THE argument with which this book starts is familiar enough: The scientific method has been immensely successful in the investigation…
The Newest Testament
Testament for Social Science.
by Barbara Wootton.
Norton. 197 pp. $3.00.
The argument with which this book starts is familiar enough: The scientific method has been immensely successful in the investigation of natural processes and technological problems, and it is certain to be just as successful when applied to human and social problems. Further, it is high time that a supreme effort was made in this direction, for the human race faces swift extinction unless it abandons its old, pre-scientific ways of handling social and political matters.
So the question is not whether science can solve the fateful problems now confronting mankind: on this, no doubt is permitted. The only question we have to worry about is whether the scientific outlook will in fact be adopted in politics. Once this decision is made, we may hope that the danger will be overcome; failing this, mankind will perish.
Now if this were all that the author says, the book would not, in my opinion, deserve serious consideration, for this way of formulating the problem begs the question. To assume that those on whom the march of human events depends may agree to listen to impartial scientific counsel implies that they no longer care to settle controversial issues by force. But if this were actually the case, the danger from which the application of scientific knowledge is supposed to save us would no longer exist. Handing over the solution of social and political issues to scientific arbitration presupposes a kind of moral reformation which would in itself mean that the evils threatening mankind had been essentially conquered. Without such a reformation, the advice of science will not be heeded; and it is obvious that science cannot by itself bring about a moral reformation which is a prerequisite of its being accepted as an arbiter. Plainly, then, some sort of “pre-scientific” moral insight and reorientation on the part of humanity would be necessary to enable science to save civilization. The main argument put forward by Professor Wootton, namely that mankind can save itself only by abandoning all pre-scientific habits of thought in public matters in favor of scientific ones, is quite literally absurd.
Fortunately, however, this is not the entire content of the book. If we disregard the all-or-nothing proposition that we must either cast out all pre-scientific modes of thinking or perish, we may still examine fruitfully a more specific problem, namely, the question whether there are particular areas already ripe for the replacement of pre-scientific thought and action by scientific theory and behavior. This is a legitimate and pertinent question to ask, and much of what the author says is relevant to it.
To understand correctly the message contained in this book, we have to consider the intellectual climate in which it was written. There prevails among British intellectuals (of whom Miss Wootton is one) a feeling that the violent controversies separating the two opposing political camps in Britain are to a large extent verbal and in the last analysis irrelevant. Actually, there is no disagreement about the kind of situation one would like to see materialize. Everybody—Laborite and Tory alike—agrees that useful things should be produced in abundance and distributed as fairly as possible. Yet, both parties combat one another violently on abstract issues they choose to treat as ultimates, although dispassionate economic analysis would tell them that if they did not balk on these side issues, they could agree on practical policies. This irrationality, this political fetishism, is probably what Miss Wootton has in mind when she speaks of “pre-scientific habits of thought” that ought to be abandoned in favor of a scientific outlook; and I agree that political life both in Britain and the United States would benefit by greater readiness to apply scientific reasoning to practical problems.
But the fact that progress of this kind is within reach implies that the conflicts dividing the opposing parties are not excessively grave. If Britain or the United States were on the verge of irrepressible social conflict, all hope of progress through a scientific reorientation of politics would vanish. Scientific analysis cannot create a consensus on ultimate questions where there is none; and it implies no disrespect to science to say that one of the things it cannot do is eliminate those conflicts that are potentially the most radical and most destructive ones.
Miss Wootton’s plea for a wholehearted application of the scientific method to problems of theoretical knowledge, morality, art, and politics, often has much justice on its side, but in overstating her case, she weakens it. For instance, she puts great emphasis upon the “universality” of the scientific method, meaning thereby that all scientific assertions rest ultimately on testimony of the “five senses” which is essentially the same regardless of all personal and cultural differences; while she claims that hopeless disagreement is inevitable the moment one decides to rely on other kinds of evidence such as a purely philosophical or moral sense of certainty, or religious faith. According to her, the first stage in the construction of a scientific theory is “accurate observation of the data,” meaning essentially sense-experience and nothing else; this is followed by the “formulation of a hypothesis” and, as a last step, “empirical verification” which again is a matter of sight, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching.
