Friday, March 07, 2014

The Regrettable Loss of Intellectual Nuance When Battle Lines Are Drawn

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

On nearly any contested question, people who are thoughtfully engaged in the issue will regret the loss of nuance that comes when one is forced to choose a side.  Even on those issues for which the answers and solutions seem manifestly clear, there are still details that need to be explored, and it would be best if we could think about them without fear that asking honest questions will be taken as a sign of weakness or bottom-line ambiguity.

Consider a few examples.  The debate over energy policy necessitates some excruciating inquiries into the tradeoffs among environmental harms -- types of damage, long-term versus short-term, and so on -- from different energy sources, along with the costs and benefits (and limits) of conservation.  In light of that, I have written (for example, here) that the least-bad choice for the United States today is to rely more on coal and less on oil and nuclear power.  In the two years since I wrote that post, fracking has emerged as a headline issue, making natural gas suddenly a very prominent part of the debate.  For the purposes of this post, I need not argue whether or not the available information about fracking is enough to conclude that it is worse or less-bad than coal.  Assume for now that I would still conclude that coal is the least-bad choice.

When I wrote that post in which I reluctantly came down in favor of coal, of course, what I really argued was that we need to put a lot more money into developing alternative sources, as well as intensifying conservation efforts.  Until those policies could take effect, we would need to make a choice among the high-volume energy sources.  As difficult and counter-intuitive as it was to say so, it seemed (and seems) to me that coal is less terrible than its alternatives, taking everything into account.

Notwithstanding my attempts to be nuanced and to acknowledge the uncertain nature of the inquiry, I had identified myself as "pro-coal," and for some purposes, that is the end of the story.  I received irate emails and comments from people who wanted to talk about how bad coal is, which I had already acknowledged.  (It was not quite as bad as people who responded to my arguments about the debt ceiling by pointing out that the Constitution gives only Congress the power to borrow money -- duh! -- but it was categorically similar.)  The highly contentious nature of U.S. political debates regarding energy, especially the presence of truly dishonest pro-coal propaganda from right-wing and industry sources, makes it nearly impossible to say, "You know, this is a difficult question."

In some ways, the energy debate is similar to the U.S. political atmosphere regarding policies related to Israel.  People I have met from Israel tell me that they cannot believe how one-sided the U.S. political discussion is, with any deviation at all from the accepted line being attacked on a bipartisan basis as "anti-Israel."  The political debate in Israel itself is, I am told, much broader -- even though it is obviously still quite heated.  Yet in the U.S., acknowledging nuance is treacherous.

Another example, closer to my professional interests, is the non-debate over tenure.  Nearly any thinking person knows that there are tradeoffs created by a system of tenure, and that supporting the institution of tenure is ultimately a matter of saying that the costs are swamped by the benefits.  Yet it would be dangerous indeed, especially in the United States in the last few years, to say or write anything that says, "Let's think about ways to tweak tenure, to make it better."  You're either for it or against it!

Such a reaction, moreover, is actually quite reasonable.  The problem is that it is now necessary to make a different cost-benefit calculation, assessing the likely net damage from acknowledging problems publicly, and from allowing for the possibility that the system could be changed for the better.  Opening up that possibility, under current political conditions, all but invites a policy overreaction.  An attempt to give tenure a careful, critical look could all too easily result in the destruction of an essential social institution.

These thoughts were inspired by an email that I received recently from a biologist, who offered the observation that I discussed yesterday regarding the political concerns facing biology departments.  He noted that legislatures do care about the political consequences of science, making political questions very much a legitimate matter of concern for supposedly apolitical "hard" scientists, even those who work in universities.  The remainder of my post yesterday grappled with how academics should respond to politics, in light of threats to funding from anti-intellectual (and anti-thought) politicians.

In that same email, my correspondent noted that the recent hyper-politicization of climate science and evolution (his two specialties) had created an unfortunate reaction by scientists that is, viewed through the standard prism of intellectual inquiry, unduly rigid and hostile to constructive engagement with doubt.  In particular, this biologist noted that he had recently attempted to offer a course in which students would confront gaps in scientific knowledge.  As I understood it from his brief description, it appeared that he was planning to look at, say, the parts of the fossil record that are incomplete.  That inquiry alone would be extremely dangerous in today's political environment.

