Dogmatism: right, left and wrong

As a lifelong supporter of progressive politics, I am quite happy to see the Right founder on the shoals of irrationality. I am not so pleased when I see the Left navigate the same treacherous seas.

Rationalism and progressive politics are not in opposition. At least, they shouldn’t be.

Two books I’m currently reading have prompted another post on the negative impact of relativist theories on our understanding of truth and reality. The books are Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature and Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. In their works, both authors recount the negative responses their own research and similar research by others have received from dogmatic relativists.

Previously, I’ve written about how a cynical application of relativism is a favourite tool of the religious Right. Yet postmodernist relativism even more deeply inhabits the thinking and rhetoric of the secular Left.

My own fundamental and unassailable belief is that it is wrong when anyone, Right or Left, adopts a fundamental and unassailable belief as the basis for judging truth – instead of adopting an objective search for truth as the basis for judging belief.

Postmodernism’s central ideology, as its name reveals, is a rejection of Enlightenment concepts, a depiction of empiricism, objectivity, progress, and rationalism as an oppressive world view which is always one or more of imperialist, racist, sexist – it is the province of “Dead White European Males,” known as DWEM’s in the trade.

For the Right, this theoretical rejection of rationalism and its demon child, empirical science, provides a hidey-hole for dogma, a useful theoretical place from which to attack the counter-evidence of science as “just another narrative” among many subjective ways of seeing the world. If the physical evidence which undermines religious doctrine is merely subjective, then science can’t invalidate the mythologies on which religions are grounded.

Ironically, very ironically, the religious Right applies relativist theories in order to defend a system of beliefs which in its orthodoxies  explicitly denies that same relativism – but then, logic and consistency of argument are concepts from the discredited Enlightenment, so internal contradiction is no big deal. The religious Right disingenuously employs theories that reject DWEM’s to support the religions of DSLM’s –Dead Semitic Levantine Males.

This is amusing, and ridiculous, of course. But it’s less amusing to me when the Left, too, abandons rationality for the sake of dogma.

The core myths of the secular Left can be just as ideological, and just as resistant to contrary evidence, as the core myths of the religious right. In its efforts to combat the evils of oppressive “isms,” the Left has almost universally adopted the notions of the blank slate, the noble savage, and the back to nature movement. Rather than strengthening the case against problems like racism and neo-imperialism, dogmatic relativism too often leads to a blinkered, blundering irrationality.

The blank slate depiction of human nature, that we humans have minds with limitless plasticity; that all of our attitudes and behaviour are entirely the products of environment and culture –  in effect, the notion that there is no “human nature” — is of course very much in keeping with the political values of the secular Left.

The blank slate idea is attractive because if there are no innate structures or limits to our minds, then every person of every gender, ethnicity or culture has unlimited potential. Any lack of success or advancement can be blamed on the relevant oppressor group or environmental restriction. The perfect society can be achieved when the negative conditions which prevent it are eliminated, when the oppressors have been defeated.

None of what’s written here should be construed as an indictment of the goal of achieving an egalitarian and sustainable society. My target, rather, is the dubitable theoretical basis of an ideology.

In this widely held myth of the blank slate, any theory that “imposes” structural limits on human potential is unacceptable. If the science shows that the blank slate is wrong, then the science – its methodology, results or interpretation — must be wrong.

Empirical research which casts doubt on the blank slate is typically attacked, and the researchers themselves are often pilloried as racists, sexists, or neo-colonialists. How does this ideological rigidity differ from the fundamentalism of the religious Right, other than that they’re obviously “wrong” and we’re obviously “right”?

In his book-length defence of cognitive psychology, The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker puts the problem of ideology-based attitudes toward cognitive science this way:

When it comes to explaining human thought and behavior, the possibility that heredity plays any role at all still has the power to shock. To acknowledge human nature, many think, is to endorse racism, sexism, war, greed, genocide, nihilism, reactionary politics, and neglect of children and the disadvantaged. Any claim that the mind has an innate organization strikes people not as a hypothesis that might be incorrect but as a thought it is immoral to think.

A similar set of preconceived ideas applies to the morally significant myth of the noble savage. In this version of human nature, people in pre-colonial societies lived a purer, more natural, more satisfying life, free of most of the violence, exploitation, and other evils which plague cultures like ours, which have been corrupted by civilization.

The unavoidable 2009 CGI epic “Avatar” is the most visible popularization of the myth of the noble savage. This 3-D blockbuster is of course thematically and morally simplistic, but it represents a point of view that nevertheless persists in much of the serious academic community.

Although  the early research which seemed to support this idealized view of human nature has long since been discredited or reinterpreted in light of new information, the noble savage idea continues to be a pillar of faith among progressive sociologists and psychologists. Pinker presents this summary:

[M]any intellectuals have embraced the image of peaceable, egalitarian, and ecology-loving natives. But in the past two decades anthropologists have gathered data on life and death in pre-state societies rather than accepting the warm and fuzzy stereotypes. What did they find? In a nutshell: Hobbes was right, Rousseau was wrong. To begin with, the stories of tribes out there somewhere who have never heard of violence turn out to be urban legends.