But scientific theory-making does not really proceed in this way. The data one observes have to be selected on the basis of a preliminary conception which is not provided by the “five senses” but by the activities of the entire brain, or mind, reflecting upon a vast amount of previously acquired experience. And in this experience, the “five senses” do not play a self-contained role; after all they are parts of a living organism, intimately connected with a brain and a nervous system, and their testimony is always presented in a context which is also influenced by the structure, the needs, and the previous history of the entire organism. This is true of pre-scientific and extra-scientific as well as of scientific experience; the latter, too, does not start from scratch with pure sensations, proceeding towards the recording of “stable associations” among these sensations. If science were an activity of this kind, we could make an absolute distinction between it and extra-scientific experience; but since it is not, a valid delimitation of scientific from non-scientific procedures should be attempted in some other way.
It would then appear, I think, that there is valid extra-scientific, everyday experience besides scientific experience, and that we must try to be as reasonable in our everyday living and choosing as we presumably are in our scientific fact-collecting and theorizing. Miss Wootton seems to think that there is only one yardstick for determining the reasonableness of an everyday belief or choice, namely, the possibility of supplying scientific validation for it. Failing this, she holds, we must maintain a rigorously skeptical, agnostic attitude. Now it is certainly unreasonable to cling to factual beliefs that fly in the face of scientific evidence; to this extent, science is superior to unprocessed, non-scientific experience, and we must bow to its authority. But the principle breaks down when it comes to moral choices.
In the excellent chapter Miss Wootton devotes to the problem of science and morality (it is, to my mind, the best part of her book, together with the chapter in which she brilliantly criticizes the organismic and Marxian theories of society) she starts by admitting that science cannot determine moral ends. She admits further that morality is not a matter of arbitrary, individual preference, but that there are moral judgments which are in some sense true and valid. To me, these two statements imply that there is a rationale in moral dunking which does not depend on scientific evidence. Instead of drawing this, to me, inevitable conclusion, however, the author maintains that since all this is so, we should treat our moral principles as hypotheses until some scientific validation can be found for them. This is a non sequitur if ever I saw one.
But while the logic of this reasoning is unfathomable to me, I can see very well the psychological reasons that impelled Miss Wootton to adopt this position. Even against her own feeling, she is afraid of admitting that any belief not derived from scientific investigation could be maintained as valid and in a sense true, for such beliefs, according to her, can only be dogmatic ones. It is in science alone that we can make assertions boldly and with a good conscience, for first, the source of these assertions is our five senses which we share with the lowliest Patagonian, and second, we are ready to abandon our assertions with the best of grace whenever we come upon evidence that controverts them. In the field of morals, however, all judgments we make must be based upon some authority, since they lack both the incontrovertible and universal evidence of the senses and the escape clause of future revision; the only consolation we may have is that some moral judgments, after all, may be more “consonant” with the scientific spirit than others.
I think that in the field of ethics this fear of dogmatism is quite unfounded. For we are not being dogmatic about our moral principles if we apply them impartially—dogmatically, if you will—against ourselves as well as against others. In morality, the check against dogmatism is not an “escape clause” of possible future repudiation, and not an alleged universality of experience which is highly doubtful even so far as scientific evidence goes; it is our resolution to stake our dignity as men upon really living up to a principle we hold valid for everybody. It is in this way alone that we may overcome the temptation to consider ourselves “superior” to out-groups and to “rationalize” our aggressions.
