Are Science and Reason Losing the Battle With Ideology?

It sure looks that way to this observer of our irredeemably polarized, zero-sum, increasingly bizarre culture. More on that shortly, but first an enthusiastic endorsement for the work of a fellow columnist here at TPJmagazine. Loren Adams always informs and entertains, and in his July 10 column, “The Curse,” he forcefully captures the life-and-death seriousness of a chronic disease eating away at the constitution of the nation (capital C, too). The disease is the left-right schism, “the great divide” that has long afflicted this country but which we have more or less managed to control, at least since the Civil War. Until now.

Adams says the divide is dangerously widening again, and he lays the blame for the latest crisis in our democracy squarely on the modern Republican Party, which has become an intentional, well-coordinated agent of social destruction:

“[The Republican Party’s] political operatives made a conscious decision three decades ago to win at any cost, including compromising traditional values that moderated our political system to civility and accepted standards of discourse. No longer is there a conscience to constrain; all tactics are on-the-table. As part of the conscious decision to include the unconscionable, the GOP has embraced deceit, fear, greed, and hate as part of its fabric. The composition is damaging to the nation as a whole, not just the party, and they care not. All that matters is [the] objective; winning is the only thing that counts. The end justifies the means.”

Adams sees us decaying, and perhaps dying, as a nation because of the enormous burden the Republicans have deliberately and shamelessly imposed on our always fragile social contract (loyal opposition and all that). I urge you to read his column – or read it again. His rotting-corpse metaphor alone is worth the time.

I agree with Loren nearly a hundred percent. And if our country is not close to death, it is surely on the verge of permanent disability, no longer able to provide the opportunity for a decent standard of living and a sense of security for most of its citizens. And no longer an optimistic, cheerful nation, but a dour, resentful, suspicious, and hostile place. A Republican kind of place.

The toxic Republican Party can be imagined as a big tent bulging with delusional ideologues, not all of them ideologically compatible, except in an opportunistic sense. The point is that the tent is so full of ignorant, brainwashed true believers and opportunists that no one who respects reason and evidence will be inclined to seek admission to participate in good faith. Looking inside the Republican big top, the most prominent recognizable ideologies on display are: radical political and social conservatism, fundagelical religion, libertarianism, the strange new concoction known as the Tea Party, and an assortment of odious, far-right hate groups. All of them are extreme in their ideological certitude, and fanatically determined. Working together as they do, they constitute a formidable political army with its own ministry of propaganda, the ubiquitous right-wing broadcast media (although it looks like Faux News could be in for a bit of a rough ride – and may they suffer the torments of the damned).

Characterizing right-wing ideologues as delusional is, admittedly, borderline redundant. Ideology, by its very nature, leads to denial of reality and a tendency towards fanaticism. Here’s why: Ideologues turn science and reason upside down, starting with non-negotiable, faith-based premises and then twisting, distorting, or denying all evidence that does not conform to their preconceived “truths.” And along with the majority, including many on the left, they extol faith as a virtue, even though it is diametrically opposed to science. Last time I checked, science was the only reliable method of advancing our understanding, prediction, and control of reality. It is a fair question to ask what insights ideology has ever provided about the nature of reality?

Because they publicly proclaim speculative, non-evidence-based beliefs to be The Truth, ideologues of every stripe almost invariably end up in a position from which their only face-saving option is to double down and use every available tactic they can get away with, including: denialism; lying (and do they ever lie – to themselves and others); demonizing the opposition and those who don’t conform to their narrow, usually regressive, world view; employing every logical fallacy ever cataloged; using political power to disenfranchise the poor and the elderly; aggressively and deceitfully undermining science and science education when it contradicts their unsupported beliefs. The U.S. furnishes a prime example of a society threatened by an epidemic of toxic ideologies run amok.

It is easy to come up with prominent and familiar ideologies that exemplify all or most of the above traits: communism, fascism, U.S. conservatism, Islamism, religion and the paranormal, alternative medicine, the anti-vaccination movement, conspiracy theories, and perhaps some environmental and animal-rights movements. There are ideologues on both ends of the political spectrum; but I’m arguing that those on the political/cultural/religious right are, by far, the most dangerous at this point in time. So let me take this opportunity to once again issue my recurring warning: The right wing in the U.S. is poised to gain power – to win at any cost, as Loren Adams puts it – and the first and highest priority for all reasonable Americans must be to keep power out of their hands. This is a Paul Revere moment, but you’d never know it from the business-as-usual demeanor of the U.S. mainstream media. Or the accommodationist Obama administration. Or a great many progressives and moderates. And the rest of the world just shakes their heads as we Americans go about our lives as if things were normal, not as if we were on the brink of forfeiting all our hard-won social progress.

