On Reason, Populism and History

My observations begin with these thoughts by Michael Crichton.

His brief history of eugenics is what I want to focus on: he argues that the concepts it used were too vague, supplied by populist notions of what-had-to-be-the-case. From there, the scientists fell in line: populism affects the media, affects the government, and thus affects the direction science takes. No coercion was needed in Nazi Germany to make scientists fall in line with their eugenics program, which was considered by many elites to be the height of such programs, until that messy problem of a War.

Now I do disagree with Crichton’s use of the term “politicized science.” I don’t think science can ever be wholly exempt from politics.Therefore, I don’t think a wholly scientifically literate populace would necessarily create good science, either: they would still find ways of having prejudices infect the state of research, perhaps more dangerous prejudices because they could not be said to be ignorant. And while government funding for some scientific projects has been money wasted, some of it has been money well-spent.

So what I propose is making it clear that the problem is not “politics” and “science,” but more “populism” and “science.” You can not have the many dictate to the few what they should be thinking. That means we need a realm of the “theoretical” to exist in modern democracy: we can’t just have our pieties and our daily deeds – we need to be more active in thinking through ethical problems and reading philosophy and literature and not just consigning that stuff to “entertainment.” The real problem with populism is that it says all tastes are created equal, because all men are equal and therefore desires are equal. And that’s not true: some of us do more than others; a few of us think better than others; and the ones that count the most love better than others.

An example of a combination of all three attributes are the Renaissance men who gave us modern science: the idea in Descartes and Bacon (well, the latter probably was a scumbag) was to reduce the theoretical to principles describing experiential knowledge so that way theoretical knowledge was literally useful for the masses. The many could see the results the few produced, and society would be more humane.

I guess, in that spirit, I could just agree with Dr. Crichton, and say “yeah, we should get politics out of science, since science is already inherently ideologically loaded to serve the best interests of humanity.” But strictly speaking, that’s not true – those scientists that did eugenics did go along with the rest of the people; the consequence we’re seeing now of the early modern thinkers’ reduction of the theoretical is that the few are subordinate to the whims of the many (to connect this with global warming: we all believe, even if it might not be true, that to do anything hurts the earth – we do seem to feel a guilt for existing. The government and media elites who are pushing this global warming stuff are working with that sentiment to reinforce all they can conceive of what is left of morality).

I want to make a quick observation about the “theoretical” and why it is even more essential than I have let on. Look, all the populist rage at President Bush isn’t going to go away, even if Iraq magically turned 100% peaceful. Eugenics hasn’t been discredited, it’s just been silenced publicly. Its legacy is going very, very strong – note that certain races suffer more than others from abortion. Similarly, the challenge we face is to not deny the history we’re actually witnessing: people have to be accountable in some way for the ideas they hold. Freedom of speech has to mean responsibility for thought.

Otherwise, we’re condemned to being a democracy that lasts because of its blindness, not because it gives true freedom.

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