Politics, et Cetera

A publication from The Political Forum, LLC

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Tuesday, May 30, 2017

They Said It:

Scientists – not all scientists, but certainly the best of them – have always held their laws as at best hypotheses subject to constant modification.  Political theorists, and especially political theorists in action, like Robespierre, have tended to hold their conclusions as dogmas. . . . This tendency to dogmatism was accelerated by the fact that the material with which the political thinkers worked was infinitely more complex than the material of the scientists, and by the fact that experimentation, and hence the inductive method, could be but incompletely applied to the study of man . . .  Moreover, political thought deals with human beings who are at bottom evaluating animals. . . . Science . . . will sometimes persuade [a man] to choose between apples and beans in accordance with the calories and vitamins they contain.  But in the last resort a man will choose to eat apples or eat beans because he prefers one to the other . . . Taste, in its widest sense, determines a vast number of the kind of human actions the political thinker must study, and we have as yet no satisfactory calculus of taste.

Crane Brinton, English Political Thought in the Nineteenth Century, 1949.



Longtime readers will know that we, like many conservatives, trace the source of a great many of society’s problems to the Enlightenment project.  This monumental, society-altering undertaking, by which learned men to turned their thoughts away from the practices of “superstition” and toward pure reason and the rational intellectual abilities of man, is nearly universally celebrated in Western Civilization.  But not by many conservatives.

It’s not that we don’t appreciate many of the ideas that became widespread during the Enlightenment.  We do.  It’s just that we understand that the most productive and powerful of these arguments were not novel to the age, but were, in fact, the product of historical wisdom passed down through the ages, a fact that would horrify the philosophes.  Voltaire, for example, revered Locke and his ideas about government, equality, and man’s rights.  But Locke himself borrowed heavily from Thomas Aquinas (who in turn borrowed heavily from Aristotle), which means that this most radical of Enlightenment thinkers actually venerated ideas that were a product of both antiquity and the supple mind of the Church’s most learned doctor.

Beyond that, of course, the Enlightenment was responsible for two related phenomena that we have often discussed in these pages.  The first of these was political chaos, which was evident almost immediately in the form of the French Revolution.  Like its Enlightenment patrons, the Revolution demanded the complete destruction of the Church and the restructuring of the “Western” cultural that emanated from it.  The Revolution itself may have seemed eminently justified, given the undeniable and manifest corruption of the French monarchy and the French Church, but its inevitable and predictable repercussions included The Terror, the rise of Napoleon, and more than a century of political bedlam.  From the French Revolution on, all Enlightenment-inspired rebellions, all such efforts to “remake man anew,” have instead resulted in chaos and in making a great many men dead.

The second obvious consequence of the Enlightenment was moral chaos.  The Enlightenment thinkers sought not only to undermine the Church in the temporal sense, but in the moral sense as well.  Put simply, they sought to render God irrelevant, to discover a purpose and a function for all things independent of God or any higher purpose.  As the great moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has noted, this attack on the existing moral structure was devastating.  Without the pre-Enlightenment teleological framework, “the whole project of morality becomes unintelligible,” and moral philosophy becomes nothing more than an arena for competing notions that have no basis other than “logic,” which is, of course, subjective.

The ultimate end of all of this, MacIntyre argued, is a civil order in which the traditional moral order has been eroded but has been replaced by nothing of any substance or meaning, which, in turn, breeds moral chaos. The modern, post-Enlightenment society, in turn, is one in which the meanings of such words as right, wrong, moral, immoral, truth, lie, justice and injustice are entirely capricious and contextual.  In such a society, MacIntyre notes, the statement “This is good” comes to mean nothing more than “Hurrah for this!”

All of this, we will concede, is well-trod ground in these pages.  And because we like you, we’ll spare you another rambling dissertation on the importance of traditional morality and the damage done by the legacy of this post-Enlightenment chaos.  Instead, today we will focus on a third, perhaps less conspicuous but equally important and equally destructive repercussion of the Enlightenment, a fixation on science as the guiding principle of human affairs.

Naturally, the political and moral chaos fostered by the Enlightenment was the product of the destruction of the existing order.  But this chaos was exacerbated by the attempt replace that order with a purely “scientific” understanding of man’s nature.  Sir Isaac Newton had revolutionized the physical world, demonstrating that it is ruled by rational, universal principles, rather than an interventionist God.  And the philosophes of the Enlightenment sought to do the same for human affairs.  Indeed, David Hume, the “skeptical” giant of the Scottish Enlightenment and an honorary French philosophe, explicitly considered himself to be a sort of “Newton of the mind” and set out to create a systemic order to prove it.