This is not to say that all factual knowledge is irrelevant to ethical judgment. On the contrary, all moral judgments should be read with a clause rebus sic stantibus; what they say is that “the facts being thus and so, this is the right thing to do.” By refining and deepening our knowledge of facts, especially psychological ones, scientists do influence our moral thinking and our course of action on moral issues. There can be no question, here as elsewhere, of maintaining a watertight separation between the scientific and the extra-scientific. On the one hand, we have to admit that the moralist cannot judge well unless he has good factual evidence; on the other, we must also recognize that the ultimate inspiration of the scientist is not a scientific but moral and spiritual one.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
Testament for Social Science, by Barbara Wootton
Must-Reads from Magazine
A Trump of their own.
There were many arguments for opposing Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency, but the retort usually boiled down to a single glib sentence: “But he fights.”
Donald Trump could accuse John McCain of bringing dishonor upon the country and George W. Bush of being complicit in the September 11th attacks. He could make racist or misogynistic comments and even call Republican primary voters “stupid”; none of it mattered. “We right-thinking people have tried dignity,” read one typical example of this period’s pro-Trump apologia. “And the results were always the same.”
If you can get over the moral bankruptcy and selective memory inherent in this posture, it has its own compelling logic. Driving an eighteen-wheel truck through the standards of decorum that govern political discourse is certainly liberating. If there is no threshold at which the means discredit the ends, then everything is permitted. That kind of freedom has bipartisan appeal.
Democrats who once lamented the death of decency at Trump’s hands were apparently only troubled by their party’s disparity in this new rhetorical arms race. The opposition party seems perfectly happy to see standards torn down so long as their side is doing the demolition.
This week, with passions surrounding Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court reaching a crescendo, Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono demonstrated that Democrats, too, are easily seduced by emotionally gratifying partisan outbursts. “They’ve extended a finger,” Hirono said of how Judiciary Committee Republicans have behaved toward Dr. Christine Blasey Ford since she was revealed as the woman accusing Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct as a minor. “That’s how I look at it.”
That’s an odd way to characterize the committee chairman’s offers to allow Dr. Blasey Ford the opportunity to have her story told before Congress in whatever setting she felt most comfortable. Those offers ranged from a public hearing to a private hearing to a staff interview, either publicly or behind closed doors, to even arranging for staffers to interview her at her home in California. Hirono was not similarly enraged by the fact that it was her fellow Democrats who violated Blasey Ford’s confidentiality and leaked her name to the press, forcing her to go public. But the appeal of pugnacity for its own sake isn’t rooted in consistency.
Hirono went on to demonstrate her churlish bona fides in the manner that most satisfies voters who find unthinking animus compelling: rank bigotry.
“Guess who’s perpetuating all these kinds of actions? It’s the men in this country,” Hirono continued. “Just shut up and step up. Do the right thing.” The antagonistic generalization of an entire demographic group designed to exacerbate a sense of grievance among members of another demographic group is condemnable when it’s Trump doing the generalizing and exacerbating. In Hirono’s case, it occasioned a glamorous profile piece in the Washington Post.
Hirono was feted for achieving “hero” status on the left and for channeling “the anger of the party’s base.” Her style was described as “blunt” amid an exploration of her political maturation and background as the U.S. Senate’s only immigrant. “I’ve been fighting these fights for a—I was going to say f-ing long time,” Hirono told the Post. The senator added that, despite a lack of evidence or testimony from the accuser, she believes Blasey Ford’s account of the assault over Kavanaugh’s denials and previewed her intention to “make more attention-grabbing comments” soon. Presumably, those remarks will be more “attention-grabbing” than even rank misandry.
This is a perfect encapsulation of the appeal of the fighter. It isn’t what the fight achieves but the reaction it inspires that has the most allure. But those who confuse being provocative with being effective risk falling into a trap. Trump’s defenders did not mourn the standards of decency through which Trump punched a massive hole, but the alt-right and their noxious fellow travelers also came out of that breach. The left, too, has its share of violent, aggressively mendacious, and anti-intellectual elements. They’ve already taken advantage of reduced barriers to entry into legitimate national politics. Lowering them further only benefits charlatans, hucksters, and the maladjusted.
