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Posted by on Jan 25, 2013 in Bioethics, Politics, Science | 12 comments

Michael Shermer on the left’s war on science

Michael Shermer has a controversial piece in Scientific American in which he complains about what he calls “The Liberals’ War on Science”. Perhaps I should start by questioning the term “liberal” here. Apparently the piece was originally published as “The Left’s War on Science”, which sounds much more apt. Although the views that Shermer describes can be found on the political left, in my experience they do not tend to come from liberals so much as from various kinds of socialists, anarchists, social democrats, and the like. Indeed, the body of Shermer’s article  refers, not to liberals or to social democrats but to the far left.

In fact, I see little reason for liberals in the tradition of, say, John Locke and John Stuart Mill to embrace anti-science or technophobic attitudes.

However,  the terminology is often confusing. For example, some American philosophical “liberals” are actually more left-wing on economic issues than European style social democrats. Thus, it can get messy. But “liberal” should not be used as a synonym for politically left wing, let alone for any far-left position. Liberals are not necessarily egalitarians or anti-capitalist. We are basically the opposite of conservatives – we value social and ethical pluralism, distrust the traditional “conservative” institutions of Church and State (even if we also distrust the power of large private corporations), and above all defend individual liberty. Our nearest thing to a holy book is John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty (1859), with its powerful defence of the harm principle and freedom of speech. None of this in any way suggests an anti-science or technophobic viewpoint.

However, as I’ve discovered over the years, many people on the political left are not liberal at all – they are anti-liberal, and have much in common with conservatives on the religious right. Often, they embrace a kind of religion based on ideas of a natural order that must not be violated. These sorts of people have a great distrust of science and technology, which manifests in many of their political positions, as well as in much of the art and popular culture that they favour (or, in some cases, produce). Some of them can be quite authoritarian.

Much of my own research over the past decade and a half has been in the field of philosophical bioethics, where many people on the political left adopt technophobic stances that have little to do with liberal thought, though they may something to do with a perception of science and technology as imperialist and oppressive forces, or something of the kind. Accordingly, I never make the easy assumption that someone who identifies as being on the political left is an ally of mine when it comes to, say, attitudes to assisted reproduction. Such developments as IVF, “saviour siblings”, sperm sorting for sex selection, surrogacy arrangements, and many others are (almost?) as likely to be opposed by people on the farther end of the political left spectrum as by people on the right of politics. Genuine liberals, by contrast, are likely to be relaxed about all of these innovations, perhaps advocating some relatively basic regulatory safeguards to counteract obvious forms of exploitation and to address safety issues.

There seems to be a bit of angst around about Shermer’s piece, but in my opinion this is misplaced. While it may not be strictly correct to talk about “liberals” in this context, I’ve encountered the phenomenon that Shermer describes again and again. Perhaps there’s a problem about moral equivalence – surely, you say, the political right is much more dangerous? Well, that may be true in the US, and not only because the American political right is so spectacularly crazy. In the US, there are many impediments to enacting laws that, for example, impose draconian restrictions on, say, IVF or GM foods. In Europe, things look very different, and in those relatively more left-leaning societies it is often possible to enact such restrictions, with the impetus coming from the political left – technophobic socialists and the like – as much as from the churches and other right-wing groups.

I’ve been complaining about this development for a long time, on and off, going back over a decade (e.g. I published an article called “The Left’s Defection from Progress” in 1999). But good for Shermer for raising the issue in a high-profile way. Irrationalism, anti-science, technophobia, and outright Luddism on the political left are phenomena that we don’t talk about often enough.