Thursday, May 04, 2006

Todd Gitlin on the self-immolation of the academic left

One of my favorite authors on the left, Todd Gitlin, has an excellent piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education titled "The Self-Inflicted Wounds of the Academic Left." (Hat tip: Andrew Sullivan.)

Gitlin writes:

Truly this is a bizarre time for the life of the mind in America. The airwaves and best-seller lists are noisy with anti-intellectual jeers. The ruling party embraces the nostrums of "No Child Left Behind" while tossing the teaching of all subjects besides reading and math to the winds. Many of its leaders declare that the Republic was founded not in the name of enlightenment but as a "Christian nation." When the topics of evolution, climate change, stem cells, and contraception arise, the president of the United States blithely jettisons scientific judgments. On the evidence of his dialogue with reporters, and his behavior toward underlings like former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill and the former Environmental Protection Agency chief, Christine Todd Whitman, his interest in and capacity for reason are impaired.

Conservative pundits apologize for him. ...

In this perverse climate, dissenting intellectuals might gain some traction by standing for reason. They might begin by asking how it came to pass, over recent decades, that reason in America was defeated. They might explore the subject of public ignorance, its origins, tactics, and prospects. They might also study contrary tendencies, including scientists' resistance to ignorance. They might investigate how it happened that the academic left retreated from off-campus politics. They might consider the possibility that they painted themselves into a corner apart from their countrymen and women. Among the topics they might explore: the academic left's ignorance of main currents of American life, their positive tropism for foreign saviors, their reliance on intricate jargon, their commitment to keeping up with post-everything hotshots of "theory" from more advanced continents. Instead, in a time-honored ritual of the left, a number of academic polemicists choose this moment to pump up rites of purification. At a time when liberals hold next to no sway in any leading institution of national government, when the prime liberal institution of the last centuryorganized labor wobbles helplessly, when most national media tilt so far to the right as to parody themselves, the guardians of purity rise to a high pitch of sanctimoniousness aimed at ... heretics. Liberals, that is.


Gitlin notes that he is attacked, from the right and from the left, in three recent books on academic politics: The Disappearing Liberal Intellectual by Eric Lott, The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America by David Horowitz, and Wars of Position: The Cultural Politics of Left and Right by Timothy Brennan. Good for Gitlin, who offers some choice nuggets from Lott's book. For instance:

"The crimes committed in the name of communism are real," he acknowledges, "but they ... are certainly no match for the atrocities launched by liberal capitalism, which, far from being officially acknowledged, are completely disavowed or excused."

Plus ça change...: I vividly remember a young man in a black beret spouting similar tripe in the college cafeteria at Rutgers circa 1985. (One of his argument was that capitalism kills people by encouraging them to smoke for the sake of corporate profits. He was somewhat stumped when I pointed out that the rates of smoking were far higher in what was then the Soviet Union than in the United States.)

But back to Gitlin, who concludes:

Professor Brennan is right that the academic left is nowhere today. It matters more to David Horowitz than to anyone else. The reason is that its faith-based politics has crashed and burned. It specializes in detraction. It offers no plausible picture of the world. Such spontaneous movements as do crop up in America — like the current immigrant demonstrations — do not emerge from the campus left. Neither do reformers' intermittent attempts to eject the party of plutocracy and fundamentalism from power, to win universal health care, to protect the planet from further convulsions, to enlarge the rights of the least privileged. If more academics deigned to work toward reforms, they might contribute ideas about taxes, education, trade, employment, investment, foreign policy, and security from jihadists. But the academic left is too busy guarding the flame of nullification. They think they can fortify themselves with vigilance. In truth, their curses are gestures of helplessness.

Read, as they say, the whole thing. I don't agree, of course, with all of Gitlin's indictment of conservatism and conservative policies, but I think that he has a point, in particular, about the rise of anti-reason, anti-Enlightenment attitudes on the right -- attitudes that a principled liberalism should be in a position to counter. Instead, the intellectuals of the left make it all too easy for the Bill O'Reillys of the world to mock the academic elite as a bunch of "pinheads" who spend most of their time out there in what Bill likes to call "la-la land." Left-wing intellectuals began to assail reason as a white male bourgeois prejudice long before the current wave of conservative attacks on the legacy of the Enlightenment. They not only abdicated what should have been their role as reason's defenders, they joined forces with its enemies.

In his own comment, Andrew Sullivan gives an interesting specific example of the moral and intellectual banktupcy of the left-wing academy:

I think particularly of the gay academic left, so busy tying themselves into "queer studies" knots that they were utterly absent in the battles for marriage equality and military service. (And when they were not absent, they were busy criticizing advocates for gay equality for being "assimilationist.")

The same can be said of the feminist academic left, so busy tying itself into knots over such issues as whether Newton's physics are a metaphor for rape, whether "seminar" is a patriarchal term, and whether logic is inherently biased against women to address the issues that are still holding back gender equality (above all, the problems of work-family balance).

Today, the academic left fiddles while the Enlightenment legacy burns.


48 comments:

Revenant said...

to win universal health care, to protect the planet from further convulsions, to enlarge the rights of the least privileged. If more academics deigned to work toward reforms, they might contribute ideas about taxes, education, trade, employment, investment, foreign policy, and security from jihadists.

What I find interesting about Gitlin's attitude, here, is the presumption that left-wing economic and political ideas are actually correct, and that what is lacking is just the correct way of explaining WHY they are correct. The real problem with most left-wing economic and political positions isn't that they lack adequate theory, but that they still have adherents despite having been proven to be wrong.

Leftist economics and political science are obsessed with ideological purity for the same reason Intelligent Design proponents are. Adherence to the old, dead ideas is all they've got, because no new ideas are going to be forthcoming in support of a position that is at direct odds with empirical reality.

Jess said...