Hume was hardly alone, of course.  All, or at least most, of the philosophers and proto-sociologists of the Enlightenment sought to systematize the human mind and to explain human interactions in terms of science.  They saw that Newton’s triumphs had led to greater control and manipulation of the natural world, and they intended to do the same in politics, economics, social interaction, psychological matters, and so on.  In so doing, they believed, they could improve, if not perfect society.

This Enlightenment effort failed, of course.  And the “science” of man should, by all rights, have died along with the 16,000-plus Frenchmen slaughtered in the Enlightenment’s Revolution.  But it did not, and therefore much of the history 19th and early 20th centuries is the story of learned men relearning this tragic lesson and trying to apply science to human affairs.  Marx, in particular, is known for his claim of having developed or discovered a “scientific socialism,” which is to say the means by which he believed human activities progress.

Again, though, Marx was not alone.  The entire 19th century is riddled with “scientific” theories about this, that, or the other aspect of human affairs.  One of our favorite 19th century thinkers was a Frenchman named Auguste Comte, who was born in Paris just as the First Republic was nearing its inevitable and inglorious end, and who was heavily influenced by this notion of a “science of man.”  In his time, Comte was probably best known as a protégé of Claude Henri de Rouvroy, Comte de Saint-Simon, one of the three most important and influential “utopian socialists,” who, in turn, inspired Marx.  But to us, he is far more important.

Comte was the developer of the theory known as “positivism,” which held that there were three stages of human thought and that the third stage, which he was to inaugurate, would be based entirely on science, which he called “the only authentic knowledge.”  The first stage of human thought was religion, which, Comte said, was based on superstition.  The second was metaphysical, which was an improvement over the first but still speculative.  But the third stage, the scientific stage, had evolved over time, moving from astronomy to physics to the various forms biology and finally to the “human science” of sociology.  Naturally, this new “science” was rooted in the leftist belief that societies operate according to the same types of general laws that govern the physical world.

Most people don’t know or care much about Comte, who was, generally, speaking, pretty nutty. But, as we said, he matters a great deal, if for no other reason than the fact that he influenced two later thinkers, whose ideas, in turn, formed the foundations of the American Left as we know it today.

The first and best known of these two thinkers was John Stuart Mill, a hero of intellectual leftism and the patron saint libertinism masquerading as social consciousness.  Mill carried out a long correspondence with Comte and valued his ideas highly.  And while it is often noted that Mill eventually distanced himself from Comte, he also penned a book about him, in which he concluded that Comte was a smarter and more influential thinker than either Descartes or Leibniz.

Mill’s contributions to contemporary liberalism probably cannot be overstated.  He was, in many ways, the intellectual progenitor of much of what passes for leftist apologetics today.  For our purposes, though, he was less important than the other thinker greatly influenced by Comte, and so we will not dwell on him here.

The second “great” thinker influenced by Comte was Herbert Croly, who is less well known than Mill, but is possibly more important in contemporary American politics.  Croly’s father, David, was a journalist who not only adored Comte’s positivism, but wrote a book about it, entitled A Positivist Primer: Being a Series of Familiar Conversations on the Religion of Humanity.  Influenced by his father, the younger Croly too became enamored with Comte and with his “positivist” religion.  In 1909, Herbert Croly published his seminal work, The Promise of American Life, which would go on to become one of the founding documents of American Progressivism.

In his book, Croly paid homage to Comte and to his belief in a scientifically ordered society.  Like Marx, Croly believed that history progressed toward a predetermined end.  Unlike Marx, however, Croly did not believe that the driving force behind history was economic, i.e., class struggle, or that it was leading inexorably toward some sort of workers’ paradise.  He believed, with Comte, that scientific advancement was behind the march of history and, given that, that the course of history could be altered by understanding the nature of this science and directing it accordingly.

The book was a huge success, and it quickly turned Croly into one of the leading experts on government and society.  In fact, the progressive intellectuals of the day hailed his thoughts as nothing short of biblical.  Walter Lippmann described Croly’s book as “the political classic which announced the end of the Age of Innocence with its romantic faith in American destiny and inaugurated the process of self-examination.”  Felix Frankfurter said, “To omit Croly’s Promise from any list of half a dozen books on American politics since 1900 would be grotesque.”  In fact, he claimed that it “became a reservoir for all political writing after its publication.

