Skip to main content

I cannot too-strongly recommend that you all read... and carefully re read... an op-ed piece that ran in the Los Angeles Times a while back.  Can Washington get smart about science?  by Chris Mooney and Alan Sokal, cogently speaks up for the scientific/modernist “reality-based community” against a recent wave of know-nothing depredations by barbarians of both the far left and the far right.  

Calling for re-establishment to neutral advisor agencies like the Office of Technology Assessment (also near the top of my own list of suggestions to the new Congress), Mooney and Sokal issue a challenge for both extremes to stop trying to bully society and objective reality to suit their own subjective notions about the world.

While Mooney is well known for his recent book THE REPUBLICAN WAR ON SCIENCE, Sokal would seem to offer (at first sight ) the perfect balance, since he is best known for having skewered blatant hypocrisy and inanity of the postmodernist/deconstructionalist movement, with his famous satirical essay that used deliberate gobbledygook-jargon to “prove” that physical so-called “laws” are nothing more than linguistic constructs created by western white males in order to perpetuate hegemony and oppression.  

Sokal’s later revelation that his highly-touted article was a hoax and a trap set off what became known as the “science wars,” during which he became known as almost an archetype of calm reason, a rock against which the postmodernists dashed themselves furiously, before lapsing, spent and forever (one can hope) weakened.

Having taken on shibboleths (and their neo-mystical wielders) of the left, one might have expected Sokal remain focused in that direction.  But “directionality” is, in itself, a trait of the romantic mind set and not of moderate, reasonable people, who can recognize similar nasty habits, wherever they arise.  Indeed, Both Mooney and Sokal know - as would any reasonable person by now - that the silly postmodernists of the campus left are not one-thousandth as threatening to Western Civilization as their cousins, the neocon subjectivists who have been attacking western civilization from the barbarian right.

In this piece, it is easy to note the clear prose of Sokal, who has a rare gift - well-tested - of being able to disarm shrill adversaries with a single, rhetorical flick of the wrist.  Take the following short paragraph:

“In truth, there was nothing wrong with inventing science studies; the error was to leap from the valid observation that science arises in a social context to the extreme conclusion that it is nothing more than politics in disguise.”

In other words, it is perfectly reasonable to keep subjecting science to reasonable scrutiny (or citokate) by appraising the myriad ways that fallible and all-too human individual scientists inevitably let cultural and subjective biases color their work.  Nearly all honest scientists will acknowledge this tendency in themselves (at least in abstract mea culpas). Indeed, the obstinate flaw in human nature called self-delusion is the very thing that science was invented to help overcome!

(Once again, the over-arching theme of reciprocal accountability.)

And yet, as Sokal says far more efficiently than I do, here, it is quite another thing to claim that the only truly honest human truth discovering process is inherently delusional!  If the scientific process of perpetual re-examination and testing against reality cannot incrementally improve our models of the world, then why has scientific civilization learned so vastly more than all others combined?

We have discussed elsewhere the likely psychological reason for lefty postmodernists to have pursued this silly rant -- in what basically amounted to a jealous snit, attempting to drag down rival sages who have found much better -- titanically better -- methods of enquiry and truth discovery than the discredited incantatory paths of Plato. And yet, what has become clear in recent years is just what a service Sokal and his colleagues have done, by engaging the post-modernist movement in strenuous debate, rather than simply dismissing it as a pack of loonies.

Evidence for surprising, unexpected progress can be found int the chagrin expressed, lately, by some of the better and more aware postmodernists, over their role in having helped to tear down society’s greatest bulwark against other forms of mystical fanaticism.  Others who are fully engaged in tearing down the entire Enlightenment Experiment.

Mooney and Sokal rightfully point to the all-out assaults upon science waged by an unholy alliance of Big Capital and reactionary Theocrats -- a coalition that has control over the Bush Administration, despite the fact that countless more-reasonable members of big business and the communities of faith want nothing to do with this vile cabal.  