I am SO glad that this issue is finally being addressed by the more traditional liberals. There appears to be a major disconnect between the traditional liberals and left-wing academia; when I try to explain to the former the self-indulgent (IMHO), anti-Enlightenment extremism of the latter, they don't seem to have any idea of what I'm talking about and think I'm exaggerating or buying into the right-wing spin. Meanwhile those right of center (such as revenant, perhaps), lump both groups together either out of misunderstanding, or to score political points. As a more traditional/moderate/pro-Enlightenment liberal, I've been pushing my fellow travelers to articulate more clearly the differences between the two positions, but so far they seem to be ducking the issue.

By the way, Cathy (OT, I know), do you know anything about this? You may have already discussed it, but if not it may be of interest to you (it's from MoveOn):

Recent Cornell University research by Dr. Shelley Correll confirmed what many American women are finding: Mothers are 44 percent less likely to be hired than non-mothers who have the same résumé, experience, and qualifications; and mothers are offered significantly lower starting pay. Study participants offered non-mothers an average of $11,000 more than mothers for the same high salaried job as equally qualified non-mothers.

Luke said...

As one who was there (graduated Reed College mid 60's) and saw the great transformation take place, I would list 3 factors that led to the present situation on the left-academic.

1. They all dropped acid, a powerful cultural solvent. Trust me, it happened and its effects should not be discounted.

2. The Vietnam War, courtesy of Lyndon Johnson's personal ego problem (he had been a physical coward in his Texas high school days)comletely alienated this psychadelically influenced generation from American society. And when the AFL-CIO hardhats marched for the war, that was the end of white working-class Americans in their world: from then on the future of democratic politics would be built around students and minorities!

3. This generation is poorly educated when it comes to basic economics (first 100 pages of Adam Smith) and world history, especially world history. They literally don't realize that all the sins they visit on the heads of the West (slavery, imperialism, patriarchy, etc) have been the norm in every society and civilization since history began. There is nothing special about the history of the West in that regard. What is special is that our civilization somehow -- how? -- found within itself the moral and physical resources to proclaim these age-old practices wrong, and to put in their place our modern liberal ideals of liberty and justice for all. Sure, Jefferson was a slave holder. But unlike all the other slaveholders known to history, he alone penned the Declaration of Independence.

I am afraid there is little that can be done for this generation at this point in time. But we can take steps to insure that the next generation doesn't turn out the same way, starting with a new re-emphasis upon the study of history in our schools, colleges, and universities. Plus the first 100 pages of Adam Smith's "natural system of liberty."

Jess said...

They literally don't realize that all the sins they visit on the heads of the West (slavery, imperialism, patriarchy, etc) have been the norm in every society and civilization since history began. There is nothing special about the history of the West in that regard.

I agree with you on this in particular, Luke--it's really just the same sense of specialness that lead earlier generations (and the neocons) to formulate the whole Manifest Destiny thang. That's the biggest problem with the revolutionary mindset, of course--it just turns things inside-out without really thinking critically about them, much less transforming them. John Ellis has a lot of interesting things to say about this in "Literature Lost" and "Against Deconstruction."

ada47 said...

Jess and Luke
Thanks-I was just preparaing a long and much less articulate post asking for clarification of the meaning of "academic left". Even though I am an academic and left-leaning, I don't consider myself part of that group, mostly because I haven't been a communist apologist since I was 25 and put my bong away. But honestly, I'm not exactly sure where the boundaries are between "academic left" and liberal, and I agree that it is not fashionable to make that distinction, in part because the extreme views of many academic leftists make it easy to indict liberals for all that is wrong with America today.

Cathy, I don't want to hijack this thread for my own selfish purpose, but would it be possible to continue to clarify the definition of "academic left"?

ada47 said...

Luke, can you speculate as to why that generation is so poorly educated in world history? Having been educated in world history by a few of them, I agree. The question is, what's behind that? And how do we avoid miseducating future generations?

Jess said...

Ada,

Well, I think one of the tasks before us is to try to get a sense of where that line is between the two worldviews. When I use the term "academic left," I'm thinking primarily of adherents to postmodern theory (especially French theory) and/or Marxism who are vigorously anti-Enlightenment, and who are therefore skeptical of most of the principles upon which this country was founded. The ones who believe the system is inherently corrupt and cannot be reformed. It's a much more united and ideologically pure group than the common garden-variety liberal. I think the latter is harder to define because each liberal seems to have a different idea of what that means, so I guess we could say one of the defining characterists is a willingness to think for one's self, combined with a willingness to think about the welfare of others outside one's immediate tribe. For me, that means a committment to the Enlightenment ideals of democracy, individual rights and freedom, equality before the law, religious freedom (including the freedom to be an aetheist w/out having school prayer and all that other bs imposed on me), and a practical and rational approach to governing. This should make me a centrist, or even a libertarian, but because things are so off center at the moment, and because power and wealth always seems to flow from the many to the few, I find myself leaning left as ballast. I think what makes me identify more with the liberal cause (and NOT with the academic left wing) is that I believe if we're going to succeed as a democratic nation, we have to get past our current us-and-them attitude towards our fellow Americans. I thinks it's valid and generally constructive to be skeptical about those in power, but I don't see any honor in scapegoating our fellow Americans who are historically lacking in power, as the right has so consistently done these last few decades (to welfare mothers, gays, feminists, pot-smokers, immigrants, etc.).

So anyway, there's my political position in a nutshell. I would love to hear how other "traditional" liberals are defining themselves, and where they connect with/disconnect from the academic left.

Lori Heine said...

I think our ability to articulate our positions has eroded because so many of us (I mean people in this society in general) have relied on gaining and using government power to achieve our ends. We have done this instead of attempting to persuade others of the rightness of our views.

