Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
“Brights” is a term that became popular nearly 20 years ago to describe self-proclaimed rationalists who reject religion, practical wisdom, and tradition, and instead rely solely on “science” for understanding and solving social and political problems. Evangelical atheist Richard Dawkins defined “brights” as “Those of us who subscribe to no religion; those of us whose view of the universe is natural rather than supernatural; those of us who rejoice in the real and scorn the false comfort of the unreal.”
The current virus crisis has exposed the dangers of such hubris. Federal and state governments have put in place exorbitantly costly polices such as the extreme lockdown, guided by provisional knowledge about the coronavirus based on incomplete data. In fact, the lockdown policy has cost lives; New York mayor Andrew Cuomo, a proponent of the lockdown, back in early March was “shocked” and “surprised” that people “sheltering at home” had contracted the virus anyway and comprised the majority of those who died. The deep recession that has followed the lockdown has also cost lives, and will cost many thousands more as the effects of lost jobs and isolation take their toll over the coming years.
Once again, the “bright” progressives’ “science-based” policies have collided with the complexity of the human condition.
The “brights’” claim that only the material world is real started to spread over 200 years ago with the Enlightenment. A hundred years later it became the controlling idea behind technocratic progressivism, which holds that the “human sciences” can understand the human world accurately enough to manipulate and improve it as much as the hard sciences’ and the technologies they create did the material world. So we hear from progressives about “science-based policies,” calls to be guided by “science” and to defer to its authority, and dismissal of skeptics and critics of their policies as “deniers,” “flat-earthers” and “young-earthers” who believe cavemen rode dinosaurs.
The persistence of this arrogance is puzzling given how frequently it has failed and continues to fail, not to mention its intellectual incoherence. Consider a recent tweet (since removed) expressing this attitude by Steven Pinker (pictured above), a Harvard psychologist: “Belief in an afterlife is a malignant delusion, since it devalues actual lives and discourages action that would make them live longer, safer, and happier. Exhibit A: Evangelicals. What’s really behind Republicans wanting a swift reopening? Evangelicals.” Of course, Pinker is spraying a patina of pseudo-science over a Democrat talking point about Republican governors with “blood on their hands” from relaxing the lockdown in their states. Unfortunately, empirical data from Sweden to NYC prove quite the opposite.
More important, Pinker’s tweet summarizes the illogical flaws and irrational prejudices behind the whole “science-based policies” claim, and the political biases they serve. Start with the “evangelical” bogey Pinker trots out. This trope is an extension of the Enlightenment assault on the Catholic Church in the 18th century, which evolved into the radical anticlericalism of the French Revolution, and reached it bloodiest culmination in the Russian Revolution and its violence against clerics and theft of church property. In the U.S. it rose to prominence in the Seventies as the regressive Moral Majority that put Richard Nixon in power. Today’s progressive “brights” still treat faith with contempt and incremental assaults on the First Amendment by misreading the anti-establishment clause in order to drive faith from the public square.
Evangelicals, then, for fifty years have been a particularly useful target for progressives. They tend to be concentrated in the South and rural fly-over country, and thus embody clichéd traits that urban sophisticates assign to such “deplorables” who “cling to guns and religion”: bad education, repression, fear of diversity and change, anti-science, and cardinal sins like racism, sexism, xenophobia, and homophobia. You know, white conservatives. Of course, those like Pinker who indulge these hoary stereotypes know nothing about evangelicals or, for that matter, Christianity.
This ignorance is obvious in his statement that “Belief in an afterlife is a malignant delusion, since it devalues actual lives and discourages action that would make them live longer, safer, and happier.” One should point out that Pinker would never describe traditional Muslims that way, even though the description fits them better. But Pinker, like most progressives, finds it safer to go after soft targets universally despised by his fellow blue-state “brights.” Worse, this two-bit psychologizing is grossly and unscientifically simplistic in its insults of 24% of the U.S. population. And as an explanation for why evangelicals want to end the lockdown, it is preposterous. Evangelicals need to eat and work, so the economic motive is sufficient to explain their support for ending a policy that has thrown 36 million people out of work and stalled the most productive economy in the world.