(Mooney and Sokal leave out a third group in the controlling triumvirate, one that has waned considerably, in recent years, ever since it instigated our “sicilian” quagmire in Iraq, but the very one that juxtaposes in eery ways against the campus post-modernists.  That third group consists primarily of the Straussian Neoconservatives of the Heritage Foundation and Enterprise Institute etc, whose devotion to platonist incantation and the triumph of pure “will” bears worrisome similarities not only to the philosophy department lefties they claim to despise, but also to such reactionary and tyrannical movements as Nazism and Leninism.)  

But I am quibbling.  As I have said -- e.g. in my review of Mooney’s book THE REPUBLICAN WAR ON SCIENCE -- these two authors are bona fide heroes of the fight to restore American modernism.  At the near-term, pragmatic level, they share with me  a strong desire to see restored the independent Congressional scientific advisory boards that the New GOP so cynically and hypocritically dismantled.

What has become clear is that this fight will not be won by reason and science and moderation alone.  It must be a militant moderation.  One that - while promoting tolerance and diversity and openness and accountability and negotiation and science and fair-competition and pragmatism and other nice/liberal ideas - is also capable of recognizing genuine enemies.  Foes who deeply despise all of the traits that I just listed and countless others... who indeed despise us for holding to them and attempting to build a decent civilization around such “wishy washy” and secularly “tepid” principles.

And that is where their short-term advantage of passion has let them steal a march on us, seizing control over what has been (so far) a benighted and moronic 21st Century.  For while they attack, it is not our reflex of natural inclination to think in terms of enemies!   Like merchants and tradesmen and craftsmen and chemists, standing at the city gate, trying to bargain and reason with barbarians, we blink in dismay as they use swords to chop away the underpinnings of our city.  And then we try reasoning some more.

Enemies?  That is not the way that we who invented markets and democracy and science and the arts of practical compromise generally want to think.  But make no mistake.  Those who would take advantage of our good natures in order to destroy this way of life will attack from every angle and every dogma.  Because fundamentally it is a matter of personality, not ideology.  And we moderate-pragmatist progressive-problemsolving modernists are gradually learning that the personality of rage can only be dealt-with from a position and an attitude of strength.


Originally posted to David Brin on Tue Feb 06, 2007 at 11:59 AM PST.

Your Email has been sent.
You must add at least one tag to this diary before publishing it.

Add keywords that describe this diary. Separate multiple keywords with commas.
Tagging tips - Search For Tags - Browse For Tags


More Tagging tips:

A tag is a way to search for this diary. If someone is searching for "Barack Obama," is this a diary they'd be trying to find?

Use a person's full name, without any title. Senator Obama may become President Obama, and Michelle Obama might run for office.

If your diary covers an election or elected official, use election tags, which are generally the state abbreviation followed by the office. CA-01 is the first district House seat. CA-Sen covers both senate races. NY-GOV covers the New York governor's race.

Tags do not compound: that is, "education reform" is a completely different tag from "education". A tag like "reform" alone is probably not meaningful.

Consider if one or more of these tags fits your diary: Civil Rights, Community, Congress, Culture, Economy, Education, Elections, Energy, Environment, Health Care, International, Labor, Law, Media, Meta, National Security, Science, Transportation, or White House. If your diary is specific to a state, consider adding the state (California, Texas, etc). Keep in mind, though, that there are many wonderful and important diaries that don't fit in any of these tags. Don't worry if yours doesn't.

You can add a private note to this diary when hotlisting it:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from your hotlist?
Are you sure you want to remove your recommendation? You can only recommend a diary once, so you will not be able to re-recommend it afterwards.
Rescue this diary, and add a note:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from Rescue?
Choose where to republish this diary. The diary will be added to the queue for that group. Publish it from the queue to make it appear.

You must be a member of a group to use this feature.

Add a quick update to your diary without changing the diary itself:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary?
(The diary will be removed from the site and returned to your drafts for further editing.)
(The diary will be removed.)
Are you sure you want to save these changes to the published diary?