Merely having to persuade others sharpens the wits and clarifies the position of the one attempting to persuade. Liberalism has become a religion, and no one is allowed to commit the heresy of questioning fundamental dogma. Those on the Left no longer seem to understand that if what they believe is true, it can withstand scrutiny.

ada47 said...

lori, I agree with the second part of your post, but I'm not sure the first part is relevant to the academic left. If anything, that faction has shunned government and civic institutions, and generally stands in opposition to liberal pragmatists who attempt to engage government, and civic and religious institutions, in addressing social and economic inequality.

Prime example: Larry Summers, who, is could be argues, was fairly successful in translating liberal ideas into good public policy, became a favorite target of the academic left. Incientally, I can't quite pinpoint when my disenchantment with the academic left began (I must confess that by my senior year in college I was firmly in its grip), but the Summers hulabaloo was for me the final straw.

ada47 said...

Oops! sorry for the typos-I'll proofread next time.

Synova said...

Perhaps I'm alone in this but I find the anti-intellecualism in our society perfectly rational. I think it's been well earned.

If it's someone telling me that I don't understand my own best interest when I vote, or education "professionals" telling me they know my children better than I do, or protests at military recruiting stations to "save" stupid poor people from making a choice that I made,...

I admire brilliant people (prefer their company, actually) but most professors really are *not* smarter than the rest of us, they've just gone to school longer.

And most *smart* people are not even remotely interested in my education. Does anyone here care how much school I've been to? Either what I say makes sense or it doesn't. (Sometimes it doesn't even make sense to me, but there you go.)

It's true that science isn't trusted. We've seen it used and abused too much. But we do trust engineering. So what's up with that? Is it really science that has the bad rap or is it people reacting to scare-mongering alarmism... the "science" that's been particuarly dumbed-down for us troglodytes to convince us not to breed?

Look at Gitlin's list of scientific issues... evolution, climate change, stem cells, contraception.

What, exactly, about contraception is "scientific?" Greenland used to be "green". Evolution is proof there is no God. And it's ignorant to believe that there may be ethical considerations to harvesting embryonic stem cells?

"Take our word for it because we're smarter than you," is a losing strategy. Always will be.

Respecting reason is not accomplished by insisting that any reasonable person agree with you and if someone doesn't it's because they've rejected enlightenment.

AprilPNW said...

Lori said:

"Liberalism has become a religion, and no one is allowed to commit the heresy of questioning fundamental dogma. Those on the Left no longer seem to understand that if what they believe is true, it can withstand scrutiny."

True dat..can I get a witness? I stopped discussing religion with others many years ago...because people have become so "religious" about their political beliefs, I added politics to the "do not discuss" list (exept for blogs, of course).

ada47 said...

aprilpnw, lori

"Liberalism has become a religion, and no one is allowed to commit the heresy of questioning fundamental dogma. Those on the Left no longer seem to understand that if what they believe is true, it can withstand scrutiny."

I think you're both right that politics is the religion of the academic left, but I would argue that it is not "liberalism". The conflation of the academic Left's brand of radical, anti-institutional secularism and multiculturalism with good ol' Liberalism is one of the triumphs of the Right. Aided and abetted, of course, by the irrelevant dogmatic purists that populate academia.

Which gets back to my original post-can we begin to define the boundaries between the sociopolitical ideology of the academic left and Liberalism?

Revenant said...

The conflation of the academic Left's brand of radical, anti-institutional secularism and multiculturalism with good ol' Liberalism is one of the triumphs of the Right.

On the contrary, I'd say it is one of the triumphs of the Left. Most of the ideas we associate with historical liberalism are now either nearly universal throughout the political spectrum (e.g., "racial equality is good") or confined to the libertarian/conservative parts of the spectrum (e.g., "the government shouldn't tell you what to do with your property). With the exception of a few minor remaining areas like gay rights, once-"liberal" ideas are now either widely accepted through the political spectrum or actively opposed by those who now claim the name of "liberal".

The identification of "liberalism" with the Left allows the Left to pull a bait-and-switch. It lures people in by talking about "liberal" ideas like helping the underprivledged -- conveniently ignoring the fact that virtually everybody thinks that's a good idea and differ only in how to best offer such help -- then ties them to distinctly illiberal, left-wing ideas like massive wealth redistribution programs.

ada47 said...

revenant,
"The identification of "liberalism" with the Left allows the Left to pull a bait-and-switch. It lures people in by talking about "liberal" ideas like helping the underprivledged -- conveniently ignoring the fact that virtually everybody thinks that's a good idea and differ only in how to best offer such help -- then ties them to distinctly illiberal, left-wing ideas like massive wealth redistribution programs."

I'll give you that one.

Synova said...

http://wizbangblog.com/2006/05/07/the-arrogance-of-the-intellectuals.php

Related post and comments on Wizbang.

We refuse to listen to our betters because our betters have nothing relevant to say.

W.B. Reeves said...

A couple of observations.

I find the whole business about the academic "left" a wee bit overblown. To begin with, their influence, such as it is, is almost entirely limited to the hothouse of the Academy and, as others have noted, it is largely anti-political in the sense that that they present no practical program for action in the larger society. When was the last time any campaign or policy was promoted on the turgid obscurantism of Po-Mo theory?

As for the idea that the "linkage" between the fevered talking shops of certain humanities departments and political Liberalism is the work of the "Academic Left" or the "Left" in general, I have to laugh.

It wasn't the Left, academic or otherwise, that turned this putative linkage into a cottage publishing industry with books such as "Tenured Radicals", et al. The Right saw political advantage in promoting this spurious connection and set to it with a will. The Academic Left, obsessed with theoretical navel gazing and posturing, had neither the interest nor the juice to accomplish such a linkage in the public mind. Not to mention that these inheritors of some of the worst aspects of sixties radicalism are, for the most part, hostile to Liberalism on principle.

The role of the so-called "Academic Left" in higher education is a serious topic worthy of serious scrutiny and debate. Such debate is ill served by demagogic attempts to engraft it onto larger political disputes where it has no demonstrable impact.

Anonymous said...

