoning, and empty our mind of secular learning, in order to provide a mind swept clear for the reception of divine words.’ Basil echoes him: ‘Let us Christians prefer the simplicity of our faith to the demonstrations of human reason . . . For to spend much time on research about the essence of things would not serve the edification of the church.’ This represented no less than a total abdication of independent intellectual thought, and it resulted in a turning away from any speculation about the natural world as well as the divine. ‘What purpose does knowledge serve – for as to knowledge of natural causes, what blessing is there for me if I should know where the Nile rises, or whatever else under the heavens the “scientists” rave about?’ wrote Lactantius in the early fourth century.” P 316

  10. says

    While I haven’t read Mooney’s book — some evidence of right-wing attacks on science are just too obvious, so reading a book about it when you’ve been watching it for years seems superfluous — I think it’s important to note that Alan Sokal’s work on “left wing” attacks on science contains some notoriously (and ironically) bad scholarship. It’s quite true that, to this day, some on the left (especially the anti-genetically modified food people) are as bad as the anti-climate science folks on the right, but Sokal’s work went further than saying things like that. When it did so, it got sloppy, was based on misreadings (or non-readings) of certain texts or transcripts, etc. Even his hoax itself was problematic for several reasons. I’d rather see Mooney go it alone, really, rather than hitch his wagon to someone who does sloppy scholarship.

  11. Johnny Vector says

    To avoid nature’s punishment, we must take steps now to restore reality-based government.

    Okay, I just have to quote Joey Burns here.

    Season’s trial finds man’s mistakes fair game

    Thanks, I feel better now. Back to your regularly-scheduled discussion.

  12. cbutterb says

    Chris: Sokal has written extensively about the outcome of his hoax and warned about overgeneralizing the results. Nonetheless, his conclusion that that journal was sloppy and not committed to truth is on pretty solid ground, I’d say. (And FWIW, Dawkins has written about the excesses of hermeneutic and semiotic blathering as well.)

    Where has Sokal been sloppy?

  13. Steve LaBonne says

    I assume he’s talking about Sokal and Bricmont’s book “Fashionable Nonsense” (originally published in france as “Impostures Intellectuelles”.) I have not read it but am vaguely aware that some of its scholarship has indeed been criticized.

  14. stogoe says

    I find it hard to take anything Chris from Muddling Memory says, especially when he makes a drive-by whack at his opponents without evidence.

    Please, Chris, enlighten us with thine evidence. You’re obviously right about everything, so show us the proof.

  15. says

    Fashionable Nonsense is really two books in one, a point which has caused more than its fair share of confusion. One portion, the chapters devoted to demonstrating the abuses of scientific and mathematical jargon by postmodern writers, is essentially a dark comedy. The second portion addresses questions about epistemic relativism, the alleged incommensurability of Kuhnian paradigms and so forth. The two halves are more strongly linked by sociology than they are by logic, in that the people who commit the sins detailed in A (and their followers) tend to hold the views criticized in B.

    So far, I have been remarkably underwhelmed by the criticisms leveled at Sokal and Bricmont’s publications. Without doubt, there are serious issues involved here which should be investigated with the highest possible standards of scrutiny; the problem is that Sokal and Bricmont have done a better job of doing that to other people than other people have to them.

    For example, I expected much more from Michael Berube. His review of Fashionable Nonsense has some good points; he drew attention to the “two books in one” fact, which often goes overlooked. However, in trying to take Sokal down, he resembled more a person who was disquieted by what Sokal said and thus threw all the verbiage he could manage in Sokal’s general direction, without achieving much coherent form. He slips past the problem that scientific empiricism has been a strong argument for moral relativism (by showing that laws of nature do not reference human standards, and by pushing God into the Gaps). Now, moral relativism is a sticky thing, difficult to talk about in any way that is better than painfully naive, but Berube should have done better than he did.

    He says, for example, that he does not believe “that a universally objective account of truth is even necessary for social change: any theory that speaks of relative probabilities, contingencies, and likely outcomes, I think, will suffice for the job”. But Sokal and Bricmont do not advocate a universally objective account of truth — not if the word “truth” also encompasses moral and ethical propositions. Berube undermines himself by asking for a system encompassing “relative probabilities, contingencies and likely outcomes”, because this is what science does. It teaches us to gauge the likelihood of different outcomes, to hold multiple alternative working hypotheses in our heads, and to investigate contingencies with a close eye. Few other areas of the human enterprise have done this so stringently.