Comment Preferences

  •  small suggestion - (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Ed in Montana
    You probably want to edit the title. I added commas for your tags -

    How in mercy's name can McCain not know the true cost of war?

    by Wee Mama on Tue Feb 06, 2007 at 12:05:20 PM PST

  •  OMG -- David Brin? (5+ / 0-)

    Saw you speak at MIT years ago. Have all your sci-fi books. Most remarkable idea you spoke of -- evolution of how man developed abiltiy to hold concepts in the abstract.

    Thank you for bringing the battle to dKos; it's close to our hearts.

  •  I couldn't agree more (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Ed in Montana, zic

    with this

    Like merchants and tradesmen and craftsmen and chemists, standing at the city gate, trying to bargain and reason with barbarians, we blink in dismay as they use swords to chop away the underpinnings of our city.  And then we try reasoning some more.

    So then, we destroy them?

    "I still think politics is about who's getting screwed and who's doing the screwing." -Molly Ivins

    by hono lulu on Tue Feb 06, 2007 at 12:09:55 PM PST

  •  David, your fist link is a dead end. (0+ / 0-)

    can you update the diary with an active link?

    Second, your recommendations to Congress, are wonderful. Particularly like the "good cop, bad cop" advice. Keeps the wrong-doings in the public eye without spreading memes such as "anti business," "pro-taxes," and "against the troops," by having designated attack dogs.

  •  Are you by any chance . . . (0+ / 0-)

    the science fiction writer?

  •  Cool! This is the Alan Sokal of... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Ed in Montana, zic
  •  I'm all in favor... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Ed in Montana, zic

    ...of uplifting some of the humans.

    Teacher's Lounge opens each Saturday, sometime between 10am and 12 noon EST

    by rserven on Tue Feb 06, 2007 at 01:16:19 PM PST

  •  What is the alternative to reason? (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Ed in Montana, zic, hono lulu, Joy Busey, jfm

    I think there's a lot of truth to this:

    Like merchants and tradesmen and craftsmen and chemists, standing at the city gate, trying to bargain and reason with barbarians, we blink in dismay as they use swords to chop away the underpinnings of our city.  And then we try reasoning some more.

    Enemies?  That is not the way that we who invented markets and democracy and science and the arts of practical compromise generally want to think.  But make no mistake.  Those who would take advantage of our good natures in order to destroy this way of life will attack from every angle and every dogma.  

    But your diary seems to leave the most critical question unanswered: How do militant moderates fight back, if not with reason?

    There are dangers in letting our passions run too wild, just as there are dangers in not using our passions at all, relying on reason alone. Rely only on reason, and yes: the barbarians will trample over us. Rely too much on passion, and our best weapon - Truth - turns dull, and we are moderates no longer.

    Much as I agree with your sentiment, militant moderation by itself could turn out to be an unstable equilibrium. What would we have to keep it both militant and moderate?

    I believe that ignorance is the root of all evil. And that no one knows the truth. RIP, Molly Ivins. And thanks.

    by Nowhere Man on Tue Feb 06, 2007 at 01:20:12 PM PST

  •  Postmodernism and Neo-conservatism... (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Ed in Montana, zic, auntialias, jfm

    Brothers under the covers. It's an interesting long-term problem for Western civilization. Postmodernism posits that all knowledge systems are primarily political, and that different systems are basically incommesurable. Radical conservatism advances the view that there exists one true system, and all others are false; that there exists true and false political systems which should subsume (subjugate?) all other systems.

    In the end, they seem to come out of the same insincerity about philosophy, that it's all simply a game. The counter image quality can be seen in that, in order to believe the radical conservative position with a clear mind, you must first believe the postmodernist system, sub rosa. Since even a cursory historical education shows that systems of knowledge are, dare I say, adapted to their time and place, one must either lack that education or be cynical to advance an absolutist position on knowledge. On the other hand, it's also fairly obvious that certain systems, such as science, have much greater global applicability than others, such as shamanic incantations. To say otherwise seems to reveal the same disingenous and propagandistic purposes as the conservative point of view.

