In a commencement speech at Rutgers, President Obama took an indirect shot at Donald Trump and the Republicans:
Facts, evidence, reason, logic, an understanding of science: These are good things. These are qualities you want in people making policy . . . We traditionally have valued those things, but if you’re listening to today’s political debate, you might wonder where this strain of anti-intellectualism came from.
Obama here indulges one of the hoariest progressive clichés: that they are the party of enlightenment, reason, and fact, while conservatives are ignorant obscurantists, “bitter clingers” to the superstitions of religion and tradition. This prejudice is false about both conservatives and progressives. Most of what many progressives think is science is, in fact, scientism: the application of the methods, techniques, and jargon of genuine science to subjects for which they are inappropriate.
Indeed, leftism was born in scientism. Karl Marx believed that his ideas about the historical development, economics, and human nature comprised “scientific socialism,” as true as the laws of natural science. As Friedrich Engels said at Marx’s funeral, “Just as Darwin had discovered the law of development of organic nature, so did Marx discover the laws of human history.” Of course Marxism is no such thing. It is a reductive view of human nature and action, based on selective evidence, unexamined assumptions, and jargon modeled on real science.
As we now know, Marxism is in fact a political religion based on faith more than reason. It identifies the good (the proletariat and the intellectual left) and the evil (capitalists and petty bourgeois); promises an earthly paradise (a society of equality and justice without private property); and provides a totalizing narrative that explains everything (historical progress driven by the struggle for control of the means of production). And despite its bloody failure, a Marxism dressed up as “democratic socialism” still attracts leftists like Bernie Sanders who fancy themselves thinkers of cool reason and empirical evidence.
Or take eugenics, an expression of progressivist ideology that dominated American social policy from around 1900 until the Second World War. The most prestigious universities and professors in the country preached eugenics and the “scientific racism” on which it was based. Its authority came from Darwinism and its theory that natural selection favored the fit, including humans. As Darwin said in The Descent of Man, “At some future period . . . the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world.” Calling on Darwinian ideas, Margaret Sanger created Planned Parenthood in part to keep the “less fit” races from overbreeding and hence overwhelming the “more fit” Anglo-Saxon and Nordic races. For the same reason, state governments passed forced sterilization laws upheld by the Supreme Court in the 1927 decision Buck v. Bell. Of course it was all scientism, fake science based on biased observation, the confusion of culture with nature, and quantitative silliness like measuring skulls.
Yet eugenics was the “settled science” of its time, and as such justified illiberal and cruel policies like forced sterilization, race- and ethnic-based immigration restrictions, and Jim Crow segregation. It took the horrors of the Holocaust to discredit, at least publicly, these ideas. But we still see remnants of the logic of eugenics, like the idea that abortion reduces crime rates. This idea surfaced in 1972 and was popularized by the 2010 best-sellerFreakonomics. We heard its echo in Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s comment that thanks to Roe v. Wade, we can eliminate “populations we don’t want to have too many of.”
Then there’s Freudian psychology, discredited as a science only after real science began discovering the biochemical causes of many neuroses and mental disorders. Sigmund Freud also thought he was a scientist who had discovered the material bases of mental phenomena. The ideas that came from this claim, such as “repression” and the Oedipus Complex, were received as scientific discoveries akin to the heliocentric planetary system and Newton’s law of gravity. That prestige facilitated the incredible influence Freudian thought held, and still holds, over a Western culture that had abandoned traditional religion yet still yearned for a substitute to make sense of people’s lives. But Freud’s “discoveries” are not the fruit of science. They are quasi-mythic ideas made up by Freud and buttressed with his subjective observations of his patients. Freud was a culture critic, not a scientist, promoting an explanatory narrative about human behavior, and liberation from the old religious taboos and superstitions that create our unhappiness.
There are other abuses of science, however, that are just as mischievous. Science that strays beyond the limits of what it has established as scientifically true can resemble pseudo-science. Much of the breathless reporting of popular science about how the mind works basically makes mountains of certainty out of molehills of research that uses fMRI scans to measure blood flow in the brain. More careful scientists call this the “higher phrenology.” The fad of identifying a gene as the determiner of behaviors like drinking, promiscuity, and even shopping only began to fade after further research showed that genes interact in much more complex and intricate combinations.
But there is no greater example of this bad habit than the claims that global warming is caused by human-produced atmospheric CO2. The crude causal link between CO2 and increased warming, a hypothesis over a hundred years old, is too simplistic to account for global climate change unfolding over millions of years. It cannot explain contrary evidence, such as the now two-decades-old pause in warming that has been going on even as people continue to add billions of tons of CO2 to the atmosphere. Gaps in understanding are filled by computer simulations compromised by the self-interested need of researchers to generate the results that confirm their lucrative climate model Yet despite these problems, governments all over the world continue to speak of “settled science” and a “scientific consensus,” two phrases that cut against the skeptical grain of real science.
So what do all these examples have in common? They have been embraced to a greater or lesser degree by most progressives and liberals, the people like Obama who pride themselves on their belief in “facts, evidence, reason, logic, an understanding of science,” as he told the cheering audience at Rutgers. Progressives argue they are more fit to rule because they rely on these habits of thinking when they make “policy.” Thus they display the misplaced progressive faith in technocratic elites who armed with knowledge from the new “human sciences,” will avoid the self-interest, superstition, religious dogma, and fossilized traditions that conservatives supposedly base their policies on.
But this faith in “techno-politics” in the end serves un-scientific ideology, self-interest, ambition, and the power to boss other people around and run their lives, all dressed up in the prestige and authority of real science. Nothing exposes this progressive sham more than the current attempt by Democrat Congressmen and state Attorneys General to use government and judicial power to investigate and punish writers and researchers who exercise their freedom to question “scientific” claims about catastrophic anthropogenic global warming. That is, these proponents of reason and science want to attack the public skepticism upon which modern science is founded. Such illiberal obscurantism is the hallmark of scientism.
To paraphrase British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, science is to scientism what a gentleman is to a gent. As the gruesome history of communism, eugenics, and other pseudo-scientific ideologies teach, we should never confuse a pretender with the real thing.