I predict that if the right does gain power in this election cycle, the Bush administration will look like a sunday school picnic by comparison. (Go on, try to tell me I’m wrong about that. But be sure to read the religious and political rights’ own widely available words before you do.) What we’re seeing now from the House Republican majority is just weak tea compared to the toxic brew they’ll force down our throats once they’ve consolidated power. It doesn’t take much digging to see what’s coming, including the final nail in the coffin of meaningful democracy.)

As I said, ideologues share a strong, emotional, often fanatical, devotion to a set of core beliefs that are not verified, not adequately supported by sound, real-world evidence. Their fanaticism pushes them to organize and form coalitions with compatible groups and to probe for weaknesses and push for advantages in every domain. They are often well-disciplined, well-funded, and relentless. A perfect example of discipline comes from the protestant religious right and the Catholic Church. Protestant fundamentalism has a rather notorious antipathy to Catholicism and often refers to the Church as “the great whore” and the pope as the “anti-Christ.” They say those things even with five conservative Catholics and one moderate Catholic sitting on the Supreme Court. So where is the right-wing Catholic outrage at such defamation? The point is that even with such profound animosities festering just below the surface, conservatives are still disciplined enough to keep the lid on their differences in the interest of winning the bigger political battle against hated liberalism.

So are the regressives winning? Yeah, I think so. It is hugely dispiriting to see how much power, influence and support the delusional right has and how so many Americans have been duped into voting for malevolent ideologues and against their own interests. So while I agree with Loren Adams about Republican tactics and ruthlessness, I would add that I think the root cause of conservative personality disorder lies in an innate human proclivity for ideology. We are natural-born ideologues, which may have served us well in the Stone Age but is lethal now. Reverting to pre-Enlightenment superstitions is no longer a survival option.

The only long-term antidote to cultural decay is Jefferson’s informed citizenry, a rational majority that understands the primacy of genuine evidence as the basis for belief, decision-making, and the preservation of constitutional democracy. Obviously we are a long, long way from that ideal. For the present, the goal is to keep the deluded fanatics out of power so at least we’ll have a chance to begin to work towards a nation of informed, responsible, critical thinkers. This will only occur through a vastly improved education system, an undertaking the right will continue to undermine at every stage. And right now it looks as if they will succeed before the task even gets underway.

As Dr. Michael Shermer says in his new book, “The Believing Brain,” the way forward is to embrace the spirit of scientific inquiry. Not just esoteric laboratory science, but widespread scientific thinking throughout the populace. As Shermer says,

“I’m a skeptic not because I do not want to believe, but because I want to know. How can we tell the difference between what we would like to be true and what is actually true? The answer is science.”

Science is intrinsically skeptical and thus resists the tendency towards faith-based certitude, or ideology. Skepticism is really just applied scientific reasoning that says I won’t accept anything as even provisionally true without sufficient evidence (hence, atheism). Any other attitude towards reality opens the door to all kinds of unsupported nonsense, which is where we are now as a culture. Lamentably, that’s where intellectually undisciplined human nature takes us. The antidote is the acquired discipline of skeptical, scientific rigor.

Many right-wing opponents of science – religious, cultural, corporate, and political – love to trot out the canard that science is just another faith-based belief system. To which I say, when feeling charitable, “That’s total rubbish!” Science is not based on “faith,” but on evidence and reason. Look at it this way: All our reliable knowledge is based on evidence from observation and experiment. That isn’t “faith” in the unknown or the unverified, it’s confidence in the known based on centuries of disciplined investigation. Just look at the results that accrued once humans started using and refining the scientific method! The heart of the method is called induction, which boils down to this: if we can document and/or produce a cause-and-effect pattern repeatedly under given conditions, it is likely the pattern will occur the next time those conditions obtain, and possibly under somewhat different conditions as well (which can be the basis for a systematic replication). That’s not faith, that’s practical common sense; we rely on science because it works. I’m sure there’s no need to provide examples of the prodigious accomplishments of science.

Of course science can’t say with absolute certainty that just because something has always occurred in a certain way that it always will; that’s why scientists readily concede that their laws and theories are provisional – a disconfirming observation might occur at any time. But just because something is theoretically possible – and damn near anything is – doesn’t mean it’s real. I guess we can’t even prove beyond doubt that reality is real; but it’s pointless to let that kind of philosophical uncertainty impede us, so we go with what works. And that’s not “faith,” at least not in the sense intended by science deniers.

So we’re justified in saying the sun will rise in the east – tomorrow and every day. We COULD turn out to be wrong at some point; but what possible value is there in doubting something that has always proven to be true? Better to say that under specified observational or experimental conditions, we have ALWAYS gotten this result, so we carry on with confidence it will persist in the future. Eventually we come to know enough about various aspects of reality to make reliable predictions and to exert impressive control over real-world outcomes. That’s science: empirical, pragmatic, highly effective. It’s not absolute, and it’s not without difficulties – after all, it’s a human enterprise. Still we just keep at it and trust it because of its track record: and we keep seeing progress in our knowledge, understanding, prediction, and control. The scientific method works where nothing else comes close. Certainly not any ideology.