The tyranny of guilt and the politics of dissolution

Pascal Brucker’s The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism is a passionate indictment of the guilt-ridden and self-loathing culture that dominates contemporary Western Europe, and his own country, France, in particular. In the chapter Listen to My Suffering, Bruckner identifies and challenges the widespread climate of victimization:

As soon as we acquire the status of legal claimants, we immediately acquire that of injured parties as well. Each of us is given at birth a portfolio of grievances to exploit. History as a whole owes us a debt which we demand be immediately repaid. Today, we combine romanticism with suffering; we form a new elite caste, with an absolute allergy to pain, the ideal being to acquire the title of pariah without having actually endured anything. The slightest adversity we encounter is a scandal that has to be indemnified. To set oneself up as a victim is to give oneself twofold power to accuse and demand, to cast opprobrium on others and to beg. And since each of us has in our family tree at least a person who was hanged, one proletarian, one victim of persecution, we will go back as far as the Middle Ages if that is what it takes to demand justice. Classical  political combat trained warlike men and women who were proud of their conquests, whereas contemporary legal combat produces chronic malcontents. It is not clear that this presents progress (page 147-148).

Brucker can hardly be called an exponent of the secular Hard Right and his writings can be best understood as an attempt to rescue the original progressive Enlightenment ideals from the ravages of identity politics and multiculturalism. The author embraces the egalitarian democratic ideal and claims that modern intellectuals have abandoned universalism in pursuit of a new species of identity politics in which moral superiority is expressed as cultivated self-hatred. What remains unclear is whether these faux progressives are basically well-intentioned  intellectuals gone astray or whether all this rhetoric is just another rationalization of the will to political power.

In Brucker’s universe, democracy is a neutral decision mechanism in which conflicting conceptions of the good and interests fight for dominance. Culture is shaped by “ideas” (biology is largely absent in his book) and we should make an effort to ensure the ideals of the Enlightenment prevail. What is questionable about this perspective is whether democracy should be treated in such a neutral fashion. In a very general sense, identity politics is an inescapable feature of modern democracy because majority rule requires a moral or cultural rationale for the preferential treatment of one group over another. A politics that would aspire to completely abstain from non-unanimous decision making would bring about the end of the State. Because a straightforward appeal to superior force is both unappealing and vulnerable,  practical politics is always in search for legitimacy as it benefits one group at the expense of another. The modern therapeutic state offers no shortage of excuses to intervene – albeit of a transient nature.

Brucker offers a defense of national borders that, at some points, could double as a defense of private property and free trade: “To draw a boundary is to put an end to battle: the former enemy becomes and ally, the foreigner a neighbor. The border area calms down, dangers are domesticated.”

What distinguishes today’s progressives from the aristocratic rulers of old is that they do not accept any borders – neither nation nor property. With such beliefs, there can be little doubt that this culture and its people will ultimately be displaced. Political power based on self-loathing and empowerment of political rivals is even more vulnerable to dissolution than political power that solely grows out of the barrel of a gun.

Liberal creationism, the unity of nature, and ideology

In his book Feminism and Freedom the philosopher Michael Levin writes:

One usually thinks of creationism as a doctrine for religious fundamentalists, but from a methodological point of view, belief in the special creation of the human species is entailed by any refusal to apply evolutionary theory to man. It is irrelevant whether this refusal is sustained by a literalistic reading of scripture or committment to a secular ideology. Indeed, a case can be made that religious critics of Darwin display a stronger sense of the unity of nature than do scientific critics of innateness in man. This is most especially true of scientists like Richard Lewontin and Steven Jay Gould, who take a wholly naturalistic stance toward all living creatures apart from man (and are prepared to use the theory of evolution polemically in ideological debate), yet reject all but the most trivial comparisons of other living creatures to man. (p. 66-67)

In ‘Who is Against Evolution?’, the economist David Friedman also discusses the phenomenon that most people who are against teaching creationism tend to avoid and discourage discussing the human implications of evolution:

People who say they are against teaching the theory of evolution are very likely to be Christian fundamentalists. But people who are against taking seriously the implications of evolution, strongly enough to want to attack those who disagree, including those who teach those implications, are quite likely to be on the left.

To them evolution is good for explaining animal behavior, but using the same tools to explain human behavior, let alone letting it influence public policy, is considered repulsive. It may not be a coincidence that the taboo on discussing human behavior in an evolutionary context parallels the growth of government. A strict “environmentalist” position is more compatible with large scale tinkering  and calls for “change” than a view of human nature that accepts limits to the malleability of man.

