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.