In in the December 1997 issue of Reason magazine, the journalist and commentator Virginia Postrel (then the editor of Reason) wrote the following about Croly’s Promise:

Croly’s central message was that the government’s job is to solve social problems and to actively shape the future, not to be a neutral referee . . . . Croly’s ideas influenced, among other contemporaries, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, political rivals who in retrospect had more fundamental agreements than differences . . . Crolyism overturned the ideal of limited government in favor of a combination of elite power – commissions to regulate and plan – and mass democracy.  It was this pragmatic progressivism, not socialist utopianism, that extinguished classical liberalism as the general philosophy of American government.

Frustrated with constitutional limits, Croly wrote, “The security of private property and personal liberty, and a proper distribution of activity between the local and the central governments, demanded [at the time of the Constitution’s framing], and within limits still demand, adequate legal guarantees.  It remains none the less true, however, that every popular government should in the end, and after a necessarily prolonged deliberation, possess the power of taking any action, which, in the opinion of a decisive majority of the people, is demanded by the public welfare.”  This statement, while extreme, pretty much sums up today’s governing philosophy.

Croly’s biographer, David Levy, identified the following as proposals for this “scientifically” organized government offered in Croly’s book:

More power must be granted to the central government . . .

The national government must recognize the corporation and instead of breaking them to pieces allow them to grow freely . . . but when the activities of a corporation ran directly counter to the interests of the country. . . public ownership might prove necessary. . .

Americans needed to understand that they now possessed legitimate and far-flung interests in the world and . . .that Washington’s Farewell Address and the Monroe Doctrine had ceased to be totally adequate guides to the problems of war and peace, commerce and colonization . . .

Labor unions deserve to be favored because they are the most effective machine …for the amelioration of the laboring class . . .

The central government had to assert . . . its responsibility for a more equitable division of wealth . . . meet its obligation by progressive taxation, particularly by boldly moving to tax corporate profits and inherited wealth . . .

Men must stop their relentless devotion to the ideal of making money and somehow transfer that energy to the pursuit of less selfish but more fruitful goals that had to be national in scope and democratic in practice . . .

The final goal was a society based on “the religion of human brotherhood” . . . men must come to know “the loving kindness which individuals feel toward their fellowmen and particularly toward their fellow countrymen” . . .

Croly went on to become the animating force behind the 20th century Progressive movement, greatly influencing Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, among countless others.  His attacks on the constitutional order as established by the Founders and his obsession with a Comtean “science” of governance became hallmarks of the American Left.

And that brings us – at long last! – to the point of all of this.  Over the past several years, the political Left and the mainstream media have been fixated on the importance of “science” in American political life.  By extension, they have also been fixated by what they see as Republican “rejection” of science.

The impetus for much of this newfound obsession with science is, as you might have guessed, political posturing on the matter of global climate change.  The Left insists that anthropogenic climate change is real and demands greater government control of everything RIGHT NOW.  And the Right disagrees.  As a result, science has been pressed into service by the Left to “prove” to the Republicans that they are science-denying, logic-defying, environment-demolishing buffoons who will destroy both humanity and the natural world because of their intransigence and fealty to something called “Big Oil.”  All of this makes liberals and media types feel smart and gives them yet another reason to look down on the dumb-dumbs who populate the country, who vote for people like Donald Trump, and who desperately need someone enlightened to watch over them.

Now, when conservatives lament the Left’s “hijacking” of science, this is usually what they have in mind:  the Democrats’ attempts to fashion a scientific “consensus” that demands more of what the Democrats have been pushing anyway.  And while this is correct to an extent, it also misses a larger and more important point.  As we have tried to demonstrate here, the “hijacking” of science for political, social, or psychological ends is a phenomenon that is even older that “the Left” itself. Moreover, it’s a phenomenon that has little to do with the overt manipulation of genuine scientific data in pursuit of policy goals – as in the case of climate change – and everything to do with the completely ludicrous notion that scientific principles and methods can be applied to human behavior to create better policy outcomes.