Synova,

The whole-scale rejection of intellectuals throws out the baby with the bath water, and that is a problem. There is a big difference between rejecting the idea that one doesn't have a sophistocated palette if you can't taste the 'currant notes' in a glass of wine and rejecting sound, verifiable science regarding measurable shifts in climate. The ideas and biases of some intellectuals are silly, but some really do know what they are talking about. A lot more could have gone right in Iraq, for example, if the war planners had bothered to listen experts on culture and customs in the region. I recall Wolfowitz saying that Iraq had a secular culture that was "overwhelmingly Shia, which is different from the Wahhabis of the peninsula, and they don't bring the sensitivity of having the holy cities of Islam being on their territory." Any academic familiar with the region would have pointed out Najaf.

Sure, there have been abuses in the sciences and academia. There have been abuses in EVERY field, from politics to business to science to education. We can't counter that by becoming experts in everything. What we can do is educate ourselves enough to tell the difference between what is logical and reasonably verifiable and things that smell more like a philosophy or ideology. We can also be informed about what regulatory mechanisms are in place to root out dishonesty and fraud. All of these things take some effort, though. I guess the lazy man's approach is to just throw up your hands and say, 'Because some intellectuals are snooty lunatics, all of them suck and have nothing of value to say!'

Z

Revenant said...

rejecting sound, verifiable science regarding measurable shifts in climate.

That's moving the goalposts a bit, don't you think? While there are certainly some people who dispute that the Earth has warmed over the past century -- and, indeed, such warming has been verified -- most people generally dispute (a) that humans caused this, (b) that it's bad, or (c) that the current warming trend is unusual. None of those three things has been verified. It is a continual source of bemusement to me that a science theory which is still in its infancy has, thanks to the prior existance of a well-funded apocalyptic environmentalist movement, been awarded a status of near-unquestionable certitude that the theory of evolution took ten times as long and orders of magnitude more data to achieve, and which things such as quantum mechanics and general relativity STILL haven't achieved. We're still not sure about QM, but BY GOD we're postitive about global warming theory, even though it's never made an accurate or useful prediction about anything.

I recall Wolfowitz saying that Iraq had a secular culture that was "overwhelmingly Shia, which is different from the Wahhabis of the peninsula, and they don't bring the sensitivity of having the holy cities of Islam being on their territory." Any academic familiar with the region would have pointed out Najaf.

Which is exactly the sort of meaningless nitpicking that consumes so much of academia outside of the physical sciences. Wolfowitz's point was that Iraq didn't pose the same "infidels in the land of the Holy Cities" problem that Saudi Arabia did, where US troops were concerned. Najaf is indeed a holy city to Shiites Muslims, but it is not even vaguely as revered by Islam as a whole as Mecca is -- and, even more importantly, Shiites don't get up in arms about Americans being in the same country as Najaf the way that Wahabbi Muslims did about Americans being in the same country as Mecca.

What we can do is educate ourselves enough to tell the difference between what is logical and reasonably verifiable and things that smell more like a philosophy or ideology. We can also be informed about what regulatory mechanisms are in place to root out dishonesty and fraud.

There are systems in place for checking data and theory in the physical sciences, sure, although historically those have tended to break down somewhat catastrophically when dealing with politically sensitive issues. But the physical sciences also have the advantage of being about reality -- if you lie and say "if you do X to Y, Z happens" and nobody can reproduce your result, what are you going to do? Much of the rest of academia has no such reality check. If the subject of your "research" is "themes of oppression in Iranian literature", your theories and conclusions need not have any basis in reality whatsoever. The "regulatory mechanism" for most liberal arts and social sciences consists of nothing more than a gigantic academic circle-jerk, with Ph.Ds producing articles of interest only to each other, if that, and of little or no use to anyone in the real world at all.

W.B. Reeves said...

Wolfowitz's point was that Iraq didn't pose the same "infidels in the land of the Holy Cities" problem that Saudi Arabia did, where US troops were concerned. Najaf is indeed a holy city to Shiites Muslims, but it is not even vaguely as revered by Islam as a whole as Mecca is -- and, even more importantly, Shiites don't get up in arms about Americans being in the same country as Najaf the way that Wahabbi Muslims did about Americans being in the same country as Mecca.

Tell it to Muqtir al Sadr. His boys don't seem to have gotten the memo about Shias being down with the US military's handling of Najaf.

As far as the Wahabbi's attitudes are concerned, need I point out that the entire Saudi Royal Family claim alliegence to Wahabbism and are its greatest sponsors? The same Saudi Royal family that invited the US military into Saudi Arabia in the first place.

In any case the whole fixation on "holy sites" is wrong headed to begin with. Anyone with a grasp of the status of the "Umma" within Islam would understand that the fact of non-Islamic intervention itself is sufficient to call any believer to arms, regardless of their sectarian affiliation. The proximity of "holy sites" is an agravating but secondary factor.

What holy sites did Afghanistan possess to inspire a decade long pan-Islamic war of resistance to the Soviet occupation? A resistance which proved a breeding ground for the Jihadist terrorists of today.

Wolfowitz's, comment was both ignorant and foolish.

Anonymous said...

Rev,

Try to focus your argument on what I said. There IS sound verifiable information available on shifts in the climate. Not only have we verified that average temps have increased, there are measurable shifts in ocean currents, bird immigration patterns, dates when plants sprout, dates when insects emerge, changes in the size of glaciers, and on and on. I did not speculate on what might be causing that. I did not speculate on whether or not this would be bad. I did not speculate on whether or not this was unusual.

Even though, due to a convergence of evidence from multiple disciplines (climate science, ocean science, animal science, plant science, etc), it HAS been the general scientific consensus for many years now that climate change is real, you have had plenty of folks poo-pooing it as more nonsense from the looney academics. As time has gone on, the evidence is only gotten stronger, and some of those people are finally getting a clue.