In fact, all three major political ideologies mostly ignore man as a biological organism. Most conservatives object to evolutionary arguments due to religious convictions or out of fear of being labeled “reductionist.” Progressives generally abhor (and often suppress) biological arguments in political philosophy and public policy altogether. And libertarian-leaning economists feel more comfortable with discussing man as an undifferentiated rational agent despite the clear fact that biology (and associated disciplines like genetics and neuroscience) stands on much firmer scientific ground than many other sciences that inform contemporary public policy. One wonders whether this phenomenon should be attributed to a general aversion of ideologues to biology or whether this is just a transient, irrational, response to the abuse of biological arguments by totalitarian regimes during the first half of the 20th century.

Jim Goad and the Passover Syndrome

Over at Taki’s Magazine, Jim Goad writes about ethnomasochism and the conformist mindset of today’s progressives:

A common delusion among Passover Syndrome sufferers is that they represent the cusp of some bold revolutionary cultural vanguard rather than modern mainstream society itself. They seduce themselves into thinking they are rebels against an oppressively racist society, yet there is nothing dangerous or career-threatening in anything they say. In truth, to disagree with what they say is to court ostracism, assault, and possible legal action. So rather than being mavericks in the Nat Turner mold, their personalities more fit that of the obsequious and conformist House Negro who toes the party line with a wide, bucktoothed grin. They seem cognitively incapable of grasping the fact that their personalities are indeed so fundamentally conformist, they may have participated in lynch mobs a century ago.

Similarly, in an engaging piece about the lack of ideological diversity in American theater Harry Stein makes the following  observation:

Like liberals everywhere, its creators imagine they’re speaking truth to power—when, in fact, they are the power, and guard it as jealously as any of the right-wing, American-allied dictators of yore they grew up protesting against.

One of the most fascinating questions about contemporary political culture is how long progressives  can keep claiming that they are fighting the status quo before recognizing that they are the status quo. During the 20th century the United States has seen an almost uninterrupted  victory of those who want to use the power of the state to alter the unequal and “prejudiced” outcomes of individual choice and free markets. This ideology has become so widely accepted among those who seek power that even Republican candidates like Sarah Palin feel they need to play the “sexism” card to win a debate.

There are those on the Hard Left (labor unions, for example) who never had problems  recognizing that egalitarianism requires massive coercion. But this identification with power is not comfortable for those whose political ideals where shaped in the 1960s. The history of how the libertarian socialists and radicals of the protest generation gradually degenerated into advocating the worst kinds of censorship, elitism, and authoritarianism still remains to be written.

A positive-sum game against nature

Whenever there is a major economic event (a rapid decline of stock prices, a spike in the price of oil, high unemployment, etc.) the media can be counted on to feature a person who was predicting these events all along. This should not be surprising because there are so many professional economists and commentators who cannot restrain themselves from making economic predictions that a few of them will turn out to be correct. But what is surprising is that so few journalists seem to be able to distinguish between skill and luck. This is one of the major themes of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s seminal Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in the Markets and in Life.

If you are an obscure, but aspiring, economist, what are your options? In the June 2009 issue of The Freeman, Anthony de Jasay writes (p.33-34):

What is left for the 250,000 other, less-distinguished economists to do to gain fame and fortune? They too can offer forecasts and might put them on some record. If they place them in the cluster and the actual outcome is in the cluster, they remain unremarked and neither gain nor lose anything. If they go way outside the cluster and the outcome is in the cluster, nobody will remember the wrong forecast made a year earlier. They will again gain nothing and lose nothing. If their forecast is in the cluster and the actual outcome is way outside it, they will be in the good company of their 500 more-distinguished fellows and will again remain unremarked.

The rational choice for such an undistinguished economist is to make extreme predictions, corroborated with pessimistic scenarios that make such forecasts plausible.  If the economist is wrong, nothing (or little) is lost; if he is right, great publicity and riches can be expected. In technical terms, “he has access to a positive-sum game against nature.” On a more serious note, Jasay writes that “such forecasts are the best method of deepening the gloom, frightening the credulous, and making the worst more probable.”

Common political fallacies

In Cato Journal, Volume 28, No. 1 (Winter 2008), the independent scholar Anthony de Jasay reviews four common fallacies (as presented in the works of John Stuart Mill, Ronald Dworkin, John Rawls, and Armen Alchian) that many social scientists and political journalists keep repeating without rigorous analysis.