    Far from insulating against Sokalian scientism, Berube is actually wishing that we could make the elucidation of morals more scientific.

    Nobody seems to be talking about Sokal’s more recent work, such as the essay “Pseudoscience and Postmodernism: Antagonists or Fellow-Travelers?” which offers much more textual evidence and argumentation on the issues raised in part B of Fashionable Nonsense.

  16. Sonja says

    Thank you Blake! I have read Alan Sokol’s more recent articles, including the one you mentioned. Here he makes that big connection as to why science education is important to a society:

    Thus, I am indeed mildly disconcerted by a society in which 50% of the adult populace believes in extrasensory perception, 42% in haunted houses, 41% in possession by the devil, 36% in telepathy, 32% in clairvoyance, 28% in astrology, 15% in channeling, and 45% in the literal truth of the creation story of Genesis. But I am far more profoundly worried by a society in which 21-32% believe that the Iraqi government under Saddam Hussein was directly involved in the attacks of September 11, 2001, 43-52% think that U.S. troops in Iraq have found clear evidence that Saddam Hussein was working closely with al-Qaeda, and 15-34% think that U.S. troops have found Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. And If I am concerned about public belief in clairvoyance and the like, it is largely because of my suspicion that credulity in minor matters prepares the mind for credulity in matters of greater import — and, conversely, that the kind of critical thinking useful for distinguishing science from pseudoscience might also be of some use in distinguishing truths in affairs of state from lies. (Not a panacea, mind you, but just of some use.)

    Before I found Pharyngula, I used to frequent the Alan Sokal site to read pearls like this one.

  17. JScarry says

    I just shipped some software to a High School in Vermont and went to their web site to see if I could get a name of the teacher so I could add them to my mailing list. There were 26 teachers whose title is “Special Education Paraeducator” or some other title that identified them as a non-traditional educator (i.e. not Science, History, Math, etc.) There were around 30 titles in traditional education areas and another half dozen administrative types. I suspect that the Paraeducators have some role in IDEA compliance so it’s not the school districts fault that they are spending money on them.
    Does anyone know how much of the money spent on schools actually goes toward educating the students and how much is spent on compliance with various mandates from Washington like IDEA and No Child Left Behind?

  18. Pygmy Loris says


    I’m confused about the tone of your post. Do you disagree with educating students with disabilities? Or with Special Education?

    If you do disagree with educating students with disabilities, then do you think only the “right” students should have access to the public education that can make them more productive, functional members of our society?

    FYI “Paras” (if it means the same thing here) are an important part of Special Education (they aid students with special needs in the classroom) and actually make very little money.

  19. Pygmy Loris says

    PZ I came across this moment after having a conversation with a friend in liguistics about the subjective nature of reality. Thanks for the antidote to that particular brain sprain. (oooh mixed metaphors)

  20. says

    There’s also a good general collection skewering various sorts of anti-science nonsense of all sorts: The Flight From Science and Reason, though by now it is a decade or so old.

    I’ve also found the negative reviews of Sokal and Bricmont’s book to be rather superficial – it is quite true that many of them (at least initially) didn’t even seem to have read the bit where S&B say they are addressing two topics in one volume. Moreover, there is very little attention to the nonsense itself – only posturing about the importance of analyzing science, etc.

    Well, some of us do do that, but also like to think we know something about it. The scary thing is that the ridiculous bastardization of relativity of Latour (for example) can be shown to be provably wrong. Not just mistaken, but provably in error, and has been for decades. And yet this sort of stuff, while on the wane, is still cited.

  21. JScarry says

    Pygmy Loris

    I’m opposed to “mainstreaming” kids who don’t really belong in the classroom. They need special attention that they can’t get in the classroom and it hurts their education and the rest of the class. I’m opposed to mandates like NCLB that have no evidence behind them and are designed to make politicians look good at the expense of education. I’m emphatically opposed to the concept that lawmakers in Washington have a better idea of how to run schools than the parents and teachers in the local communities.