    I would hypothesize that the ultimate goal of both systems is fairly similar -- to undermine the bases of knowledge underpinning our current technological framework, to protect their own power structures, despite the unrealistic and almost hallucinatory basis of that power.

    PS. David, I liked Earth -- My misspent youth reading sci-fi has, unfortunately, done more to prepare me for this future than much of my formal education... I can see why Neil Stephenson decided to abandon the field.

  •  yo, David, mistake in word usage. (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Ed in Montana, zic, jfm

    You're using "mystical" and "mysticism" for what should properly be referred to as "mystification" or "obscurantism."  

    Mysticism is the branch of religion that is concerned with direct personal experience of the deity or "ground of being."  Mystics tend to view scripture as metaphor, and are seen as dangerous heretics by fundamentalists (the latter view scripture as literal truth).  

    Mysticism is also more likely than not to embrace or at least agree with the findings of science, as for example the comments of the Dalai Lama (Tibetan Buddhism) with respect to the compatibility between Buddhism and modern Western science.  

    Mystification is the process of making something appear mysterious which is not so.

    Both come from the root word for mystery; but the former is about the thoughtful search for understanding of philosophical mystery (e.g. issues of being and of meaning) whereas the latter is the creation of mystery where none exists.  Subtle but important distinction.  

    Obscurantism is the deliberate denial of observable facts and the conclusions that follow, also the denial of scientific methods or findings.   Creationists and leftist deconstructionists are obscurantists by definition.

    Please don't slander mystics by conflating them with obscurantists.  

  •  I'm surprised at the low interest level in this (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Ed in Montana, zic, auntialias, jfm

    post. The postmodern/neo-conservative cultural threat is a long-term conflict that subsumes the rest of the issues on the left.

    How do we make decisions? How do we allocate authority? It all depends on these long term trends in philosophy/culture. These changes depend on the mathematical and physics break-throughs of the early twentieth century, which have only trickled down into the main stream in the last twenty years, in the same way that the communism/fascism fight of the early twentieth century was a popularization of the scientific and mathematical work of the 18th and 19th centuries.

    The major political movements of the next century are at least tangentially going to continue to be about the nature of knowledge in this vein for the foreseeable future. In the same way that the Big Three religions are primarily popularizations and responses (mis-responses?) to the philosophical and political changes in the sixth to third centuries BC, if we want to predict and influence the changes of the next few decades we will have to thoroughly discuss these issues in practical, political terms; dissemination just moves a bit faster nowadays, compared to classical society.

    If you want to avoid that the radical right (or left) take control of the conversation, you've go to be prepared for it. The last few years have shown that in the US, the radical right has taken the theory of the radical left, and turned it into a practical, and fairly successful program to hijack the country.

  •  David Brin explains a bit (6+ / 0-)

    Thanks for the suggested tweaks.  I am a neo here.

    Zic and hono lulu and cervantes.... thanks!  Drop by  for news.

    hono lulu... we “destroy” enemies of the Enlightenment by destroying their underlying meme... the zero-sum game.  It is all about personality.  We are at “war” against zero-sum mind-sets.  We can tolerate and negotiate with ANYBODY... muslim, conservative, whatever... who has a positive-sum way of thinking.

    Random... you need a conspiracy to explain the UTTER consistency with which Bush et al have striven to destroy American power and readiness and popularity and influence in the world.  Which is why the “rich people want Bush to do all this” theory does not wash.  Hint.  Think MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE.

    Here’s a clip from my regular blog:  

    “How does it help the survival of rich Americans to do all the OTHER things accomplished by Rove & co? Demolishing US military readiness? Destroying our national cohesion and political discourse? Driving away all of our allies and deliberately ruining our role of assumed leadership of the West? Torching our science and smashing the US civil service and officer corps? None of these actions fit the “rich guy conspiracy” scenario, because that assumes the goal includes SOME degree of benefit for the American Republic, at some level.  

    “No, if the rich elites knew -- could open their eyes to -- how deeply their personal safety has been undermined by the very same coterie they helped to empower. But they cannot. Because they -- the backers and supporters -- genuinely ARE too stupid to see the hand of fate in front of their faces.

