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March 24, 2009

  Will Obama Kill Science? (Cont.)

Back in October last year I wrote a column titled "Will Obama Kill Science?" arguing that an Obama administration, stuffed as it surely would be with postmodern leftists, would do what they could to kill off some key branches of the human sciences, for fear of what they might turn up. I concluded with:

We are about to find out whether our traditional devotion to free speech and free enquiry can survive real, incontrovertible results from the human sciences; and in particular, in the event of an Obama victory, whether that devotion can survive under a left-liberal administration headed by a cultural Marxist — an administration much more interested in shoring up the soft totalitarianism of "diversity" and "multiculturalism" than in permitting the discovery of true facts about human nature.

That column turned out to be one of my most-circulated of the year. It came in for heavy scorn from lefty science websites, with much squealing, clutching of skirts, and jumping on chairs at my use of "cultural Marxist," though I think the descriptor is perfectly fair based on what I have read in Barack Obama's autobiography.

There was plenty of supporting email, too. One of them pointed me to some very interesting exchanges that took place three years ago in Evolutionary Psychology, an online journal running articles on the subject named in its title. That subject tries to find biological explanations for human behavior, including mental behavior (language, thought, emotion). Wikipedia has a no-worse-than-average article here.

Here's a very brief summary of the three papers making up the exchanges.

[1] The Asian Future of Evolutionary Psychology, by Geoffrey Miller, a psychologist at the University of New Mexico.

Miller argues that the best prospect for survival of the discipline lies in exporting it to Asia a.s.a.p. He carefully lists pros and cons before coming to his conclusion. Money quote: "The U.S. is anti-intellectual and deeply religious, frenzied by consumerist self-indulgence and belligerent nationalism, veers between puritanical hypocrisy and pornographic narcissism, and has no serious national media or science journalism."
[2] No, It Ain't Gonna Be Like That, by Satoshi Kanazawa, a political scientist at the London School of Economics.

Kanazawa pooh-poohs Miller's thesis: "The future of evolutionary psychology will not be in Asia." Why not? Because "Asians can't think." That is actually the first sub-heading in Kanazawa's paper. He goes on to speak of the conformist culture of Asia, the miserably small number of Asian Nobel laureates, and the hollowness of all those mid-1980s predictions about the future dominance of Japan.

He also takes issue with the notion that religious fundamentalism is a threat to the human sciences here. The real enemy, he says, is political correctness. Money quote: "Really, what can Christian fundamentalists do to us? Refuse to pump our gas? Spit in our Big Mac? In contrast, our politically correct feminist and social constructionist colleagues control our recruitment, tenure, and promotion processes, and influence our research funding."
[3] Asian Creativity: A Response to Satoshi Kanazawa, by Geoffrey Miller again.

Miller tries to counter Kanazawa's points. The best passage here is some actual data on Asian creativity. Psychometrics doesn't have a measure for creativity, but it does have one for general intelligence, and others for the Big Five dimensions of personality in the currently-favored model. One of the Big Five is "openness to experience," and Miller suggests plausibly that creativity is some combination of general intelligence with openness. On that basis he surveys the international scores, and finds no Asian deficit in creativity.

He fights back on the issue of fundamentalism vs. political correctness, too: "Fundamentalists have already won their 'culture war' against secular humanism … Americans support science largely so they can, with impunity, exploit foreigners, eat cows, and avoid physical exertion."

I enjoyed these exchanges, the more so as I have just been reading Simon Winchester's biography of Joseph Needham, the eccentric scientist-turned-sinologist (and communist fellow-traveler) who launched the massive Science and Civilisation in China project, which bears in an obvious way on the question of Asian creativity.

Still, I have my doubts about the arguments on both sides. The U.S. is "frenzied" by "belligerent nationalism"?  Perhaps Geoffrey Miller should chat with some young Chinese males. And while it's nice to see Satoshi Kanazawa say things that a non-Asian would be horse-whipped on the steps of his club for saying, someone should explain to him that not all fundamentalist Christians in the U.S.A. are pumping gas or delivering Big Macs. Also, his take on the public presentation of evolutionary psychology — basically, just keep the rubes in the dark — is a tad too much de haut en bas even for this elitist.

The less the civilians know, the better. Once again, science is not democracy; we cannot enlighten everybody. Science is an inherently elitist enterprise.

Possibly so: but it is also an enterprise that is constantly demanding public funds — funds, that is, torn from the rubes' pockets by force of law, as taxation. However, Kanazawa redeems himself to some degree at the end of his piece:

On September 11, 2001, our Muslim enemies made one crucial mistake; they chose the wrong symbolic target in New York. What makes America great is not the Twin Towers; if it were, then Malaysia, with its magnificent Petronas Towers, will be the greatest nation on earth. No, what makes America great is the Statue of Liberty. The Twin Towers, evolutionary psychology, and everything else in America are mere consequences of the Statue of Liberty and what she stands for.

I'll drink to that — and what odd sentiments to find in a science journal (though to be sure, one of the less rigorous ones). I think Kanazawa is also correct to say that:

If anything can interfere with the future of evolutionary psychology in the United States and Europe, it is the cultural insanity of political correctness. That is the true enemy that we must fight.

Which is what I was saying back in October. Our "science-friendly" President (discreetly) and his supporters (much more loudly) are crowing over the lifting of restrictions on federal funding for embryo-destructive stem cell research. Such a splendid victory over those reactionary troglodyte fundamentalists!

Right. Wait till science comes crashing up against political correctness, as it will at some point in coming years — probably under an Obama administration. Let's see how much they love science then.