The first fallacy is that production should be governed by the laws of economics, but that distribution needs to be decided by society. As de Jasay points out,

“Output is distributed while it is produced. Wage earners get some of it as wages in exchange for their efforts; owners of capital get some of it as interest and rent in exchange for past saving. Entrepreneurs get the residual as profit in exchange for organization and risk bearing. By the time the cake is “baked,” it is also sliced and those who played a part in baking it have all got their slices. No distributive decision is missing, left over for “society” to take.”

Although these slices can be distributed again by society, this will constitute a secondary redistribution, usually involving coercion.

The second fallacy is that the aim of public policy should not be equality of outcomes, but equality of opportunity. Such “equality at the starting gate” assumes that equality of opportunity and equality of outcome can be separated. But unless opportunities are equalized at the point where acquired advantages are at a minimum (at birth), maximizing equality of opportunity would require stripping away the advantages people have acquired before the starting gate, and continuous intervention in outcomes to equalize opportunities between generations.

The third fallacy is that in a just society individuals must have a right to the greatest possible liberty compatible with the same liberty for all. As de Jasay has pointed out in detail in his writings, the proviso “compatible with the same for others” is meaningless because it is without substance. In its current form it means that I am at liberty to do anything I want (including violence and theft), provided others have the same liberty as well. Clearly, this is not what advocates of this position intended. More troubling to de Jasay is the fact that liberty is presented as a “right”:

“What is deeply worrying about this thoughtless misuse of the word “right” is that it can be straightened out at a single stroke by simply assuming that every feasible act is prohibited unless we are somehow granted a “right” to perform it, in which case it becomes a liberty. It takes a right to lift it out of the universe of prohibitions.”

The fourth fallacy is that society has a right to modify, transfer and revoke property because property rights are granted and defended by “society.” As has been discussed in the first fallacy about production and distribution, redistributing property would be tantamount to ignoring the fact that all who have helped to produce property have already been remunerated in the process. As in the case of a “right to liberty”, the “right to” part is redundant:

“Like all liberties, the kind we call property exists and is exercised within the rules that prohibit certain wrongs (torts). Staying as it does inside the rules, it needs no separate right to exist and be exercised. Nor does it make sense to think of an obligation imposed on all not to do against property what the rules prohibit them from doing anyway.”

Anthony de Jasay: Parrot Talk: The Repetition of Common Fallacies (PDF)

Rights: nonsensical, empirical and hypothetical

If there is one thing that characterizes contemporary political discourse, and contemporary political liberalism in particular, it is the obsession with “rights.” Individual rights are absolute, or “trumps,” that do not permit to be overridden by collective goals, and can only be defeated by another trump. But since every right implies a corresponding obligation (a cost), increasing the number of rights we have also increases the number of obligations. If many of these rights are perceived to be equally important, or to be weighed differently in different circumstances, the scope and depth of collective choice will expand and creation and enforcement of rights will come to reflect the moral and political fashions of the day. Of course, this will largely defeat the trump-like nature that rights were supposed to have in the first place.

The fundamental question is where these “rights” come from in the first place. Rights are supposed to be “self-evident,” can be deduced from God’s will, the logic of reason, or the nature of man, etc. Unfortunately, attempts to find a solid foundation for rights have not been very fruitful, and even philosophers that agree on the same foundation for rights have often derived wildly different conclusions about the nature of those rights. But despite the failure to find objective evidence (either empirical or logical) for the existence of rights, “rights-talk” increasingly dominates public discourse. This is not just confined to modern “egalitarian” liberalism but has been a dominant feature of libertarianism as well, as evidenced by the writings of Ayn Rand, and Murray Rothbard, and the early Robert Nozick.

How do we reconcile the popularity of “rights-talk” with the lack of evidence for the existence of rights? The most obvious explanation is that by presenting an individual preference in the form of a “right” we depersonalize the nature of the claim. The “right” element confers credibility because it evokes truth, not individual preference. This effect is further enhanced by the fact that historically a lot of rights were assumed to be “self-evident” or derived from God’s will. The liberal philosopher Anthony de Jasay notes that the popularity of rights may be explained by its feature of hiding its redistributive nature and costs:

“‘Rights’ survive and crowd ‘goals’ out of circulation even if both convey the same substantive message, because rights-talk cheers and gratifies all who are accorded rights by it, and threatens no one overtly. Goals, on the other hand, unless they are innocuous, usually suggest not only the promise of something beneficial, but also the cost of attaining it, the effort it takes, and sometimes (in the case of visibly redistributive goals) an implication that if some gain by it, others must lose. Rights-as-goals are presumably easier to propagate and fitter to survive in the public consciousness than goals tout court.” (Anothony de Jasay, Choice, Contract, Consent: A Restatement of Liberalism)