    “No, if there is a Rove-Bush conspiracy with intelligence, it is MUCH darker than anything spoken aloud so far.”

    Nowhere Man, good question.  We need to keep faith with reason... but put some anger into our voice.  And we must stop accepting stupid assumptions that only serve the interests of the barbarians.  Like the insipid #$%$#*! so called “left-right” political axis.  Today’s insanity derives from the inability of decent American conservatives to realize that they are not neocon right wingers.  (Barry Goldwater is spinning in his grave.  They should put coils around it and solve the energy crisis!) Likewise, liberalism is NOT “leftism” and NEVER WAS.

    We must be militantly against the plague of self-righteous indignation that is poisoning our enlightenment and eagerness to negotiate real solutions to real problems.

    Hey, I am much more pleased this time with the level of response and responders!  Maybe I won’t drift away, after all.

    Still, for extended discussion, see my main blog at:

    BTW you sci fi fans, have a look(!!) at:

    And my main web page (again) is

    Things to repeat: "CITOKATE -- Criticism Is The Only Known Antidote to Error." "IAAMOAC -- I Am A Member of a Civilization"

    by David Brin on Tue Feb 06, 2007 at 06:16:49 PM PST

    •  Please stick around (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Ed in Montana

      Diaries scroll off so quickly that it may take awhile before you get the readership here that you deserve. I was surprised that this was your 5th diary, yet the first that I saw. Then again, I'm not sure how much you're going to enjoy going through hundreds of comments.

      Thanks again for sharing your writings here.

      "I still think politics is about who's getting screwed and who's doing the screwing." -Molly Ivins

      by hono lulu on Wed Feb 07, 2007 at 12:27:14 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Conspiracy? The Rich? (0+ / 0-)

      Well it might be Manchurian, or better yet Radio Free Albemuth (PKD), but it is actually in the interest of the super rich, IF they believe that destroying the new deal and returning to the laissez-faire, no holds barred capitalism of the late nineteenth century is in their interest.

      The Manchurian theory has the problem of all deep conspiracies: that the action of the conspiracy is to primarily act in its own defiance, in order to secretly undermine the conspirator's public position. Evidence is usually hard to find, but we do have the bit about the Bush administration utter disdain for the religious fanatics that make up their base (wasn't it Kuo who wrote a book about his experience on the inside?).

      On the other hand, the Federalists et al., have an open conspiracy. They publish it publically, in all the right wing rags. They want to return to the pre-FDR constitution, where the oligarchy was difficult to oppose, where the federal gov., kept their nose out of social issues (such as apartheid), where environmentalism was non-existant and the poor had to beg for food. It's just as monstrous, and it's open. They've convinced a large portion of the population --  and it simple. You just tell folks to go with their gut instinct, rather than scientific data (getting back to the thread). And their gut tells them that other folks get what they deserve.

      Unfortunately for the oligarchs in this vein, history doesn't support their cynical ploy. We can see the the high growth rates in fairly egalitarian societies, over long periods of time --- Scandinavia in particular. On the other hand, the massive inequities in Latin America has enriched the riched in the short term, but has kept them from being real players on the world stage. Even the counter-examples of China and Korea just show what you can do in the short term, before social pressures explode (and lead to the continuing social changes in S. Korea).

      Do we really want to become Mexico?

      •  Go farther in paranoia (0+ / 0-)

        Very cogent.  But please ponder the possibility that you are being far too reasonable.

        Try to put yourself in the mind of a sci fi thriller author.  Rational aristocratic group self-interest just does not explain this administration's clearly deliberate effort to DESTROY Pax Americana and US world influence and power.  

        Yes, there has been a plague of secrecy and corruption and theft, undermining our institutions of accountability and ripping off our finances and future generations, along with delaying energy alternatives.  All of these... and even the grotesque efforts to ruin our national cohesion with Culture War... might be explained by a pillage-raid by short-sighted kleptocrats.