For decades – indeed since Croly gave way to Wilson who gave way to John Dewey who gave way to FDR – American progressives have been peddling this centuries-old hokum of a “science” of humanity and its related science of governance.  And for the most part, they’ve been doing it with the tacit approval of the American people, despite the absolute absurdity of the very notion.  In a piece published just yesterday by the young-adult news site Vox.com, Jennifer Victor, an associate professor of political science at George Mason University, argued that the blurring of lines between political journalism and political science blogging is a double-edged sword, but is mostly a good thing because it exposes more people the rational study of American politics.  Among other things, she wrote that:

The concept of using applied social science to explain current events has become so mainstream and commonplace that it’s difficult to know the difference between random professor X’s blog and a news service whose mission is similar.  Vox is a good example.  While Vox hosts our blog, and several other independent academic blogs, it’s also a legitimate electronic news magazine, with professional journalists and a full-time staff and offices.  Much of Vox’s political reporting is done with the mission of using evidence, science, and the same standards of reasoning that social scientists use in evaluating claims.

With all due respect to Professor Victor, this is self-reverential nonsense.  The notion that social scientists use “science” or robust and convincing “standards of reasoning” is absurd.  Social science is not science.  It’s not even close.  It is pseudo-science – just like all of the other attempts to formulate a “science” of humanity developed over the last 300 years.  And it doesn’t matter how many fancy statistical models or mathematical equations you offer to suggest otherwise.  Moreover, it doesn’t matter how many Americans you convince of your “science” with these scientific-seeming tools.  Science is unbiased.  Science predicts the unpredictable.  Science is falsifiable, refutable, testable.  And social science is none of these things.

This is not to say that social science is not valuable.  No doubt it is.  But it is not science, no matter how loudly or statistically its practitioners may insist.  And its assertions and conclusions should not be treated as such.  Consider, if you will, the following example of some highly regarded social science that has recently been exposed as problematic.  The technology/science web site ArsTechnica.com provides the details:

Brian Wansink didn’t mean to spark an investigative fury that revisited his entire life’s work.  He meant to write a well-intentioned blog post encouraging PhD students to jump at research opportunities.  But his blog post accidentally highlighted some questionable research practices that caused a group of data detectives to jump on the case.

Wansink attracted the attention because he’s a rockstar researcher — when someone’s work has had such astronomical impact, problems in their research are a big deal.  His post also came at a time when his field, social sciences, is under increased scrutiny due to problems reproducing some of its key findings.

Wansink is probably regretting he ever started typing.  Tim van der Zee, one of the scientists participating in the ongoing examination into Wansink’s past, keeps a running account of what’s turned up so far.  “To the best of my knowledge,” van der Zee writes in a blog post most recently updated on April 6, “there are currently 42 publications from Wansink which are alleged to contain minor to very serious issues, which have been cited over 3,700 times, are published in over 25 different journals, and in eight books, spanning over 20 years of research. . . .

You’ve probably come across Wansink’s ideas at some point.  He researches how subtle changes in the environment can affect people’s eating behavior, and his findings have made a mark on popular diet wisdom.  Perhaps you’ve adopted the tip to use smaller plates to trick yourself into eating less, moved your unhealthy snacks into a hard-to-reach place, or placed your fruit bowl prominently on your kitchen counter.  Maybe you’ve scoffed at the “health halo” marketing of a decidedly unhealthy food, or chosen 100-calorie snack packs to control your intake.

And Wansink has influenced more than just popular culture.  “All of us who are in this sort of field use and refer to Brian’s work all the time,” researcher Yoni Freedhoff told Ars. . . .

Using existing data to answer new questions is fine — plenty of excellent research does this with census data, for example.  But if you don’t define your question before you go leaping inyou could come out latching on any significant p-value and calling it real.  “It doesn’t matter how ‘cool’ your data are,” writes statistician Andrew Gelman on his blog.  “If the noise is much higher than the signal, forget about it.”

It is entirely possible that the problem stems from a lack of understanding of statistics.  “My impression remains that Wansink is a naïf when it comes to research methods,” noted Gelman on his blog.  Naivety does seem to explain how Wansink could have posted his story without knowing that it would cause such outcry. . . .

The replication crisis in psychology has been drawing attention to this and other problems in the field.  But problems with statistics extends far beyond just psychology, and the conversation about open science hasn’t reached everyone yet.  Nicholas Brown, one of the researchers scrutinizing Wansink’s research output, told Ars that “people who work in fields that are kind of on the periphery of social psychology, like sports psychology, business studies, consumer psychology . . . have told me that most of their colleagues aren’t even aware there’s a problem yet.”