If Pinker had even a bit of accurate knowledge about evangelicals, he’d know that Christians don’t “devalue actual lives.” They just believe that their material existence shouldn’t compromise and endanger their spiritual lives and destiny. The material body in time is the “temple of the Holy Spirit” of the God who created it, as He did the world, our earthly home. We should respect and tend the body in this life, and see to its health and safety, but we always should remember that its happiness is transient, and should never degenerate into hedonistic, selfish pleasures that put our souls at risk.
Now Pinker may believe all this is a fairy tale because there is no science that proves spiritual reality or God’s existence. But materialism, the idea that all reality is material, is not a scientific fact, but a metaphysical proposition that modern science assumed in order to do its work. As philosopher Thomas Nagel writes, “The scientific revolution of the 17th century, which has given rise to such extraordinary progress in the understanding of nature, depended on a crucial limiting step at the start: It depended on subtracting from the physical world as an object of study everything mental – consciousness, meaning, intention or purpose.” That is, all the qualities that define human beings and set them apart from the natural world.
Yet the “human sciences” like psychology, Pinker’s field, presume to explain the mind and behavior with scientific propositions by assuming a totalizing materialism. These explanations, of course, do not have the rigor or predictability of real science. Hence the various fads like Freudianism that dominated the West for decades, then was discarded. Hence the “reproducibility crisis” in psychology, the inability of research results to be replicated by other researchers, one of the key components of the scientific method. We shouldn’t be surprised, since we don’t understand the mind and consciousness well enough to have scientific facts rather than hypotheses as the foundation of our conclusions.
But even non-human scientific disciplines can’t escape the “human factor,” for scientists are people with passions like politics, and interests like career advancement and prestige that affect their work. The current pandemic has illustrated these tendencies of “experts” to give definitive statements about, say, lethality rates or the need for a lockdown, even though they don’t have adequate data to support them. Hedging and qualifying one’s statements or confessing one’s incomplete knowledge don’t play well on televised news shows and will lead to fewer calls from producers.
Catastrophic anthropogenic global warming, however, is the biggest offender when it comes to abusing our tendency to trust claims of scientific expertise abused to promote an ideological aim. Our current knowledge of global climate, a complex system of intricate feedback loops we do not yet understand, cannot justify the radical, and exorbitantly expensive, policies for eliminating the carbon-based energy on which modern economies and human well-being depend. And the research behind this 100-year-old hypothesis is short on empirical evidence and over-reliant on “models” in which imprecise data are given a specific value that just happens always to confirm the researcher’s a priori conclusion––just as we are currently witnessing with the modeling used to predict the lethality of the coronavirus, or the efficacy of an historically unprecedented lockdown.
In other words, the progressive idea that objective, scientifically established facts can be used to craft policy is a chimera when it comes to human beings and their political, personal, and social identities, motivations, and behavior. Science works in a world determined by the laws of nature written in the language of mathematics. But we are not determined: Not by our genes, the economy, society, or who owns the means of production. We are spontaneous, unpredictable, unique, and free––“free enough to die of freedom,” as Luc Ferry put it. That complexity and unpredictability belie the pretensions of technocracy and its vision of progressive improvement until we reach the utopia of “social justice.” We’ve been down that road with Marxism and its “scientific history,” and it’s a road lined with mountains of corpses.
Hence the self-proclaimed “brights” who want “experts” to guide us through “science-based policies” are profoundly ignorant about the human condition and its nonnegotiable flaws and contingencies. Practical wisdom, tradition, faith, philosophy, and the historical record of human folly and failure are much better guides than science, much less scientism. But when it comes to such wisdom, our arrogant “brights” are pretty dim.
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