What’s more, the “fire in the belly,” as Hillary Clinton’s former press secretary Brian Fallon euphemistically describes Hirono’s chauvinistic agitation, is frequently counterproductive. Her comments channel the liberal id, but they don’t make Republicans more willing to compromise. What Donald Trump’s supporters call “telling it like it is” is often just being a jerk. No other Republican but Trump would have callously called into question Blasey Ford’s accounting of events, for example. Indeed, even the most reckless of Republicans have avoided questioning Blasey Ford’s recollection, but not Trump. He just says what’s in his gut, but his gut has made the Republican mission of confirming Kavanaugh to the Court before the start of its new term on October 1 that much more difficult. The number of times that Trump’s loose talk prevented Republicans from advancing the ball should give pause to those who believe power is the only factor that matters.
It’s unlikely that these appeals will reach those for whom provocation for provocation’s sake is a virtue. “But he fights” is not an argument. It’s a sentiment. Hirono’s bluster might not advance Democratic prospects, but it makes Brian Fallon feel like Democrats share his anxieties. And, for some, that’s all that matters. That tells you a lot about where the Democratic Party is today, and where the country will be in 2020.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
A lesson from Finland.
High-ranking politicians are entitled to freedom of speech and conscience. That shouldn’t be a controversial statement, but it often is, especially in European countries where the range of acceptable views is narrow–and narrowing. Just ask Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini, who spent the summer fighting off an investigation into his participation at an anti-abortion vigil in Canada. On Friday, Soini survived a no-confidence vote in Parliament over the issue.
“In general, I’m worried that Christianity is being squeezed,” he told me in a phone interview Friday, hours after his colleagues voted 100 to 60 to allow him to keep his post. “There is a tendency to squeeze Christianity out of the public square.”
Soini had long been associated with the anti-immigration, Euroskeptic Finns Party, though last year he defected and formed a new conservative group, known as Blue Reform. Before coming to power, Soini could sometimes be heard railing against “market liberals” and “NATO hawks.” But when I interviewed him in Helsinki in 2015, soon after he was appointed foreign minister, he told me his country wouldn’t hesitate to join NATO if Russian aggression continued to escalate. He’s also a vociferous supporter of Israel.
Through all the shifts of ideology and fortune, one point has remained fixed in his worldview: Soini is a devout Catholic, having converted from Lutheranism as a young man in the 1980s, and he firmly believes in the dignity of human life from conception to natural death. “I have been in politics for many years,” he said. “Everyone knows my pro-life stance.” The trouble is that “many people want me to have my views only in private.”
Hence his ordeal of the past few months. It all began in May when Soini was in Ottawa for a meeting of the Arctic Council, of which Finland is a member. At the church he attended for Mass, he spotted a flyer for an anti-abortion vigil, to be held the following evening. He attended the vigil as a private citizen: “I wasn’t performing as a minister but in my personal capacity. This happened in my spare time.”
A colleague posted a photo of the event on his private Twitter page, however, which is how local media in Finland got wind of his presence at the rally. The complaints soon poured into the office of the chancellor of justice, who supervises the legal conduct of government ministers. A four-month investigation followed. Soini didn’t break any laws, the chancellor concluded, but he should have been more circumspect when abroad, even in his spare time.
Soini wasn’t entirely oblivious to the fact that he was treading on sensitive ground. A top diplomat can never quite operate like a private citizen, much as a private citizen can’t act like a diplomat (someone tell John Kerry). Still, does anyone imagine that Soini would land in such hot water if he had attended a vigil for action on climate change? Or one in favor of abortion rights?
“No, no, no. I wouldn’t say so … The Finnish official line is that I should be careful because abortion is legal in Finland and Canada.” So the outrage is issue-specific and, to be precise, worldview-specific. In Nordic countries, especially, the political culture is consensus-based to a fault, and the consensus is that the outcome of the 1960s sexual revolution will never be up for debate. Next door in Sweden, midwives are blacklisted from the profession for espousing anti-abortion views. Ditto for Norwegian doctors who refuse to dispense IUDs and abortifacients on conscience grounds.