More broadly, he wanted to equip students to understand the limitations of scientific knowledge, to allow them to respond intelligently to those people who seize upon scientific uncertainty and ambiguity to try to undermine the entire academic enterprise.  For example, do scientists have fully supported stories of cause-and-effect explaining how medications affect the human body?  Surprisingly, they often do not, because much of what counts as medical knowledge amounts to thinly supported beliefs that are based on crude empiricism.

This philosophy-of-science inquiry is among the most interesting, yet neglected, questions in all of academia.  In my original field of economics, the doubts that should appropriately be included in the basic undergraduate curriculum  (and certainly in the core graduate requirements) are shunted into under-enrolled elective courses that are thought of as "soft."  Better to prove one's scientific mettle by taking another econometrics course!  Sadly, it turns out that this repression of doubt is present in real sciences as well.

Again, however, I can see why my correspondent's colleagues pushed back so hard against his offering that course.  (He ultimately had to offer it through a non-science program within the university.)  Unlike in economics, where a little philosophical modesty could only improve matters, biologists understand all too well that, at least with regard to evolution and climate issues, nuance is dead.  It shouldn't be, but it is.  It would be all too easy to imagine a legislator holding a press conference to scream: "Even our local university's biology department admits that the science on evolution is contestable.  Yet they won't hire anyone who believes in intelligent design.  Teach the controversy!"  That the legitimate doubts do not at all support the teaching of intelligent design would surely be lost under the political Klieg lights.

The real losers from this loss of nuance are, of course, the students and society at large.  When legitimate questions can no longer be addressed openly and critically, for fear of political fall-out, knowledge cannot advance.  This is an old story, but it is disappointing to see that it has now infected even the academic scientists whose work is so important to understanding these issues.


Bob Hockett said...

Wonderfully thoughtful post, Neil - thanks very much.

Here's one additional bit of nuance that I am tempted to add:

Sometimes the Manichean 'fer it or agin it' duality might be traceable less to the heat that accompanies the issue in question than to the idiocy or bad faith of one side of the issue. (Indeed the latter seems often to be the source of the heat itself - witness how the yayhoo faction in Congress seem to generate most if not all of the loud, stupid rancor.)

Where one side of a contest is particularly thick, venal, or paranoid-hysterical, the other side's indulging too much nuance can take on the character of unilateral disarmament. (I can hear the Tea Party types now: 'See?! Even a lefty like Neil is with us on tenure and coal!')

It seems to me - and I think to many others as well - that something like this dynamic is precisely what has most cursed U.S. politics and policy-making in recent decades. Dems indulge nuance and accordingly 'moderate' their positions. Republicans don't. And so the center of gravity shifts ever rightward.

There is an element of Yeatsian 'tragedy' in all of this, it seems to me. 'The best [can seem to] lack all conviction, [while] the worst are filled with passionate [non-nuanced] intensity.'

The upshot of a dynamic in which assholes win is a world in which the winners are assholes.

David Ricardo said...

Mr. Buchanan raises a very important issue here about the role of doubt in scientific inquiry, but the discussion also needs to include the role of doubt in conservative political philosophy in order to understand current events.

Doubt, as Mr. Buchanan rightly notes is an important part of the rational intellectual process of developing knowledge. Doubt about any intellectual conclusion is what causes a question of the analysis and science and logic behind that conclusion. This leads to advances intellectual capital either by presenting evidence that the conclusion is valid, thus supporting and strengthening the conclusion, or by presenting evidence that the conclusion is invalid thus leading to a better, more rational and more sustainable conclusion.

But this is not the role that doubt plays in conservative thinking. For conservatives, the conclusions and positions are faith based. For example in the last few days we have seen Rep. Paul Ryan state that government poverty programs are ineffective and actually make poverty worse despite the massive amount of evidence to the contrary. But Mr. Ryan has taken his position on faith, so no amount of evidence will change his mind, in fact the evidence itself is irrelevant, the conclusion stands no matter what. And because of that faith Mr. Ryan does not even need to confront or refute those who disagree, which of course he does not.

Most conservative positions on economics, politics, science, health care etc. are faith based, they are accepted as total and complete truths, no exceptions allowed. And so if doubt were allowed to creep into the discussion, if anyone successfully raises a doubt about conservative positions and policies their entire position is discredited, because it has relied on unyielding faith rather than intellectual integrity. Hence, no doubt is allowed, a characteristic which is also seen in fundamentalist religious beliefs of all faiths.