This may seem, at first blush, to be jargon-laden silliness: a bunch of social psychologists arguing with a different bunch of social scientists about what does or does not constitute solid statistical analysis.  Who cares, right?  Well, we care.  And you should care too.  This is just one example of the type of problems that exist with trying to turn social phenomena into scientific phenomena.  It doesn’t work.  It is inherently bias-laden.  It can’t be reproduced.  And no, better statistical modeling, better statistical education, better training of researchers won’t “fix” the problem.  The problem is inherent to the field.

Of course, the real reason that this matters is because Progressive government neither acknowledges nor cares that this isn’t real science.  Progressive government is based on the Enlightenment notion that government should be scientific.  And so Progressive government utilizes this sort of mistake-laden, inherently biased pseudo-scientific nonsense all the time.

Michael Bloomberg, the former Mayor of New York, banned the sale of large sodas, explicitly because of research like Brian Wansink’s.  This “science” told him that doing so would help people and save on health care costs.  But the “science” was wrong, not that Bloomberg or his advisers will ever admit it, their theory being un-falsifiable.

Likewise, the federal government spent the last several years forcing restaurants to spend a great deal of time and money printing calorie counts on menus and on web sites and on drive-thru ordering boards, based on the social science notion that doing so would help consumers make smarter choices and thereby limit their calorie intake.  Guess what?  They were wrong.  The evidence suggests that people tend to eat MORE calories when faced with the menu counts than they did before, not that the government bureaucrats will take this as evidence that their theory is false.  And that’s because their theory can’t be falsified, because there is always another explanation for why things don’t go as predicted.  Social science ISN’T science, after all, despite how the government and the media treat it.

Unfortunately, it’s not just food.  In 2015, Politico.com noted that nearly the entire social policy of the Obama administration was based on the notion that there is a “science” of humanity that can be used to solve a great many of our policy problems:

For the past year, the Obama administration has been running an experiment: Is it possible to make policy more effective by using psychology on citizens?

The nickname is “nudging” — the idea that policymakers can change people’s behavior just by presenting choices or information differently.  The classic example is requiring people to opt out of being an organ donor, instead of opting in, when they sign up for a driver’s license.  Without any change in rules, the small tweak has boosted the number of registered organ donors in many states.

Nudging has gained a lot of high-profile advocates, including behavioral-law guru Cass Sunstein and former budget czar Peter Orszag . . . .

The president officially adopted the idea last year when he launched the White House’s Social and Behavioral Science Team (SBST), a cross-agency effort to bring behavioral science research into the policymaking process.

Again, we stress that there is a purpose and a point to all of this, but it is NOT SCIENCE.  It is scientific-sounding social manipulation.  Nothing more, nothing less.

Sometimes, as we sit and read the nightly “bombshells” about President Trump and his alleged connections to Russia or his inability to practice “proper” Washington decorum, we grow dispirited.  We could have had a President Ted Cruz, we think, or a President Rand Paul, either of whom would be less scandal-plagued and better able to handle the typical Washington nonsense.  But then it occurs to us that the real reason Trump was elected was specifically because he couldn’t handle the typical Washington nonsense and therefore sought to destroy it.  And it must be destroyed.

For more than three-hundred years now, the philosophes of Western civilization have been pushing the nonsensical idea that man’s affairs can be ordered scientifically.  This belief contributed to the French Revolution, to the Marxist notion of “scientific socialism,” to fascism, Nazism, and even Progressivism.  All of which is to say that it has contributed to the wanton slaughter of countless millions of people, in addition the restriction of liberty of countless millions – even billions – more.  The contemporary American administrative state is built on this very notion, that science can order our lives and solve all our problems.  And this is – to borrow a phrase from a late-Scottish- Enlightenment figure – nonsense on stilts.

And dangerous nonsense at that.

Copyright 2017. The Political Forum. 3350 Longview Ct., Lincoln NE  68506, tel. 402-261-3175, fax 402-261-3175. All rights reserved. Information contained herein is based on data obtained from recognized services, issuer reports or communications, or other sources believed to be reliable. However, such information has not been verified by us, and we do not make any representations as to its accuracy or completeness, and we are not responsible for typographical errors. Any statements nonfactual in nature constitute only current opinions which are subject to change without notice.