Saturday, May 12, 2012

Choosing a king: science and politics

Well, it looks like the challenger for November to the incumbent president is pretty much decided. He can be found more or less exciting, but now this is irrelevant. I have another question for you, and whoever wants may venture an answer.

Are there scientific reasons for wishing the election as president of a candidate instead of another?

What the heck are you talking about? you may ask. What has the election of a president to do with science?

Should I say everything? Ok, perhaps “everything” is too much. There are interests at stake, concrete worries of people, like the state of the economy, by which it depends having work, with all that follows: salary, home, a decent life to live, in short the “pursuit of happiness”. Even ancient Aristotle recognized that it’s hard, as a matter of fact, to pursue the good life, fully consonant to a complete man (like himself, I might say, or his teacher Plato, devoted to theory, the fulfilling contemplation of the order of things, in which one might forget himself), rather it is impossible if one has to worry about the chores of life. Over against an aristocratic ethos, as this, that disdained busying oneself in work, today it might be enough for us having work, such, though, to leave us time free from worries: like the Christian Sunday.

I see that I am letting myself be taken astray by the thread of discourse. Back to the point, then. The practical matters which are of president’s concern, do not exhaust who he is. The president is also a representative figure: as Michael Novak aptly said, a chosen king. Chosen, because he’s able to represent something people recognize themselves in. But representation may be effective for some, and fail for others. Here politics takes me to epistemology: theory of knowledge, which, when it appears to us well grounded, we consider deserving the Latin name for what is indeed knowing, i.e. scientia.

Why so?

Because someone, say a president (chosen king), represents people in something else. Should we say, not just their interests, but the knowledgeable understanding of the nature of things they may think (feel?) theirs?

Ok, let’s talk about epistemology then.

I wish it were possible. But we need to take it in an roundabout way. We can’t rush to epistemology. See how people take a stance on science and an usually corresponding stance on politics. How come?

Oh, come on. You must be kidding us. Before you say one thing, and next moment you say the opposite. You had almost convinced us: we must go from politics to epistemology. We may grant it: after all, what else do we have to go about but science? And now you turn things around, asking to look at politics first. Either you don’t know what you are talking about, or you want to play some trick on us.

No trick. Just an invitation to look at the way the epistemological question of science plays in politics.

Speaking of this, I’d like to recollect that when I came for a doctorate to the United States in 1971, and stayed there for a few years feigning myself as a sort of field anthropologist, I was hit by the difference in American politics with respect to Italy, my home country, or, let’s say more generally, to Europe. It still seemed then, at least to my at the time rather naïve eye, that political discussions in the States turned primarily around those practical matters and morality. Nothing like what we used to call “political” at home: meaning something that involved the overall understanding of the nature of society. One could translate that impression, by saying that politics in the States appeared to me much less ideological than at home. Or perhaps the fact is that ideology took a different garb. 

However it was then, I should add now that the difference has vanished.

Some authors have indulged in saying that we had in the meantime the “end of ideology”, but it is more right to say that the garb of ideology was changed by what happened in the last forty years along similar lines: on both sides of the Atlantic, it became a matter of conforming or not conforming to that funny kind of moral stance which has been called, starting from the States, political correctness. What this is, could be briefly described as the assumption of a biological and psychological standard, presumed scientific, in assessing human affairs, with the exclusion of everything that smacks of cultural (or, worse, religious), presumed non scientific. But, are we speaking here of science, or of ideology?

Here you are! This is because you promised not to play tricks! And what is it that you are doing, with that presumed of yours? We were to talk about science and politics, but it looks like that you want to smuggle back in religion.

No, I can’t smuggle on you something I don’t know what it is; or, to be plain about it, of which I think that simply doesn’t exist. But you are right, by saying so I am playing some kind of trick, the one represented by the quotation marks with which “religion” is here to be taken, to mean that we so currently call something we’d like to keep separate from “science”, and thus from “politics”. Well, I know nothing of the kind. I only know different people who claim to have a knowledgeable understanding of the world, in the name of which they claim to be authorized to govern the world. Call advancing this second claim politics, then you have that it is advanced through the first, you may call it a claim to science. Here you have what is at stake in the pro o con the political correctness so called, in America as well as in Europe.

The previous POTUS, George W. Bush, was loathed by the American intelligentsia, made of university professors, main stream media operators, Hollywood actors, etc.. By the time of the end of his second mandate, his popularity was measured by polls down to a scanty 30% or thereabout, being charged for all the dissatisfaction that the course of events (internal and foreign) was creating in the country. That’s why the son of an American caucasian woman and of a Kenya man was hailed by many as a kind of savior, come to free the country from the oppressive Bush atmosphere. But actually it wasn’t what he did that made Bush loathsome to them.

Conservative commentators have always lamented the double standard of the left in assessing facts, e.g. actions by man in power. Actually, there might be some reasons for assessing differently the same acts: after all, their meaning depends on the circumstances (let’s think, now days, of a caress given to a child). The trouble is, though, that such difference is passed under silence, which justifies scathing remarks as these of Victor Davies Hanson:
“In my dumber days, between 2001-2008, I used to wonder why the Left relentlessly hammered the war on terror (e.g., renditions, tribunals, predators, preventative detention, Patriot Act, intercepts, wiretaps, Guantanamo Bay) when these measures had not only proven quite useful in preventing another 9/11-like attack, but had been sanctioned by both the Congress and the courts. In those ancient times, I was not as cynical as I am now. So I assumed that Harold Koh and, though mistaken, were worried about civil liberties, or measures that they felt were both illegal and without utility. But, of course, the Obama (who attacked each and every element of the war on terror as a legislator and senator) Left never had any principled objection at all. Instead, whatever Bush was for, they were in Pavlovian fashion against. I can say that without a charge of cynicism, because after January 2009, Obama embraced or expanded every Bush-Cheney protocol that he inherited. In response, the anti-war Left simply kept silent, or indeed vanished, or went to work extending the anti-terrorism agenda. Guantanamo Bay, in other words, was a national sin until the mid-morning of January 20, 2009.”

Those actions were denounced as evil because done by Bush. Why? is my question. To which I expect an answer that, in whatever fashion, would essentially mean this: Bush wasn’t one of us.

You see? You are biased. I also expect to be told. You take sides with conservatives. No, I reply; or yes, if you like, but for a reason: that I want a reason given for the difference of assessment.

Who is then the “us” who resounded to me as excluding Bush from their rank? This question takes us back to the original question: the capability of giving reasons for whatever it is stated should be the mark of what we call “science”. Instead of reasons, though, if I ask what is science, I receive replies that take the answer for granted; like: “science” is what scientists do, and it excludes any God talk, which belongs to “religion”.

Really? I say. Then the great Isaac Newton wasn’t a scientist.

Of course not! We mean, of course he was a scientist, of the greatest. It’s is enough to keep distinct in his work science and religion, as we do.

There is the point. We should judge a president by his capability of representing a knowledgeable understanding of the world. This in turn is to be judged, by giving reasons. But these cannot consist in appealing to the current distinctions – of science, religion, culture, etcetera. Taken for granted, they become no more than factors of identification, defining the “us” to which one has to belong to be politically correct.

I know that with this I haven’t said much about what is science. But perhaps I have suggested that, whatever it is, it cannot be an affirmation of unreasoned tribal superiority. Whichever tribe has its knowledgeable understanding of the world – call it, if you like, culture and religion – and science, to be such, cannot explain it away, without accounting for the experience anywhere so represented, lest it becomes itself a tribal manifestation. 

You may surmize, however, which party on the public scene I judge less tribal.


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