In Collapse, Jared Diamond – a frequent target, prominently because of a dogma-driven rejection of the conclusions of his book Guns, Germs and Steel – notes the refusal of many scholars to criticize vanished civilizations, even those groups, like the residents of Easter Island, that clearly devastated their environments and thus contributed to their own decline.

Some surviving descendants of previous cultures resent criticism of their ancestors: “The supposed discoveries by paleontologists and archaeologists sound to some listeners like just one more racist pretext advanced by whites… .” As well, some indigenous peoples and the sympathetic anthropologists who study them “insist that past indigenous peoples were … gentle and ecologically wise stewards of their environments, intimately knew and respected Nature, innocently lived in a virtual Garden of Eden, and could never have
done all those bad things.”

Diamond comments:

Above all, it seems to me wrongheaded and dangerous to invoke historical assumptions about environmental practices of native peoples in order to justify treating them fairly. In many or most cases, historians and archaeologists have been uncovering overwhelming evidence that this assumption (about Eden-like environmentalism) is wrong. By invoking this assumption to justify fair treatment of native peoples, we imply that it would be OK to mistreat  them if that assumption could be refuted. In fact, the case against mistreating them isn’t based on any historical assumption about their environmental practices: it’s based on a moral principle, namely, that it is morally wrong for one people to dispossess, subjugate, or exterminate another people.

Here Diamond makes a key point about the weakness of postmodernist ideologies as a reason for moral action. If you need an external reason to do what’s right, it’s possible at another time to find an opposite reason to do what’s wrong.

Related to the “noble savage” idea is the current longing to go back to nature. In this popular mythology, the human spirit is ennobled and made whole by rejecting the contaminations of civilization and re-acquiring a “lost” innocence and purity. This version of “Eden before the Fall” expresses itself in a large number of ways, from the communes of the 1960′s to the vogue for “organic farming” today.

In this Romantic view, the technologies created by science are the primary causes of social evils. Despite the thoroughly documented facts that our lives are dramatically longer and healthier and more individually fulfilled than ever before in human history, the more extreme back to nature enthusiasts believe that if it’s natural, it’s better. Closely related to back to nature is an attitude of uncritical respect for “traditional knowledge” in general and for “alternative medicine” in particular.

If a belief is old enough, or somehow more “natural” than “scientific,” it’s worthy of respect, even of elevation to a status that is equally “privileged” with the facts of modern empirical science. There are good reasons to respect some aspects of traditional knowledge. But that respect is due to knowledge that’s accurate, that’s useful — not to knowledge that’s just old or simply non-technological.

Some traditional medicine belief and practice is obviously accurate and useful. After all, many  thousands of years of trial and error, of close observation and the application of experience – in other words, of a lab-less version of the scientific method – reasonably must have yielded a large number of accurate insights into illness and cure. But that doesn’t mean that all traditional medical knowledge is right. For 99% of our history, the germ theory of disease was unknown. Without proper sanitation, preventable diseases like cholera regularly swept through the world’s populations. Night air does not cause illness, bloodletting does not cure anemia, nor for that matter can a village’s corn crop fail because an old woman sneezed during planting. Some of what’s old is right; but nothing is right because it’s old.

In our own time, there is a major battle brewing in some European countries over the state’s funding of homeopathic treatments. It is the back to nature, anti-technology Left which most vigourously supports “alternative” treatments like homeopathy. But it is simply true that homeopathy is pseudoscience. Its advocates have entirely failed to provide any evidence that homeopathy — which is based on frankly nonsensical “principles” — has any medical effect beyond that of any other placebo. These facts are not altered by belief, opinion, or respect for multiculturalism. There is no physical medicine in “homeopathic medicine.” Support for it is either ignorant or ideological, and that’s all that there is to say about it.

Why would the Left ally itself with the irrational over the rational? Where does the common leftist distrust of science come from? After all, during the Enlightenment, it was the Left which embraced science as the great tool of liberation from the superstition-based oppressions of the castle and the cathedral, the king and the church.

Of course, some of the present leftist distrust of science comes from the reasonable perception that much of science has been co-opted by industry and the military. While many of the 20th century applications of science have been of great benefit to a great number of people — antibiotics and the polio vaccines are obvious examples — some technologies, most dramatically nuclear power, have been spectacularly badly applied. Critics ask, how can we trust the people who brought us Hiroshima, Bhopal, and Chernobyl?

My question is, How can we not? The Black Death, now quite treatable, killed 1/3 of the population of Europe. I don’t want to go back to the 14th century, and I suspect that you don’t either, not really.

The bulk of the secular Left’s rejection of science is the direct result of the postmodernist relativism that flatters the otherwise worthy political objectives of the Left. But idealism and irrationality are a really bad intellectual partnership. If you ground your policies not in reasonable evidence but rather in unsupported ideology, why should anyone abandon his or her own dogmatism to embrace yours?

The only valid and persuasive basis for moral judgment and political policy, for cultural change and social justice, is truth. And truth, from the Right or from the Left, comes not from belief, but from reason.