Granted, I will give you the media coverage of this has been pretty sad. Media coverage of science is usually pretty bad. But it isn't as if we don't live in a wired world and we can't get access to scientific reports on this. It is one thing to dispute the influence of greenhouse gases and the future results of climate change. It is a whole other thing to reject out of hand all that data because you don't like and don't trust intellectuals.

If the subject of your "research" is "themes of oppression in Iranian literature", your theories and conclusions need not have any basis in reality whatsoever. The "regulatory mechanism" for most liberal arts and social sciences consists of nothing more than a gigantic academic circle-jerk, with Ph.Ds producing articles of interest only to each other, if that, and of little or no use to anyone in the real world at all.

Exactly. That crap should be taken with a large dose of salt. Which is why, rather than pounding on ALL intellectuals, it is important to differentiate between the philosphy/ideology pushers, and people who are producing something that can be verified. By the way, that isn't just limited to the physical sciences. Historians are working from a record that can be verified. Models in economics can be tested with real world data and so on. I refuse to defend sociology, though, ... you know how I feel about the soft sciences. :)

WB Reeves did a fine job of addressing the Wolfowitz issue.

Z

Revenant said...

it HAS been the general scientific consensus for many years now that climate change is real, you have had plenty of folks poo-pooing it as more nonsense from the looney academics. As time has gone on, the evidence is only gotten stronger, and some of those people are finally getting a clue.

I still say that that is a disingenuous description of the argument. You make it sound like the whole debate is just a question of "is the Earth getting warmer or not?". If that was the whole question, few people would care. The real meat of the argument has always been over the big three questions I mentioned -- is it our fault, is it unusual, and should we care. The honest scientific answer to all three questions is "we don't know yet".

But in much the same way that the term "UFO" has, in the public arena, come to mean "alien spaceship", the term "global warming" has, in the public arena, come to mean "unusual human-caused global warming which is damaging our environment". So just as people who say "UFOs don't exist" aren't necessarily claiming "there's are no flying objects we are unable to identify", people who say "global warming is a myth" aren't necessarily denying that the Earth has heated up in the last century. They're usually just denying the whole widely-preached by scientifically-unverified idea that human activity is destroying the planet.

It is also worth noting that it is hardly fair too blame people for failing to trust climate scientists when the same people saying "it is an observed fact that the Earth has warmed over the last century" (which is true) are so frequently the same people saying "there is no doubt that global warming is due to human activity" (which is a lie). Climate scientists are guilty of being the boys who cried wolf.

Which is why, rather than pounding on ALL intellectuals, it is important to differentiate between the philosphy/ideology pushers, and people who are producing something that can be verified.

The problem is that academia doesn't make that differentiation. Colleges don't teach that physics is real and developmental psychology is subjective bullshit. Most people's college experience consists of a major in some sort of pointless wanking like Business or Psychology or Communications that teaches them little they end up using in real life. Maybe they take a few entry-level hard-science classes, but by and large college is about regurgitating professors' subjective opinions, learning a few interesting trivia facts, and trying to have a good time before starting on forty years of working. Small wonder that people have contempt for academics when even those of us who attended college didn't really meet all that many professors who seemed worthy of respect for their intellectual prowess.

Historians are working from a record that can be verified. Models in economics can be tested with real world data and so on.

In theory, sure, but in practice that doesn't happen nearly as much as it ought to. You can still find the economic equivalents of phlogiston theory being taught at major universities, and history is so hyperspecialized that primary sources frequently go unchecked. Witness the "Arming America" scandal, for example -- Michael Bellesiles was able to completely fabricate mounds of data in support of a fairly shocking new theory, and it was several years (and several major awards from historical organizations) later before historians really bothered to check his data. One has to wonder if they'd have bothered checking at all if the subject hadn't been controversial and his opponents so vehement in wanting to prove him wrong. A guy could probably go his whole career making up shit about farming habits in 14th-century Uzbekistan and nobody would ever give a rat's ass enough to find him out.

Revenant said...

Tell it to Muqtir al Sadr. His boys don't seem to have gotten the memo about Shias being down with the US military's handling of Najaf.

There's no reason to believe that Sadr was motivated by religious feelings rather than by the usual desire to be a local strongman.

As far as the Wahabbi's attitudes are concerned, need I point out that the entire Saudi Royal Family claim alliegence to Wahabbism and are its greatest sponsors?

The Saudi royal family claims allegiance to Wahabbism for political reasons; for most of their history it helped control the population. The Japanese Shogunate used a special form of Buddhism for a similar reason, once upon a time. Religiously, however, the Saudi royal family is about as Wahabbist as Woody Allen is.

The same Saudi Royal family that invited the US military into Saudi Arabia in the first place.

What you're forgetting to take into consideration is that the Saudis didn't know, when they started pushing Wahabbism as a means of controlling the masses back after they took over the country, that in 1990 they'd need the help of a bunch of infidels to keep Saddam Hussein's greasy mits off their oil. When push came to shove, surprise surprise, the Saudis decided they'd rather keep being filthy-rich despots than actually stick to their alleged religion. Equally unsurprising is that many of the non-rich non-despots who really HAD bought into their religious bullshit didn't feel nearly so happy about it. The Saudis are hardly the first despots to stir up populist hatreds as a means of maintaining control and then get bitten by that hatred themselves.

Anyone with a grasp of the status of the "Umma" within Islam

...a group which does not count you among its members...

would understand that the fact of non-Islamic intervention itself is sufficient to call any believer to arms, regardless of their sectarian affiliation.

That is quite incorrect. The belief that no infidels can be allowed to reside within the Ummah (the Islamic world) is one held my only a small fraction of Muslims, such as Wahabbis. The more widespread, though not necessarily majority, belief is that Muslim lands must not be *ruled* by non-Muslims -- not a problem in Iraq, which we neither pretend nor intend to rule, and whose new democratic government has ample Muslim representation.

