A View From Nowhere? The Case Against Knee-Jerk Centrism When It Comes to Politics and Science

A View From Nowhere? The Case Against Knee-Jerk Centrism When It Comes to Politics and Science
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Debate over The Republican Brain is mounting, as emotional (and highly extraverted?) conservatives fling meaningless attacks at the book–attacks so off target it’s doubtful in most cases that the critics read the book–but scientists admit that it represents the research on ideology accurately. That’s what just happened Saturday morning on MSNBC’s Up With Chris Hayes, where Jonathan Haidt, the University of Virginia moral psychologist and author of The Righteous Mind, basically agreed with me that liberals are indeed more open to new experiences, with all that entails—which is why they are more sympathetic to scientists, and take their knowledge more seriously. Conservatives, meanwhile, just do it differently, Haidt explained:

I want to fully agree with Chris that the psychology does predispose liberals more to be receptive to science; my own research has found that conservatives are better at group-binding, at loyalty, and so if you put them in a group-versus-group conflict, yes, the right is more prone, psychologically, to band around and sort of, circle the wagons.

Haidt nevertheless went on to talk about a lot of cases of the left attacking science too, enough that both Michelle Goldberg (of the Daily Beast) and Chris Hayes eventually challenged his stance. Goldberg worried about a “morass of cultural relativism, in which everybody’s equally irrational,”  and later, Hayes suggested that Haidt was trying to put himself at a “remove” that may not exist:

It’s the claim to special enlightenment that centrists have that drives me crazy…the fact of the matter is that [centrism] is as ideologically binding and team oriented as [anything else].

This drives me crazy too–but I don’t think Haidt is an un-thoughtful or knee-jerk centrist, of the sort that we so often see out there. Indeed, I think Haidt is incredibly close to my own views, and have no problem with him problematizing things and pointing out cases of left science denial, which clearly do exist. I point out these cases myself, whenever I can. Haidt’s argument, in other words, is not simply that “everybody does it equally”—it is more complex than that, more accurate than that (as I think the Haidt quotation above shows). But a lot of people are going to hear it that way. And it’s this mishearing that requires answering.

Indeed, while Haidt is not making the “everybody does it equally” argument, others really do.

For instance, this argument popped up recently on The Young Turks’ “The Point,” a great web show that did a special science focused episode hosted by Cara Santa Maria of the Huffington Post. I did a minute-and-a-half video to spark discussion for the show, and in response to it, science writer K.C. Cole really did seem to articulate what I consider the  knee-jerk centrist stance (something that Phil Plait, also appearing on this episode of The Point, also criticizes). Here’s Cole at around 8:07:

I was recently at a meeting of the American Chemical Society, and somebody showed this great slide, it was of a health food store in Princeton, New Jersey, and a sign out front, on a chalk board, saying, “Chemical Free Sunblock.” “Chemical Free Bug Spray.” And these people are not Republicans. There is a lot on the loony left that is as anti-science, truly, as there is on the right.

Here, unlike with Haidt, it sounds like we really are getting the centrist “pox on both your houses” approach–which to me, is pretty weak. Let’s state it plainly: Just because the left is not always 100 percent factually correct, it does not follow that the left and right are equally wrong, or that the left and right handle or process information in the same way, or that they’re equally biased, just in opposite directions. None of this follows from simply pointing out a few cases of left wrongness.

How do you defeat the knee-jerk centrist argument? Other than by articulating the logic above, I mean.

Well, first you can show just how overwhelmingly wrong the right is, not just about science, but about facts in general—something that The Republican Brain actually does in detail. And when you do this, not only do you find much more right unreality. You also find that in cases where some on the left actually are wrong, the misinformation doesn’t go politically mainstream in the same way.

On Up with Chris Hayes, for instance, I pointed out that some on the left do seem to believe wrong information about nuclear power, and particularly about the risks of low dose radiation. “It doesn’t travel all the way across the Pacific from Fukushima and kill babies on the West Coast,” I noted. But as Hayes quickly pointed out, that’s exactly the point: Lots of Democrats today are pretty okay with nuclear power. Dubious ideas about low dose radiation risks over vast distances aren’t in the Democratic mainstream. But climate denial, evolution denial, and so on really are in the conservative mainstream.

Another way to make the argument is to point out that liberals today trust scientists much more than conservatives do—the data are unequivocal on that. This is something that Haidt full recognizes, for instance–he mentioned it on air–but that K.C. Cole doesn’t appear to concede.

Most important and insightful, I think, are the psychological arguments for why the left and scientists are naturally aligned—in much the same way that the right and the military are naturally aligned, or the right and the business community are naturally aligned. This, again, is what Haidt and I agree about, as discussed on Up with Chris Hayes.

Anyway, what all of this leads to is the following. If knee-jerk centrists really want to make a serious argument, then they should start by showing one or more of the following:

1.       The dramatic extent of left anti-science, and how it equals or surpasses right anti-science.

2.       The regular mainstreaming of left anti-science in the Democratic Party.

3.       Left wing distrust of science that is equal to or greater than right wing distrust, as shown in national polling data.

4.       Psychological evidence that the left and scientific community aren’t actually aligned, or that the right and the scientific community are just as well aligned as the left and the scientific community.

Until they do this, the centrist “view from nowhere” will continue to seem pretty hard to distinguish from simple blindness. 

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