Right can exist in an empirical sense when they reflect a contract between individuals to perform or refrain from certain actions. But in this case rights follow from actual agreement. The evidence that such rights exist can be found in a (written) agreement. And the existence of such rights is usually confirmed by both parties because it is advantageous for them to accept the benefits and obligations of the agreement. The situation is different in the case of rights that do not reflect (implicit) agreement by the individuals who have to incur obligations and costs. Anthony de Jasay notes that “a ‘rights-based’ political theory in general, and rights-liberalism in particular, is losing determinacy and self-restraint when it loses sight of where the burden of proof lies.”

The existence of specific rights and obligations are often defended with the argument that they reflect a “social contract,” similar to a contract between two individuals. A major weakness of this line of thinking is, of course, that such a contract has never been agreed to in reality. This would not necessarily present a major obstacle in case the rights involved would be minimal and non-distributive, but most modern rights do not have this characteristic. For example, an agreement to abstain from harming someone can be complied with by doing nothing, but an agreement that says that “every person has a right to food and shelter” comes with far reaching obligations that will not likely generate universal agreement.

Some modern liberal philosophers (such as John Rawls) do not prefer a social contract so “trivial” and claim that more extensive rights can be justified by means of an hypothetical contract in which rights are derived behind a “veil of ignorance” in which individuals are deprived of information about the individuating characteristics of the citizens they represent. This raises the question of what the relationship is (or should be) between such agreements and what actual individuals would agree to in real life. The reason why such hypothetical agreements should create moral (and legal) obligations in real life is that they correspond (or should correspond) to our conception of justice. Unfortunately, such a justification runs into the same problems as the more straightforward derivation of rights earlier; it lacks objective empirical or logical content. So far the only credible attempt to derive rights (or explain their existence) from non-moral premises is found in Hobbesian contractarianism as represented by Thomas Hobbes, David Gauthier and Jan Narveson.

Justice as impartiality

One common answer to the question of what should characterize an acceptable theory of justice is that it should be “impartial.” This is generally understood to mean that a theory of justice should not be tailored to the interests of specific individuals (or groups of individuals). This raises two questions. First, do we have reason to accept such an account of justice? Second, what follows from such an account of justice?

One weakness of presenting justice as impartiality is that it assumes that people stand in need, or recognize the need, to justify their actions to others in a moral framework. But as the philosopher David Gauthier points out, such a need can be treated as

“the secularized residue of the doctrine that persons seek to justify their actions before God. But once that residue is being recognized for what it is, it surely loses all credibility. And so justice as impartiality lacks a plausible view of justification” (David Gauthier, “Mutual Advantage and Impartiality,” in: Impartiality, Neutrality and Justice : Re-Reading Brian Barry’s Justice as Impartiality).

If there is a prospect of reconciling practical reason and justice it needs to be found in the fact that all persons, whatever their values are, will need to choose justice as dictated by practical reason. The best candidate for such a theory of justice is justice as mutual advantage.

The other issue with justice as impartiality is what it would entail. Justice as impartiality is often linked to the view that the arbitrarinesses of nature should not be reflected in the rules of justice. The fact that a person is more talented or better off is not deserved and should be morally irrelevant. But what actually follows from that is that:

nobody deserves anything at all – neither the fortunate, nor the unfortunate. If justice is served by depriving people of what they came by as the result of morally arbitrary processes, then we must take everything from everyone…” (Jan Narveson, “Egalitarianism: Partial, Counterproductive, and Baseless,” (Ratio, Volume 10, Number 3, December 1997, pp. 280-295 (16).

If the rules of justice are decided in a framework that is impartial, the best guarantee for acceptance and compliance with the substance of those rules is that they reflect mutual advantage, in which no one is made worse off for the benefit of others. This conception of justice does not exclude acts that confer a unilateral benefit on others, but these acts should be left to the choice of individuals and not be enforced through coercion.

Edward O. Wilson’s Consilience

Sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson believes that a major reason why the social sciences have made so little progress is that its practitioners have ignored the biological basis of human behavior. He is not impressed with arguments that purport that the complexities of human behavior cannot be reduced to more elemental physical principles as embodied in modern neuroscience and biochemistry. Wilson recognizes that his view on the unification of the sciences carriers forward the logical positivist ideal of the Unity of Science. In his book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge he writes:

Logical positivism was the most valiant concerted effort ever mounted by modern philosophers. Its failure, or put more generously, its shortcoming, was caused by ignorance of how the brain works.

