Saturday, June 02, 2007

The Assault on ‘The Assault’

By Mark Buchanan
Our Lives as Atoms
The New York Times
May 31, 2007

Most people have reacted enthusiastically to Al Gore’s new book, “The Assault on Reason.” He seems to have hit a nerve with his assessment of what ails our democracy – the unchecked power of special interests backed by big money, the pervasive influence of mindless and addictive television, and the relentless triumph of image and style over content, which makes us read more articles about John Edwards’ haircuts than about our failing education system. “Gore understands our problems,” as one reviewer put it, “as does no other politician of our time.”

But not everyone shares that view. And judging from some of the more negative reviews now beginning to appear, the idea of trying to improve our public discourse and our government’s policies by the collective application of reason – and even science – comes pretty close in some peoples’ minds to communism or totalitarianism. It’s an assault on human freedom, an inhuman attempt to stamp out human virtue and sensitivity.

One reviewer claimed that Gore isn’t promoting better democracy, but aims for “the suppression of free political debate.” Others compared his writing style to “congressional testimony,” concluded that he’s “not American” and that “his every utterance and every persuasion is European socialist with considerable training in propaganda.”

In a recent column, a less extreme reviewer, David Brooks, chided Gore for pushing a “Vulcan Utopia” devoid of the emotion and passion that support the true core of human experience, and mocked him as a strange individual who “reacts to machines, not people.”

Ironically, of course, these reviews actually illustrate Gore’s central point. They cast him as a liberal monster who aims to suppress free speech, or they make fun of his writing, his sighs or his professorial manner, rather than focusing on his arguments. They aim to win with image and rhetoric, not content.

Which is great as entertainment, but not so great for understanding issues that really matter: how and why we’ve slipped from first to sixth in global business competitiveness, why our infant mortality rate ranks down there with Latvia’s, or why the Chinese are graduating more engineers every year than we are.

Surely a good share of the extreme animus against Al Gore comes from the far right, who seem to hate him viscerally, and from powerful business interests with no particular desire for widely ranging debate amongst an informed public. These interests like to paint Gore – and his idea of government that would use rather than abuse knowledge – as the products of some kind of demented science-crazed lunacy bent on shackling the human spirit with equations or computer programs, and luring us into a scientifically planned hell-on-earth.

Unfortunately, this kind of image seems to resonate with other fears that people have about science. And I wonder if this resonance doesn’t explain, at least in part, why Gore has in the past been demonized in this way so effectively.

Implicit in Gore’s argument is the notion that science shouldn’t merely be a source of knowledge about, say, the environment, or the hazards or potential benefits of nuclear energy, and so on, but should also be seen as a source of knowledge about how social systems function — including political systems. Especially important, in his view, is the way the human mind is susceptible to modern techniques of persuasion, based on scientific insights from psychology and neuroscience. Surely we ought to use science not only to manipulate people, but also to bolster our republic and make it function better?

Many people seem to think that science should have boundaries. They’re O.K. if it stays in the familiar realms of physics, chemistry, biology and geology. But there’s an innate distrust when science begins poking around our lives, thoughts and behavior, and near alarm at the idea that science might possibly show that we, like the rest of nature, obey law-like regularities – even if we might learn from them and in so doing help ourselves.

The science philosopher Lee McIntyre several years ago published a scholarly book entitled “Law and Explanation in the Social Sciences: Defending a Science of Human Behavior,” in which he argued that there’s no reason to think that human social science has to be essentially different from the rest of science, although many social theorists have been saying as much for years. His arguments, as he relates in his most recent book, “Dark Ages,” met with irate and emotional criticism, and intense resistance, though not many strong counterarguments:

[The counterarguments] were so weak that I became convinced that even their advocates did not really believe them. …The threat, it seems, is one to human freedom and autonomy-the notion that we are “special” in the universe. It is taken to be an insult to human dignity to suppose that one can study our behavior with the same methodology that one uses to study all the other matter in the universe. It degrades us and robs us of our uniqueness. It is somehow to make us less than human.

Maybe this deep-seated fear has nothing to do with the resistance to Al Gore’s proposals, which after all only aim to help us understand how we got ourselves into this predicament, in which the knowledge we create as a society, often at immense cost, so often fails to influence our policies. But I do wonder if it isn’t reflected in the intense criticisms of his world view, which some see as sterile, lacking in emotion and virtually inhuman.

Of course, they could certainly say as much about everything I’ve written about in this column over the past month. I’ve described a number of examples – some more convincing than others, to be sure – of how collective social patterns can “well up” in human groups, following processes that often operate outside of the field of human awareness. Of course, there’s no threat to morality or human autonomy, to values or emotions, in any of this, for there’s no contradiction between individual freedom and patterns that emerge in regular ways at the level of many people.

Our understanding of the human world is still relatively backward, I think, in part because the philosophy of man and society got off on the wrong track centuries ago and has been stuck with some damaging preconceptions, the worst of which is that man is somehow essentially different from the rest of nature and stands apart from it; that we can’t, or shouldn’t, use science to understand and help govern ourselves and our societies. This idea is still very influential. And it’s one of the key ideas, I suspect, that, although hidden, now stands in Al Gore’s way.

Thanks so much to everyone who has taken the time to comment on any of my essays. The idea, really, was just to illustrate a way of thinking that, I think, we should be more aware of. I’ve read all your comments, agreeing or disagreeing, and I’ve learned a lot from them. It’s been a lot of fun! I hope you’ll be interested to read further in coming months on my personal blog.


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