Anne Tagonist (tagonist) wrote,
Anne Tagonist

Rick Santorum, Sarah Palin and the End of Modernist Epistemology

Yesterday the Philadelphia Inquirer ran an opinion piece by former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum entitled “Challenging Scientific Dogma.” The content was exactly what you’d expect based on the title and Sen. Santorum’s exceptional record in congress- a combined indictment of both the “high priests of Darwinism” for their insistence that “free inquiry” into alternate theories of human origins be banned in classrooms, and a challenge to climatologists who refuse to question anthropogenic global warming, even in the face of “manipulated data.” The bulk of the article itself (go read it!) is a blow-by-blow of his valiant attempt to insert “free choice” provisions into education bills (supported by “Liberal Senator Ted Kennedy,” no less!) To support his case, he cites some spine-tingling statistics including the claim that only 14% of Americans believe in evolution (a reference, I think, to this more nuanced gallup poll which actually shows that this particular belief is at its highest since the company began asking the question in 1982) and, of course, the recent revelation that the Climatic Research Unit in Britain made a decision to include some tree-ring data but not others in their statistical models. Overall, the piece is not compelling- it fails to cast doubt on evolution or global warming, and similarly fails to cast a warm glow of statemanship on former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum who, lets remember, once slept with a dead fetus. (okay, to be fair, it lived two hours postnatally, so while the hospital designated the remains a “fetus” it might be fair to the family to acknowledge instead that Rick Santorum slept with a dead twenty-week-gestation human)

It does, however, cast a light on a phenomenon touched on by a Matt Taibbi column (reproduced here from cache- the True/Slant entry has since been bowdlerized) about Sarah Palin’s recent authorial debut. I meant to respond to that when it came out, but of course I was distracted by other phenomena- have you noticed Sarah Palin is becoming something of an anti-muse for blog hacks like myself? Keats had his urn, Caravaggio had whoever he’d most recently hired for blowjobs, and I get the one published prose stylist even less capable of forming a thoughtful sentence than myself. How is this fair? Anybody want to mail me a new muse?

The Taibbi column argues that Palin doesn’t write (or speak) to win the debate over issues like global warming or health care, she writes to position herself as the public figure who dares to complain about (and snigger at) the irrelevance of such debates. Its a clever combination of resentment and disdain. When Katie Couric (or, really, anyone) makes her look stupid in public, it actually supports her position- look at these people, picking on me for refusing to play their little games! Where she wins isn’t when she devastates her opponents’ arguments, but when she appeals to Americans’ urge to smack the pointy-headed geeks in the mouth and bitch about them later over beers.

Of course, she doesn’t just complain about being kicked around by nerds. She also makes assertions as well, outrageous ones (death panels, anyone?) and self-consciously transparent ones (bringing Levi Johnston to the RNC because he’s family.) When challenged on the truth value of these statements, she demurs and stonewalls unconvincingly but, like Santorum’s polls-based arguments against evolution the point is not how she proves the claims, but that she is a public figure with a straight face. Why? Because we’re witnessing the end of modernist epistemology.

That’s a statement that requires a bit of unpacking. Modernism is a movement that affected all fields of art and inquiry, characterized by a drive to discard the detritus of history and lay bare the underlying truth of the world. Modernist architects and designers were not fond of ornamental pilasters or bargeboards, preferring instead concrete and exposed pipes- materials that looked like what they were, and nothing more. Modernist painters concerned themselves with the idea of expression through paint on canvas, putting aside the pageantry of portraiture or the derived iconography of the patronage-art system. Modernist musicians discarded the rules of counterpoint and tonality, in some cases even threw out the twelve-tone scale altogether in favor of mathematically coherent- but unlistenable- alternatives. Modernist politicians sought the natural rights of man, and modernist philosophers concerned themselves with questions of epistemology.

Epistemology is the philosophical specialty that sought to understand how we know what we know to be true. In a modernist context, this means science. To some extent, “modernist epistemology” is redundant because only a modernist would question how we know anything, but retrospectively alternative epistemologies have been deduced. Revealed truth may posit a god living on a cloud, tradition may categorically set humans apart from other animals, and historical writers may recount how around the year 1000CE, christians underwent a paroxysm of apocalyptic chaos- but none of these are satisfactory to modernists who question the concept of revealed truth, the relevance of tradition, and the accuracy of historical accounts.

Scientific epistemology is itself a tradition, but was formalized around the turn of the twentieth century by philosophers- Popper and Kuhn are the canonical duo- into the system we are taught today. Formal science depends on accumulated evidence, results that can be reproduced by separate teams of investigators working independently, and a system of peer review, whereby scientists verify claims made by other scientists prior to publication and authentication. Formal science also includes categories such as hypotheses and theories, but these are beyond the scope of this increasingly digressive blog entry.