The consensus expects ministers to bring their views into line or keep their mouths shut. “This is of course clearly politics,” Soini told me. “I think I have freedom of conscience. I haven’t done anything wrong. This is me practicing my religion.” And the free exercise of religion means having the right to espouse the moral teachings of one’s faith—or it means nothing.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
Banality and evil.
A week ago, I wondered what was going on in Sunspot, New Mexico. The FBI had swept into this mountain-top solar observatory, complete with Black Hawk helicopters, evacuated everyone, and closed the place down with no explanation whatever. Local police were politely told to butt out. It was like the first scene in a 1950’s Hollywood sci-fi movie, probably starring Walter Pidgeon.
Well, now we know, at least according to the New York Post.
If you’re hoping for little green men saying, “Take me to your leader,” you’re in for a disappointment. It seems the observatory head had discovered a laptop with child pornography on it that belonged to the janitor. The janitor then made veiled threats and in came the Black Hawks.
In sum, an all-too-earthly explanation with a little law-enforcement overkill thrown in.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
The demands of the politicized life.
John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, has been the subject of withering criticism of late, but I’m grateful to him. Yes, he shouldn’t have refused to write a recommendation for a student merely because the semester abroad program she was applying to was in Israel. But at least he exposed what the boycott movement is about, aspects of which I suspect some of its blither endorsers are unaware.
We are routinely told, as we were by the American Studies Association, that boycott actions against Israel are “limited to institutions and their official representatives.” But Cheney-Lippold reminds us that the boycott, even if read in this narrow way, obligates professors to refuse to assist their own students when those students seek to participate in study abroad programs in Israel. Dan Avnon, an Israeli academic, learned years ago that the same goes for Israel faculty members seeking to participate in exchange programs sponsored by Israeli universities. They, too, must be turned away regardless of their position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When the American Studies Association boycott of Israel was announced, over two hundred college presidents or provosts properly and publicly rejected it. But even they might not have imagined that the boycott was more than a symbolic gesture. Thanks to Professor Cheney-Lippold, they now know that it involves actions that disserve their students. Yes, Cheney-Lippold now says he was mistaken when he wrote that “many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel.” But he is hardly a lone wolf in hyper-politicized disciplines like American Studies, Asian-American Studies, and Women’s Studies, whose professional associations have taken stands in favor of boycotting Israel. Administrators looking at bids to expand such programs should take note of their admirably open opposition to the exchange of ideas.
Cheney-Lippold, like other boycott defenders, points to the supposed 2005 “call of Palestinian civil society” to justify his singling out of Israel. “I support,” he says in comments to the student newspaper, “communities who organize themselves and ask for international support to achieve equal rights, freedom and to prevent violations of international law.” Set aside the absurdity of this reasoning (“Why am I not boycotting China on behalf of Tibet? Because China has been much more effective in stifling civil society!”). Focus instead on what Cheney- Lippold could have found out by Googling. The first endorser of the call of “civil society” is the Council of National and Islamic Forces (NIF) in Palestine, which includes Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and other groups that trade not only in violent resistance but in violence that directly targets noncombatants.
That’s remained par for the course for the boycott movement. In October 2015, in the midst of the series of stabbings deemed “the knife intifada,” the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel shared a call for an International Day with the “new generation of Palestinians” then “rising up against Israel’s brutal, decades-old system of occupation.” To be sure, they did not directly endorse attacks on civilians, but they did issue their statement of solidarity with “Palestinian popular resistance” one day after four attacks that left three Israelis–all civilians–dead.
The boycott movement, in other words, can sign on to a solidarity movement that includes the targeting of civilians for death, but cannot sign letters of recommendation for their own undergraduates if those undergraduates seek to learn in Israel. That tells us all we need to know about the boycott movement. It was nice of Cheney-Lippold to tell us.