This is why, despite most Iraqis being devout Muslims, attacks against US troops have been limited and are currently significantly outnumbered by attacks against other Muslims. Iraqis want the US to leave -- some sooner, some later -- but few want us out for religious reasons. They want us out because, well, it's their country, and who wants foreign troops patrolling their streets?

What holy sites did Afghanistan possess to inspire a decade long pan-Islamic war of resistance to the Soviet occupation?

I'd love to see the warped chain of logic that leads you from "the war in Afghanistan wasn't caused by holy sites" to "holy sites aren't a problem".

I'm also amused by your use of the term "pan-Islamic" to describe a resistance that was almost entirely composed of Afghanis -- many of them not particularly driven by religious motivations -- and members of a few fundemantalist Sunni sects.

Anonymous said...

Rev,

Are you familiar with the Paleocene-Eocene thermal maximum?

Z

Revenant said...

Are you familiar with the Paleocene-Eocene thermal maximum?

Well I couldn't write a dissertation on it, no, but I've read about it. What about it?

Anonymous said...

I was just curious.

It seems to me that the honest answer is a little more complicated than simply "we don't know". The honest answer is: The earth is warming. Human activity is certainly contributing, but we can't quantify how much. While the mechanisms by which greenhouse gases retain heat in the atmosphere are well known, and have been for decades, many but not all planetary mechanisms for sinking and releasing heat and carbon are not. We don't know if stopping the human activity will stop the warming at this point. On a geologic time scale, this kind of thing isn't that unusual, but on a human historical time scale, it certainly seems to be. The planet will survive regardless, but with rapid climate changes in the past, lots of species have died off. We are starting to see that now, and can directly tie it to climate change. We are not sure how much that will impact human beings.

Z

Anonymous said...

I should have said, 'We are starting to see that now, and can directly tie some of it to climate change.'

Z

Synova said...

The honest answer is almost always "it's complicated."

The most fascinating thing I've heard about lately (Discovery channel show?) was that, in a geological time frame, the poles of the Earth are going to flip over any second now. Part of that process is that the magnetic field that protects the Earth from harmful radiation is going to disappear for two or three centuries before it resumes. (IIRC, the actual reversal of the poles is instant.)

Since this was a Discovery Channel show it was all presented as dramatically and ominously as possible and then at the end they said that in the end there will probably be an increase in cancers or other radiation related things but life will survive just fine and for those centuries there will be constant aurora in the night skies from the poles to the equator.

They think they see it starting but that we'll certainly be long gone. Still, maybe our great-grandchildren will be alive to see it.

What I'd like to know is if any climate scientists are considering what this will do to climate?

Revenant said...

The planet will survive regardless, but with rapid climate changes in the past, lots of species have died off. We are starting to see that now, and can directly tie it to climate change.

On a side note, something I've always wanted but have never been able to find is a list of species which are believed to have gone extinct in the past century or so. I keep hearing that species are going extinct at record rates, but nobody ever names names.

I think it is fair to say that climate change will be very bad for some species (and, of course, good for others), but there's no reason to believe that it will be bad for humanity. We can exist happily across a huge temperature range -- and that range improves with technology.

Rob said...

Revenant, 5 minutes Googling yields;

108 species since 1973

http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/swcbd/Programs/policy/esa/essa-App-A.pdf

"In the past 300 years, researchers have documented the global extinction of just 21 marine species — and 16 have occurred since 1972."

http://www.mindfully.org/Water/2005/Marine-Species-Extinctions24aug05.htm

And plenty more!

You write of moving goalposts, and also write

"...a science theory which is still in its infancy has, thanks to the prior existance of a well-funded apocalyptic environmentalist movement...".

What well-funded... etc? This sounds awfully close to tinfoil hat territory, or moving the goalposts to another planet. Sources?

Revenant said...

Revenant, 5 minutes Googling yields; 108 species since 1973

I actually have that same link bookmarked already. But (a) 3.3/year is three or four orders of magnitude below the extinction rates I typically hear cited, (b) half of the species on the list are from Guam or Hawaii, and (c) NONE of the species listed went extinct in the last decade. This leads me to suspect the list is incomplete. If only 51 species have gone extinct in the last third of a century outside of Guam and Hawaii, some of those turned out to not really be extinct after all, many were near-extinct when first discovered, and none at all were wiped out in the last decade, then it is hard to credit the idea that extinction is a pressing concern, at least outside of the Pacific Islands.

What well-funded... etc? This sounds awfully close to tinfoil hat territory, or moving the goalposts to another planet

Um, what's the previous claim of mine that you're saying my above remarks move the goalposts from?

Sources?

Well, Greenpeace and the Sierra club spend around a quarter of a billion dollars a year between them, for starters.

Rob said...

Revenant, saying that there is a (i.e. one) well-funded "apocalyptic" movement is saying a hell of a lot. It strongly implies some sort of concerted effort (one might say "conspiracy"). This certainly does move the goalposts far from a dispassionate discussion. You don't trust these organizations. Why? What sources convince you that they are not acting in good faith?

Certainly, ExxonMobil and other corporations fund media outlets that downplay global warming. Do you trust them?

I used to be a theoretical physicist. There is very little we are not certain about, regarding the principles of QM. It's not a very good analogy anyway, since observing QM effects takes a lot more effort than, say, temperatures, glacial recession, or reduction of the ice caps.

Rob said...

Cathy,

I'm a bit uneasy about terms like "the academic left" or "the feminist academic left" because they can easily be used to lump extremists in with people who are academic, and leftist, but not extreme.

Would it be acceptable to use the term "the media right" to refer to people like Ann Coulter or Michael Savage, without explaining the distinction between them and, say, Byron York?

Revenant said...

Revenant, saying that there is a (i.e. one) well-funded "apocalyptic" movement is saying a hell of a lot. It strongly implies some sort of concerted effort (one might say "conspiracy")

I neither said nor implied it, so I won't be held responsible for you thinking I meant it. The word "movement" is regularly used in the singular to refer to non-conspiratorial groups of people with a common purpose but no common leadership -- e.g. "the victim's rights movement". The term "well-funded" refers to the fact that billions of dollars a year are given, by individuals, organizations, and governments, to promote the movement's ideas.