        But that scenario does NOT explain other factors, like the destruction of our alliances, of US world leadership, of our military readiness, or our technological edge and -- above all -- the full tilt war that is being waged against the US officer corps.  None of these can rationally benefit a US-centered or even western cabal of conspiratorial plutocrats.

        Put on your hat as a thriller author.  Who would benefit from actual destruction of the United States of America.  

        Now ask yourself who HAS benefited most from this administration.  And see if that overlaps with someone who has a cutural hatred of western civilization and ten trillion dollars of loose change in their pocket.

        Drink the Kool Aid!  Have fun with it.  Of course, it's just a thriller.

        Things to repeat: "CITOKATE -- Criticism Is The Only Known Antidote to Error." "IAAMOAC -- I Am A Member of a Civilization"

        by David Brin on Wed Feb 07, 2007 at 11:44:14 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Who said they were rational? (0+ / 0-)

          Just self-interested. They have to be delusional to a certain extent. Every good salesman is a natural born sucker.

          Did the Classical Germans have to infiltrate the Roman upper-class to get them to swallow Christianity and collapse their empire? Was the British Empire undermined by American infiltration of House of Lords?

          Those dudes are just nuts! I believe it was in the Northwoods papers, FOIA released and ABC published, that the members of the JFK administration had plans to bomb an American airliner filled with college kids on spring break in order to create casus belli against Castro. Deep dark conspiracy to undermine the very legitimacy of democracy, or just nut-cases with power looking only at the next $million, unwittingly undermining their very long term prospects for survival? However, the former does make a better novel, I agree --- but then, my unwritten conspiracy novel involves pre-historic breeding programs at Çatalhöyük. My teeth were sharpened on The Illuminati Trilogy.

          Actually, my nightmare is the banality of the Nazi regime. In that case, you had a German state with an inevitable destiny of sooner or later becoming the dominant power in Europe, economically, intellectually and politically -- the evidence is that, despite everything, that is what has happened with the EU. But a short-sighted kleptocracy decided to back the fascists simply to avoid unionization and socialist policies -- once again, policies that have proven to be in the long-term interest of Germany's industrial class. What they got was a disastrous war that killed an entire generation, that forced their brightest minds to emigrate to the US, which burned their cities to the ground, gave their most productive industrial zones to the Soviet Union, and lead to their occupation by foreign powers to this day (how many other countries are dotted by foreign military bases?). And it was stepped to meekly by businessmen in suits, whose best friends were Jewish, just to cut their taxes for a few years (sound familiar?)

          The practical problem with "conspiracy" is the same as it's benefit: it gets folks all fired up, but they naturally drift to their old, cultural nightmares: the businessman who ripped them off, displaced to the Jewish boogyman. So Osama is somehow in cahoots with AIPAC? Well, then, I guess liberal Jewish Hollywood must be working with the Neo-Straussians (don't forget Strauss himself was a Jewish refugee from the Nazis). And the terrorists are coming in over the border because the Neo-cons are letting them slip through under the cover of free movement of labor -- does that mean that the Hispanics (Chavez et. al.) are actually in league with the Iranians (who are secretly supporting Sunni Al-Qaeda) to "rapes themselves some white wimin"?

          No thanks. Enough Kool-Aid has gone around.

          •  Yipes, that was goood (0+ / 0-)

            You a pretty dang clever fellah.  

            Know some history too.

            Come on over to
            whenever you like.

            Remember, those who ignore the mistakes of the future are bound to make them.

            Ah, but nothing you say answers the simple fact.  When ALL of a cabal's actions have the direct effect of demolishing the entity that they control, some kind of motivated intelligence may plausibly be involved.  I NEVER said they were far-sighted.  Just very focused and motivated.  Maybe.

            Things to repeat: "CITOKATE -- Criticism Is The Only Known Antidote to Error." "IAAMOAC -- I Am A Member of a Civilization"

            by David Brin on Wed Feb 07, 2007 at 03:39:52 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

Subscribe or Donate to support Daily Kos.

Click here for the mobile view of the site