Left-Leaning Academics: "Were We Wrong?"

What happens when postmodern cultural and literary criticisms fall into the wrong hands?
Anyone who has been paying attention to the fault lines of academic debate for the past 20 years already knows that the "science wars" were fought by natural scientists (and their defenders in the philosophy of science) on the one side and literary critics and cultural-studies folks on the other. The latter argued that even in the natural realm, truth is relative, and there is no such thing as objectivity. The skirmishes blew up in the well-known "Sokal affair" in 1996, in which a prominent physicist created a scientifically absurd postmodernist paper and was able to get it published in a leading cultural-studies journal. The ridicule that followed may have seemed to settle the matter once and for all.

But then a funny thing happened: While many natural scientists declared the battle won and headed back to their labs, some left-wing postmodernist criticisms of truth began to be picked up by right-wing ideologues who were looking for respectable cover for their denial of climate change, evolution, and other scientifically accepted conclusions. Alan Sokal said he had hoped to shake up academic progressives, but suddenly one found hard-right conservatives sounding like Continental intellectuals. And that caused discombobulation on the left.

"Was I wrong to participate in the invention of this field known as science studies?," Bruno Latour, one of the founders of the field that contextualizes science, famously asked. "Is it enough to say that we did not really mean what we said? Why does it burn my tongue to say that global warming is a fact whether you like it or not? Why can’t I simply say that the argument is closed for good?"
The reason it burns is that there is a whole lot invested in the idea that we can't simply reason from observations of the facts of nature to objective conclusions that should guide our actions.

It would be a terrible mistake for the right to adopt the 'winning strategy' of refusing to recognize truth based on objective facts, however. Play stupid games, as they say, and you'll win stupid prizes.


Texan99 said...

I'm sure you're right, but I'm going to indulge in some schadenfreude first. "Why does it burn my tongue to say that global warming is a fact whether you like it or not? Why can’t I simply say that the argument is closed for good?" That's funny, right there. I don't care you who are.

Eric Blair said...

Fight fire with fire.

Grim said...

I've heard that. That proverb about glass houses applies, though: the house we'd at least like to build is one founded on objective truth.

douglas said...

It only applies if you live in a glass house. Not if you live in a stone or wooden house. ;)

Grim said...

That's glass, isn't it? It allows you to see clearly! :)

Tom said...

I have to share in Tex's shadenfreude, but I also just finished the Latour paper linked in the Chronicle, and it's quite interesting, if any of you are into philosophy, sociology, and / or history of science on an academic level.

There's more shadenfreudaliciousness there (Our methods are good when employed against the right targets, but when turned on the wrong targets, why, that's outrageous!), but also some very insightful criticism of the destructive nature of critical theory and ideas about how to adjust academic methods and attitudes to encourage creation instead of destruction.

Dad29 said...

If his argument is based on "global warming" being an indisputable fact, he's right--until about 15 years ago.

Any Conservative who is sentient will agree that climate-change happens, all the time. There is, however, licit argument over the degree of such change (see Hockey Stick Fabrication et.al.) and the CAUSE of such change (see, e.g., the sunspot cycle.)

Even the Polemicist-in-Chief of the Right, Limbaugh, has stated as much.

There's another, darker, question here, too: cui bono? Phrased another way, where have all the hundreds of billions gone in the US' search for quelling the "change"?


Texan99 said...

Not to mention, what's the opportunity cost of the $15 trillion a warmenist proposes to spend to prevent the problem, even if we assume for the moment that his program really will prevent warming? If we'd spent the money to ameliorate the effects of a temperature increase as and when it happened, would we have been better off? And that's before you consider the trade-off in case it turns out we were wrong about the temperature rise (unthinkable, I know).

The anti-fossil-fuel movement has to be right about a whole series of things in order for the program to make any sense. If the AGW crowd is wrong about even one of the links--feedback size, feedback sign, effectiveness of CO2 reduction, cost/benefit of CO2-reduction programs, net cost/benefit of warming, even--the whole thing will turn out to have been a costly mistake. I don't just mean "costly" as in "used up some pocket change of fat rich Americans," but "costly" as in "consigned a lot of poverty-stricken nations to needless misery."

But to consider any of these problems is to be an uncaring troglodyte flat-Earther. I denounce myself.