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When President Obama, newly elected and riding high on the wave of hopes he had created, announced in his inaugural address, "We will restore science to its rightful place," he was really making two points: (1) The previous administration, with its anti-science policies, had nearly run our ship-of-state aground on its voyage of social progress; and (2) his administration, in contrast, would be guided by science and so would free our vessel from the shoals of stagnation and steer a new course toward unending human betterment. In short, the "Party of Science," he suggested, would bring us smoothly and safely back to the calm seas of progress.
In fact, however, for the better part of four decades the ship has been caught between the currents of modernism and the riptides of postmodernism, and risks foundering in treacherous waters that the "Party of Science" does not fully understand and is unable to negotiate. Over the past century, both modernism and postmodernism have showed the dangers of science wrongly used.
Modernism & Thoroughbreds
Spawned in the Enlightenment by the world-changing discoveries of the Scientific Revolution, modernism, the story goes, promoted the advancement of society through mankind's conquering and harnessing of nature.
Ignited by its three articles of faith—the infallibility of human reason, the omnipotence of science, and the perfectibility of man—modernism triggered an explosion of technological wonders in the last century—and also of humanitarian horrors. In the brief span of ten decades, the twentieth century experienced more scientific discoveries and technological advancements than all the previous centuries combined—and it also, with great technological efficiency, produced more bloodshed than ever seen before.
Highlighted by the devastation inflicted by Fat Man and Little Boy on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the meteoric rise of modernism was accompanied by two world wars, a cold war, and the totalitarian "advances" of death camps, gulags, and "re-education" centers. And on both sides of the Atlantic, social engineers, enamored with the theories of Darwin, worked to wrest the reins of "selection" away from brute nature and into human hands through eugenics.
Although social Darwinism reached its heinous apogee in Nazi Germany, it had gained a foothold a decade earlier in the United States. By the 1920s, the social left, convinced that improving the human stock was essential to its progressive ideals, facilitated a eugenics movement involving targeted sterilization, abortion, and birth control. The targeted populations were those deemed feeble-minded, physically defective, or otherwise unfit "to create a race of thoroughbreds," as Planned Parenthood founder and eugenics pioneer Margaret Sanger so indelicately put it.1
Though still claiming to be the Party of Science, today's left ironically finds itself at cross-purposes with the main currents of science in many respects. As New Atlantis senior editor Yuval Levin explains in a recent article:
Science (as the true postmodernists know) is the foremost font of modern power, and the underlying source of almost all the expressions and incarnations of power the left does find troubling: industrial power, corporate power, military power, imperial power, and especially human power over the natural world.2
This tension is especially evident in the left's environmentalism:
In the past three decades, environmentalism has become a fully integrated component of the worldview of the American left. . . . But the perspective of environmentalism could hardly be more different than that of modern science on the questions of nature, power, progress, and man.
By helping man conquer nature and gain mastery over it, science is at once the engine of the left's progressive hopes and the cause of its environmental fears. This has led to an ideological schizophrenia exemplified, for example, in the left's views on nuclear power.
Undoubtedly, harnessing the atom ranks as one of the greatest achievements of modern science. Nuclear power provides an abundant, reliable, and efficient source of energy that both reduces our dependence on foreign oil and is carbon-neutral, which, according to the Party of Science, is essential if we are to avoid a climate-change apocalypse.
So, expanding the use of nuclear power would be a win for the environment and a win for human progress, right? Well, no. Despite its considerable benefits, including a safety record that—Three Mile Island, Chernobyl , and the recent Fukushima accident nothwithstanding—far exceeds that for all other major energy industries, as well as solutions to nuclear waste that are technologically sound, nuclear power receives a near unanimous thumbs-down from the left, the Party of Science. It turns out that the left is only for the science that fits its particular ideological—and non-scientific—social agenda.
Selectively Equal & Not
The left also prides itself on being the Party of Equality. But its alleged scientific platform provides no basis for its egalitarian values. Rather, as Levin points out,
Science measures our material and animal qualities, and it finds them to be patently unequal. . . . We are born physically and mentally unequal, and always remain so. . . .
The left insists, however, on ignoring these differences and actively attempts social engineering to equalize society (wealth redistribution is only one example). Levin goes on to note another aspect of the left's attitude toward science:
The closer the left aligns itself with the ideology of modern science (taking, for instance, all human actions and beliefs to be mere functions of neural biochemistry) the further it seems to distance itself from any sensible case for egalitarianism.