This certainly does move the goalposts far from a dispassionate discussion.

You keep using that term. I do not think it means what you think it means. :)

What sources convince you that they are not acting in good faith? Certainly, ExxonMobil and other corporations fund media outlets that downplay global warming. Do you trust them?

All of them have the same motivation for being untruthful: money. Saying "using gasoline hurts the environment" would cost Exxon money, and I wouldn't expect them to say it. But saying "global warming isn't a threat" would cost environmental groups money, too, because people who aren't scared about the fate of their environment don't give money to environmental groups. The oil industry has no motivation for saying "oil is bad" and the environmental movement has no motivation for saying "the environment is fine".

There is very little we are not certain about, regarding the principles of QM.

Well, given your background you pretty definitely know a lot more about QM than I do, but isn't it still the case that the theory can't be reconciled with the also-well-established theory of relativity?

QM has (as you know) enormously accurate predictive value -- much more so, at this point, than any theory of planetary climate. Yet physics is still willing to seriously entertain the possibility that QM might be fundamentally wrong, and require replacement with some new theory that more accurately explains physical phenomena. The environmental sciences are, it seems to me, much more hostile to attempts to find other explanations for global warming and/or explanations for why it might be neutral, or even good, for humanity.

Rob said...

Revenant,

I'll get to the other stuff later, but no, physics is not "willing to seriously entertain the possibility that QM might be fundamentally wrong". Not since Einstein debated Bohr. Einstein was wrong.

QM is pretty much on the same ground as "the Earth is round". Finding a theory that encompasses QM and General Relativity is a problem, but the lack of a unifying theory does negate either of them separately.

My take is that the environmental sciences are just giving us their observations, and saying that we are in deep shit. Why are these scientists wrong? Are they lying to us?

Rob said...

"the lack of a unifying theory does negate either of them separately."

Does NOT negate is what I meant.

Revenant said...

I'm afraid I don't see how you're reconciling "there's stuff QM should be able to account for and can't" with "there's no chance QM might be fundamentally wrong". Classical mechanics was in much the same position for a long time, and for all its predictive power it did ultimately turn out to be fundamentally wrong. I'm curious how the idea that a unifying theory based on different assumptions than both QM and relativity was ruled out as a possibility. Could you point me to a good book on the subject?

My take is that the environmental sciences are just giving us their observations, and saying that we are in deep shit. Why are these scientists wrong?

We are not currently in deep shit. As a species and as individuals we're thriving. What we're being told is that current signs indicate that we WILL be in deep shit in the future.

Well, that's an interesting prediction. But science has thus far provided accurate long-term climatological and ecological predictions for a grand total of zero planets, and I'm certainly not going to assume that they'll get it right the first time out of the gate. Few theories do, particularly when large numbers of variables are involved.

Are they lying to us?

The ones who say science has demonstrated that global warming is a threat to humanity certainly are. That global warming threatens humanity is an untested hypothesis.

Rob said...

Classical mechanics isn't fundamentally wrong - it describes low-speed, low-mass, large-scale (by these, I mean essentially our everyday experience) phenomena remarkably accurately, and remains one of the core areas of study and application in physics.

Quantum mechanics describes behaviour on the atomic and subatomic (and special relativistic) levels with an even more remarkable accuracy. I don't know much about cutting-edge work on QM-GR conciliation, but my impression is that it is GR that has to reconcile with QM. I'm not aware of any work that seriously questions the principles of QM.

Maybe more tomorrow, but I have a busy day...

Rob said...

Couple of links;

Brief discussion of quantum electrodynamics from one of it's creators, Feynman. He's also one of the more accessible commenters on physics in general;

http://www.pupress.princeton.edu/chapters/i2352.html

Climate science by climate scientists (bet you've seen this one!);

http://www.realclimate.org/

W.B. Reeves said...

There's no reason to believe that Sadr was motivated by religious feelings rather than by the usual desire to be a local strongman.

Pure speculation on your part and not very well based at that, since Sadr is a Cleric and couches all of his appeals in religious terms. Irrelevant in any case since it is the motivations of his followers that are at issue. A leader may be completely cynical about manipulating the religious feeling of his followers but this is only possible if his followers actually possess such feelings. You appear to be moving the goal posts.

The Saudi royal family claims allegiance to Wahabbism for political reasons; for most of their history it helped control the population. The Japanese Shogunate used a special form of Buddhism for a similar reason, once upon a time. Religiously, however, the Saudi royal family is about as Wahabbist as Woody Allen is.

Again, not particularly relevant to the argument. Have the Wahabbists disowned the House of Saud? Outside the Islamist fringe the answer is no. Wahabbism remains a pillar of Saudi rule and the major figures of Wahabbism continue to collaborate with the ruling family.

What you're forgetting to take into consideration is that the Saudis didn't know, when they started pushing Wahabbism as a means of controlling the masses back after they took over the country, that in 1990 they'd need the help of a bunch of infidels to keep Saddam Hussein's greasy mits off their oil. When push came to shove, surprise surprise, the Saudis decided they'd rather keep being filthy-rich despots than actually stick to their alleged religion. Equally unsurprising is that many of the non-rich non-despots who really HAD bought into their religious bullshit didn't feel nearly so happy about it. The Saudis are hardly the first despots to stir up populist hatreds as a means of maintaining control and then get bitten by that hatred themselves.

Actually I haven't forgotten any of this. What's puzzling is why you think this is relevant to your defense of Wolfowitz's nonsense. The Wahabbist masses didn't rise up in rebellion at the presence of US Troops and the House of Saud wasn't overthrown. Business continues as usual in Riyadh, making hash of the idea that Iraq was somehow a safer bet than Saudi Arabia for US intervention.