The canonical definition of objective scientific knowledge avidly sought by the logical positivists is not a philosophical problem nor can it be attained, as they hoped, by logical and semantic analysis. It is an empirical question that can be answered only by a continuing probe of the physical basis of the thought process itself.

Wilson is basically saying that logical positivism was not empiricist enough, a view that was anticipated by the logical empiricist Hans Reichenbach in his seminal work Experience And Prediction: An Analysis of the Foundations And the Structure of Knowledge.

On the tension between religious and scientific  perspectives of the world he writes:

The human mind evolved to believe in the gods. It did not evolve to believe in biology. Acceptance of the supernatural conveyed a great advantage throughout prehistory, when the brain was evolving. Thus it is in sharp contrast to biology, which was developed as a product of the modern age and is not underwritten by genetic algorithms. The uncomfortable truth is that the two beliefs are not factually compatible. As a result those who hunger for both intellectual and religious truth will never acquire both in full measure.

Remnants of such supernatural thinking are still with us today when we exempt humans from physical reality and attribute agency and free will to them.

Wilson is sensitive to the scenario that defective or disadvantageous genes increase and persist in modern human life but he believes that such a course of events will be relatively short-lived as humanity will master and embrace human genetic engineering. On the use of such technologies he writes:

I predict that future generations will be genetically conservative. Other than the repair of disabling defects, they will resist hereditary change. They will do so in order to save the emotions and epigenetic rules of mental development, because these elements compose the physical soul of the species. The reasoning is as follows. Alter the emotions and epigenetic rules enough, and people might in some sense be “better,” but they would no longer be human. Neutralize the elements of human nature in favor of pure rationality, and the result would be badly constructed, protein-based computers. Why should a species give up the defining core of its existence, built by millions of years of biological trial and error?

His reconciliation of human enhancement and cultural incrementalism is reminiscent of the “conservative transhumanism” of the biologist Alexis Carrel.

David Stove and the Plato cult

David Stove’s book The Plato Cult and Other Philosophical Follies is a remarkable collection of essays. As a staunch positivist ,the author is not impressed with most of what constitutes “philosophy” (or the quality of our thinking in general). As Stove laments in the preface, “there is something fearfully wrong with typical philosophical theories.” But unlike the early 20th century logical positivists, Stove has little hope for formulating a criterion that shows why the opinions of most philosophers are nonsense and completely devoid of common sense. As a consequence, Stove is forced to look for alternative  strategies to explain the “exceedingly strange” views of prominent philosophers.  Most of the essays in Stove’s book are informed by a perspective that investigates non-rational causes that could throw some light on the matter.

For example, the thoughts of Karl Popper, who Stove holds responsible for facilitating an era of irrationalism in the philosophy of science, are explained by the spirit of the “Jazz Age” (anything goes) that is expressed in Popper’s philosophy.   Stove’s case is not  all that persuasive. The most obvious line of criticism is that it is highly implausible to attribute the spirit of the Jazz Age to a grumpy, intolerant person like Karl Popper. If anything, in light of Popper’s personality traits, the anti-authoritarian aspirations  in his writings are actually quite remarkable.  Stove missed the most obvious personal explanation available to him; Popper’s obsession to refute the logical positivists. One would look in vain in Popper’s writings for a celebration of the Jazz Age but it is not hard to detect Popper’s compulsive need to establish his place in the history of thought.  Obviously, this cannot be done through incremental refinements of the theories of previous philosophers; it requires a new way of looking at things (falsificationism).  If Stove would have argued that lifting concepts from the political realm and using them in epistemology is the road to confusion and leads inevitably to the epistemological anarchism of Paul Feyerabend and the vacuous “pancritical rationalism” of William Bartley, he might have been on firmer ground.  Instead, Stove argues that the main emotional impulse of Popper was ultimately what he calls horror victorianorum,” the  irrational distaste for, or condemnation of, Victorian culture, art and design. As a self-proclaimed conservative, one would expect Stove to launch a strong defense of the politics and culture of late Victorian England but, oddly enough, Stove seems to have considerable sympathy for horror victorianorum and it is only the rational side in him that forces him to admit that this emotional response has little intellectual merit.