As a result, when rational and reasonable academics and others raise doubts about existing positions in order to produce a closer examination of those positions and promote improvement, the right wing seizes on this doubt as proof that those positions are invalid. So doubt about the current health care reform act, concern that it is not perfect and can and should be improved is interpreted by conservatives as meaning that the health care reform act is totally and completely flawed and must be repealed in its entirety. Doubt is simply not allowed in the rigid totalitarianism that is conservative thinking today.

The attempt by people like Mr. Buchanan and Mr. Dort and Ms. Colb who write on this Forum to try and seek a rational discussion on the issues with conservatives is a doomed journey. Don’t bring a knife to a gun fight, and don’t bring logic, analysis or rational processes to an argument where the other side has based its position totally on faith. If one starts with an argument on geography with the statement, “as a matter of faith I am certain the Earth is flat” then no amount of pictures from space will convince that person otherwise. And if the other side concedes that may the Earth is not a perfect sphere then the flat Earth side will use that statement to say there is doubt the Earth is round, and therefore the position that the Earth is flat is at least a sustainable one.

Yes, Noah’s flood did create the Grand Canyon. I know that as a fact, and no amount of scientific evidence to the contrary can convince me otherwise, so don’t even bother to bring it up.

Root Gorelick said...

Neil Buchanan beautifully captured some important ideas about academia, and did so in a lovely nuanced way.

Government funding of universities is political. Right-leaning politicians generally do not fund basic research, especially in the arts, humanities, and social sciences. Don’t forget Jesse Helms’s attacks on the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Also see the Death of Evidence ( rallies that my colleague Scott Findlay helped organize to highlight conservative government censoring of science in Canada. Moreover Neil Buchanan is correct about nuance insofar as both right- and left-leaning politicians love to fund the engineers that are the foundation of the military-industrial complex, as well as the university programs that train them. In Canada, during the current conservative Harper administration, much of the funding for basic research has been diverted to industrial partnerships, fueling the corporatization of academia. It should come as no surprise that the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC; the equivalent of the U.S. National Science Foundation) and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) pervertedly fall under the portfolio of the Minister of Industry.

Neil Buchanan also highlights the role of modern universities. Professors are not purveyors of content. In fact, in many of our courses, content is irrelevant. What matters is teaching students how to think for themselves. These decisions can often be difficult, such as whether coal makes more sense than other energy sources, at least with existing technology. Some of these decisions are much easier, such as whether humans cause climate change. And I say this is an easy decision despite having been a AAAS fellow working for the George W. Bush administration’s Environmental Protection Agency, cringing every time I watched the diametric opposites of Jim Inhofe and Jim Jeffords at the head of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. We need to hear both sides and understand their nuances. But then we also need to train our students to think critically enough to understand which arguments hold the day. Universities also need to remind students, government, and the media that we don’t know everything. This is why professors conduct research. Much of science and medicine is still myth and art, which makes sense insofar as modern European science arose from alchemy and the mysticism of Isaac Newton. It’s okay to let our students, government, and the media know this.

Fifteen years ago, Taiaiake Alfred (1999) wrote, “Active and fractious disagreement is a sign of health in a traditional system: it means that people are engaging their leaders and challenging them to prove the righteousness of their position. It means they are making them accountable.... In any culture deeply respectful of rationale thought, the only real political power consists of the ability to persuade.” The question that remains is: Are we respectful of rationale thought?

Yes, I study alternative ideas. But, in the end, I believe as fervently (and rationally!) as anybody that evolution and human-induced climate change are real.

Root Gorelick, Carleton University
(the hitherto un-named biologist)

Cicy said...

The attempt by people like Mr. Buchanan and Mr. Dort and Ms. Colb who write on this Forum to try and seek a rational discussion on the issues with conservatives is a doomed journey. Don’t bring a knife to a gun fight, and don’t bring logic, analysis or rational processes to an argument where the other side has based its position totally on faith. If one starts with an argument on geography with the statement, “as a matter of faith I am certain the Earth is flat” then no amount of pictures from space will convince that person otherwise. And if the other side concedes that may the Earth is not a perfect sphere then the flat Earth side will use that statement to say there is doubt the Earth is round, and therefore the position that the Earth is flat is at least a sustainable one.

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