That is quite incorrect. The belief that no infidels can be allowed to reside within the Ummah (the Islamic world) is one held my only a small fraction of Muslims, such as Wahabbis. The more widespread, though not necessarily majority, belief is that Muslim lands must not be *ruled* by non-Muslims -- not a problem in Iraq, which we neither pretend nor intend to rule, and whose new democratic government has ample Muslim representation.

It would have been incorrect if what I said had any relation to the strawman you raise. Of course it does not. We were not discussing residence in Islamic societies but military invasion and occupation. Believers in Islam are required as a religious duty to defend all members of the community of faith (Umma) from attacks by non-believers. Good luck trying to convince the Islamic community that Iraq doesn't qualify as such an attack.

This is why, despite most Iraqis being devout Muslims, attacks against US troops have been limited and are currently significantly outnumbered by attacks against other Muslims. Iraqis want the US to leave -- some sooner, some later -- but few want us out for religious reasons. They want us out because, well, it's their country, and who wants foreign troops patrolling their streets?

Well at least you grasp that they do not want us there. However, unless you have something beyond speculation, wishful thinking and faulty readings of Islamic teaching to support your analysis, I will have to take it with a large grain of salt.

I'd love to see the warped chain of logic that leads you from "the war in Afghanistan wasn't caused by holy sites" to "holy sites aren't a problem".

I'd like to see the "warped chain of logic" that leads you to make such an absurd statement. For someone who expresses such dainty sensitivity to others misrepresenting your own statements you seem to have no qualms, ethical or moral, about indulging in the same tactic yourself. To refresh your memory, you said:

Wolfowitz's point was that Iraq didn't pose the same "infidels in the land of the Holy Cities" problem that Saudi Arabia did, where US troops were concerned. Najaf is indeed a holy city to Shiites Muslims, but it is not even vaguely as revered by Islam as a whole as Mecca is -- and, even more importantly, Shiites don't get up in arms about Americans being in the same country as Najaf the way that Wahabbi Muslims did about Americans being in the same country as Mecca.

Except, of course, there was no Wahhabist insurection in Saudi Arabia, while the insurgency in Iraq shows no sign of abatement. You are the one who was arguing the pertinence of "holy sites" to violent Islamic reaction. I pointed out that the absence of such didn't retard the resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Evidently, you don't feel competent to address this point, so you invented one that you found less challenging.

I'm also amused by your use of the term "pan-Islamic" to describe a resistance that was almost entirely composed of Afghanis -- many of them not particularly driven by religious motivations -- and members of a few fundemantalist Sunni sects.

Whereas I'm amused by your transparent word games. "Almost entirely" is simply an admission that the armed resistance was not entirely made up of Afghanis.

This is another example of your patented tactic of attempting to change the terms of debate without admitting to doing so. The pan-Islamic character of the Afghani war of resistance is not dependent on the ethnicity of the individual combatants, though you are forced to admit foreign fighters did play a role. More significant are the sources of support for that resistance.

Will you now claim that the resistance did not receive support from around the Islamic world, notably from the House of Saud? Will you deny that the resistance was logistically dependent on bases in neighboring Islamic states?

Or will you continue with your standard operating procedure of inventing false arguments that no one but yourself has entertained?

Revenant said...

Classical mechanics isn't fundamentally wrong

Hm, I think we're just using the term differently, then. Classical mechanics is useful for describing everyday mechanics because, while inaccurate, its inaccuracy doesn't matter much at human scales. But there is no scale at which classical mechanics is actually correct, and it becomes more radically incorrect at extremes of velocity and mass. That, to me, merits the term "fundamentally wrong" -- it turned out that there was a different theory that was far more accurate.

Anyway, thanks for the URLs. I think I've read everything Feynman ever wrote that was accessable to pre-graduate-level physics enthusiasts. Realclimate.org wasn't in my bookmarks, but I added it.

DBL said...

This is so true: "Left-wing intellectuals began to assail reason as a white male bourgeois prejudice long before the current wave of conservative attacks on the legacy of the Enlightenment." How can liberal intellectuals defend in one breath the scientific method in the context of the battle over the theory of evolution, and then, in the next breath, argue that science and reason are merely ploys for white male dominance? How many times have we heard that applying science to racially or gender-sensitive questions is bigotry incarnate?

W.B. Reeves said...

This is so true: "Left-wing intellectuals began to assail reason as a white male bourgeois prejudice long before the current wave of conservative attacks on the legacy of the Enlightenment." How can liberal intellectuals defend in one breath the scientific method in the context of the battle over the theory of evolution, and then, in the next breath, argue that science and reason are merely ploys for white male dominance?

What "liberal", as opposed to "radical", has said this? Words do have meanings you know and liberal is not a synonym for all things left of center.

How many times have we heard that applying science to racially or gender-sensitive questions is bigotry incarnate?

Personally, I've never heard anyone express this view. I don't doubt that someone may have but unless you can supply a citation I remain a sceptic.

Jeff said...

I would argue that the Academic Left does have real-world influence, much of it harmful:

"The U.S. government desperately needs Arabic-speaking military officers, intelligence analysts and diplomats. Yet many of this country´s best universities are working hard to make sure it doesn´t get them.

In fact, there is a de facto boycott of language program funding on many of the country´s most prestigious campuses. On April 27, the Middle East Studies Association — America´s canonical Middle Eastern academic society — passed a resolution calling on the nation´s institutions of higher learning to "not seek or accept" such financial help. "We deplore the channeling of funds for education through defense or intelligence agencies," said the association.

The professors pointed out that "[the National Security Education Program] was instituted specifically to address the personnel needs of federal agencies responsible for national security. Students accepting [its] fellowships have a national security obligation." The professors do not approve of this. As one told me, "We are not in the business of training spies."

http://www.unitedjerusalem.org/index2.asp?id=106874

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