The other essays in The Plato Cult and Other Philosophical Follies are similar cases studies of philosophers with crazy ideas including a scathing review of Nozick’s attempt to engage in “non-coercive” philosophy. Of most interest is the final chapter called “What is Wrong with Our Thoughts? A Neo-Positivist Credo.” It is in this essay where the strict positivist outlook of Stove finds its most forceful expression. Stove cites a number of passages of the works of Plotinus, Hegel and Foucault and cannot explain how (supposedly) intelligent people can express such madness. What characteristics do all these ideas have in common? Stove has considerable sympathy for the logical positivist project to find criteria to eliminate metaphysics and nonsense from philosophy but does not believe that finding such criteria will be comprehensive enough. He refers to Tolstoy who said that all happy families are the same while every unhappy family is unhappy in a different way.  There are endless ways in which human thinking can go wrong. In the end Stove is pessimistic about the prospect for rational thought: “genetic engineering aside, given a large aggregation of human beings, and a long time, you cannot reasonably expect rational thought to win.”

Stove may be correct about the ultimate fate of the human race, but he may be too pessimistic about developing criteria that discipline thinking. The mistake of some of the early logical positivist may not have been so much in looking for such criteria but insufficient recognition of the fact that such criteria need a context to be useful. Instead of saying that the statements of, let’s say, Hegel or Heidegger, or not meaningful (period) it would be better to say that such statements are not meaningful in the context of action or prediction. As Hans Reichenbach writes in his logical empiricist masterpiece “Experience and Prediction:”

It seems to me that the psychological motives which led positivists to their theory of meaning are to be sought in the connection between meaning and action and that it was the postulate of utilizability which always stood behind the positivistic theory of meaning, as well as behind the pragmatic theory, where indeed it was explicitly stated.

From this perspective, critiques concerning the self-applicability of the logical positivist criterion of meaningfulness can be avoided by linking cognitive significance to action (including such endeavors as experimental science) in a way that itself can be subjected to logical or empirical investigation. In essence, this “pragmatic” element would introduce a more thoroughgoing empiricism. Logical positivists like Carnap were not hostile to this idea as evidenced by his ongoing efforts to refine his criteria so as not to exclude the achievements of modern science.  Broadly speaking, we look at successful scientific efforts (which basically comprise all sciences that can be reduced to physics and mathematics) and “reverse-engineer” our criteria around this.  Such efforts may produce new roadblocks but there is a good chance that the resulting criteria will eliminate of lot of the madness that Stove finds in most philosophers, intellectuals, and public policy makers.

Richard Dawkins on fashionable nonsense

The Dutch psychologist Piet Vroon once opined that philosophy has lost much of its relevance because it  has lost touch with the (natural) sciences. Although philosophers associated with logical positivism and critical rationalism made great efforts to discipline the practice of philosophy by encouraging logical thinking and verification (or falsification), so far their efforts must be considered a failure, as evidenced by the fact that their scientific perspective is usually classified as just another school of thought within contemporary philosophy. A symptom of this development is that we often see the word “philosophy” substituted for “opinion.” It should not be surprising, then, that many life extensionists are greatly skeptical of disciplines like bioethics. As a general rule, when all is said and done, and the “learned” rhetoric has been dissected, there is not much left other than the philosopher’s personal opinion.

This 2007 review by Richard Dawkins’ of Intellectual Impostures by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont  reminds us how much pretentious unscientific nonsense is circulating among “intellectuals.” Although the examples of continental philosophy that Dawkins discusses represent the extreme regions of academia, a lot of philosophy and “social science” that is dominating contemporary intellectual debate, and informing public policies, is still miles away from the disciplined approach to science that thinkers like Alfred Ayer and Karl Popper advocated in their writings.

Whereas the natural sciences have mostly remained sane because of the strong link between experimental science and practical applications, such mechanisms are often absent in the social sciences.  And to the extent social science is “applied,” the question of what constitutes success is (necessarily) arbitrary. This situation is further aggravated by the fact that many social scientists and philosophers are sheltered from market mechanisms and real accountability.

Scientific skeptics have sometimes been criticized for focusing too much time on phenomena such as parapsychology, astrology, tarot reading and UFOs at the expense of more widely shared superstition such as mainstream religion. Similarly, concerned scientists tend to focus on fashionable nonsense such as postmodernism and  post-structuralism at the expense of more widespread ideas such as the epistemological problems in most social science or the extreme “blank slate” view of human nature that informs most public policy. Most people may not believe that astrologists can predict the future, but we seem to have fewer problems when similar claims to knowledge are expressed by social scientists and economists.