The important problem here is peer review. At the time Popper wrote, science was a small, transnational academy associated exclusively with monopolar power structures. It was clear, through systems of credentials and accreditation, who was a scientist and who wasn’t. Even outside of formal recognition, scientists could know each other by the shared use of particular language, familiarity with obscure metaconcepts (like the comparative reputations of journals) and a complex system of lineages in which one drew authority from one’s advisors and coworkers as well as from one’s own work. In this context, the idea of peer review- that only a scientist can designate a fellow knowledge worker a fellow scientist- works well.

The problem is that the method of peer review has no metavalidation process. It depends on there being one, and only one, body of “science” that can recognize its own. When two or more colleges claim the authority of “science” and internally recognize their own members, there is no way to differentiate between them by means of peer review. Who decides who are the scientists? Other scientists. Who decides who are the other scientists? Other other scientists. Who decides who are the other other scientists... and elephants all the way down.

So the internal functionality of scientific thought has historically depended to a large degree on a common public loyalty to other legitimating systems, Royal Societies, National Academies, etc. National identities have often functioned informally as well- the classic example, often chosen because of the ridiculous nature of the Other Party, is the debate between western genetics and communist Lysenkoism- but suddenly, as I’ve talked about before those identities are fracturing in favor of information tribes and ideological communities.

One result is an enormous crisis of legitimacy in science. Suddenly, anyone is a scientist- creation scientists are scientists, the guy who invented the em-drive is a scientist, the guy on Coast to Coast who linked global warming to the Kennedy assassination is a scientist- and the old failsafe, peer review, is circumvented by the existence of a critical mass of “peers” willing to certify whatever conclusions these folks draw.

The internet was sold as a solipsist’s dreamworld, minutely personal and infinitely customizable. In real life, however, the internet has formed a decentralized information space in which groups of people, not individuals, can carve out spaces for themselves in which “citizenship” is based on identity and belief, rather than geography or jurisdiction. In creating their own information spaces, these groups can construct their own legitimation processes (“dogma” to quote Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum) and can interact with what was once hubristically termed “consensus science” as a final court of evaluation, rather than as a subject.

For the most part, this has been a positive process. As the existence of groups like AVEN demonstrates, people who would have been pathologized as diseased can, through an electronic act of collective self-definition, make a credible claim to mere difference instead. Even where this is contested, such as the online Autistic movement or outright horrifying, like the gang stalking phenomenon, the salutary effects of redefining normality to fit one’s own experience seem indisputable.

The problem is that this decentralization robs modernism of its ineffable, unitary underlying truth. Without the monolithic social organization on which scientific epistemology depends, claims like Santorum’s, that depend more on (creatively interpreted) opinion polls instead of evidence, “common sense” instead of credentialed authority, are essentially unrefutable. There are, in effect, as many underlying truths as there are factions.

Under such an epistemological regime, objections to public figures like Palin, which follow the well-worn pathways of authoritative validation (“death panels” don’t exist, reading “all of them” newspapers is an unconvincing claim) scan socially as an inherently conservative (small “c”) appeal to the era of limited institutions of great authority and noble lineage, which had the ability to unify “truth”- and which delegitimized, devalued, and actively persecuted the communities of dissent we now take for granted.
No wonder her fans empathize with her! Who hasn’t found themselves faced with an authority, empowered by some mechanism we seriously doubt, who is able to define our reality in an unappealling (and beyond appeal) manner? The elites are picking on her! Just like they pick on me when I try to move my money to Switzerland...

My point is that the paradigm has shifted. The search for truth is no longer possible on modernist lines, by modernist methods, and with modernist authority. Any fundamentally unobservable claim, beyond the immediate experience of the layperson (evolution or the existence of god) is arguable by any number of authorities, from any number of self-legitimating information tribes, with any number of embedded interests. And should you presume these “unscientific” scientists are solely the province of the right wing, google “food allergies.”

The right wing- Palin, Santorum, others like them- are happy to move in the new paradigm, only because so many of their axioms are unsupportable under the old regime. The debate, however, takes place in the new regime, and any constructive response will have to forswear its recourse to the old academy, to “just being right.” And any attempt, by the left, to avoid the debate about the meaning of science will spell doom for, among other things, the climate, water quality, air quality, health care or, frankly, you.

Speaking of Copenhagen (and the health care bill) I have a new motto: baby steps equals failure. Suck it up, spinboys...


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