That is, the left generally has abandoned the longstanding Judeo-Christian notion of the equal dignity of all humans as beings created in the image of God. As the "Party of Science," it embraces a reductionist and materialistic view of man—human life is not intrinsically sacred.
Yet even here, the left ignores what science does reveal about human beings. For example, science reveals that a genetically complete and unique human being is formed at the moment of conception. So while the left insists that all human beings have intrinsic rights deserving equal protection by the state, it excludes from said protection anyone who is unfortunate enough to be living in his mother's womb. What's more, not only can the smallest among us be denied the most basic of all human rights, the right to live, but they are also eyed by the left as utilitarian means to its utopian ends; i.e., they can be destroyed through extraction of their stem cells for the sake of medical research.
So, despite its moralizing rhetoric about equality, the left regards some human beings as more equal than others. What make this Animal Farm possible is the current of postmodernism, with its social construction of "personhood."
While leftists will concede that a human fetus, embryo, or even a zygote is a human being, they will also argue that it is not a "person," and therefore that it does not qualify for the full range of human rights due to persons. In order to qualify as a person, a being not only must be human and alive but also must be self-aware, as Peter Singer has infamously declared.
Of course, by that criterion, Singer himself—not to mention the rest of humanity—would fail to qualify for personhood if he happened to be under general anesthesia, or passed out from intoxication, or knocked out from stumbling into a door, or any other time he was unconscious, including during the one-third of his time he spends sleeping. But none of that seems to keep Singer, or anyone else in the pro-choice camp, awake at night.
Social constructions have also been concocted by the Party of Science to get around the science of human sexuality. It is a stubborn scientific fact that one's sex is determined by a pair of sex chromosomes called the X and Y chromosomes. If a person has a matched pair (two X chromosomes), she is female; if a mismatched pair (one X and one Y chromosome), he is male.
But since the binary fact of sexuality doesn't fit with their social agenda, leftists co-opted the term "gender" to blur the distinct categories of male and female. They converted a grammatical term for classifying nouns into a free-floating, movable variable for indicating a person's sexual desires, identity, orientation, and behaviors. Where people had formerly thought only in terms of the two sexes, they were now expected to think in terms of multiple "genders."
The left thus discarded the (true) notion that sex is determined by the physical facts of one's genes or physiology and replaced it with the idea that one's gender is determined by the sense of being male or female—or something in between, for a person's "sense" can place him anywhere along the gender "continuum" and can even change at different stages of life or even from moment to moment: male yesterday, female today, male-female hybrid tomorrow. Think of the transgendered man who imagines himself a lesbian trapped in a male body. If your head can stop spinning around that one, you can get the picture.
These social constructions of "personhood" and "gender" reveal the intrinsic incompatibility of the left with modern science. In this regard, the left is epistemologically and ideologically postmodern. Science is based on the belief that objective truth exists and is discoverable through empirical observation and investigation. But despite its own dogmatism on certain matters, the left claims to be skeptical of truth and of people who claim to have it.
For the left, truth is a mere construct of the "ruling class" (except when they are the ones in power); thus, truth claims are exclusive by nature and inevitably result in social injustice. More important than objective facts teased out of nature by scientific study are subjective feelings, choices, and experiences.
This is a relativistic view of truth that, over the past forty years, has created a culture in which, among other things: a woman's inconvenience over an unwanted pregnancy trumps the scientific fact of an unborn child's humanness; irrational sentiments about nuclear power leave our country dependent upon foreign and even hostile entities for its energy needs; a man's desire to be a homosexual woman overrules the biological and physiological facts of his sex; policymakers eschew references to God, despite the necessity of transcendence and the failure of science to ground the concepts of inalienable human rights and dignity; environmental policies are driven by climate-change hysteria and ignore the inability of climate science to nail a local weekend weather forecast, much less a global hundred-year trend.
There is more than a touch of irony in all this. While the left casts a jaundiced eye on absolute truth, its own dogmatism in the matters listed above matches that of the most ardent religious fundamentalist. In leftists' blinkered imagination, all truth is suspect, except the scientific truths that they find convenient.
We can be sure that if the Party of Science succeeds in restoring "science to its rightful place," true science will become increasingly subservient to the social constructions of the left's utopian enterprises, and our ship-of-state will founder on the rocks. •
1. Ben Wiker, "Angry White Female: Margaret Sanger's Race of Thoroughbreds," National Catholic Register (June 24, 2001); www.catholiceducation.org/articles/sexuality/se0057.html.
2. Yuval Levin, "Science and the Left," The New Atlantis (Winter 2008); www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/science-and-the-left.
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