Adventures in agnotology

A fun list from Ranker, on the absurdities of Bill O’Reilly, some mockery of which is now going viral. And while we’re on the subject of lists, here’s Alternet with 10 historical facts only a rightwinger could believe.

Meanwhile, Brad Delong cites an attack on relativity theory by Tom Bethell of the American Spectator and Hoover Institution. Bethell’s source is the “Galilean electrodynamics of rightwing crank physicist Petr Beckman, commemorated in the Petr Beckman award, which has been accepted by a string of the scientific luminaries of the climate science denial movement such as Fred Singer, Sallie Baliunas and Willie Soon. As DeLong observes with respect to the publication of the Bethell piece

from that moment on, my working hypothesis was that the conservative wing[1] of the Republican Party is composed exclusively of people who have completely disabled their bulls**t detectors. That working hypothesis has served me very well for seventeen years now.

Of course, this applies in spades to the Australian importers and distributors of this stuff – Bolt, Devine, Windschuttle and the entire Murdoch press.

The left has its faults and follies, to be sure. But it must be excruciatingly embarrassing to be, for example, a (genuine) scientist or historian of conservative inclinations, aware that your political allies are at best utterly indifferent, and at worst actively hostile, to scientific and historical truth.

Update There’s a response at Catallaxy, with a lengthy (and typically Catallaxian) comments thread, largely focusing on my offhand reference to Bolt and others as Australian advocates of anti-science views imported from the US. I didn’t intend to suggest that the people I mentioned are opposed to relativity theory or, more generally, that they are consistently anti-science like Bethell and Conservapedia. Rather, they take something of a “cafeteria contra-science” view, happy to endorse mainstream science whenever its implications support their political views, or provides the basis for cool new technology, but equally ready to discover a massive global conspiracy any time the science comes out the “wrong” way (on smoking, DDT, global warming, CFCs etc).

fn1. DeLong is presumably speaking in the terms applicable to the early 1990s, when the Republican Party included numerous centrists and even some remnants of the once influential “liberal Republicans” epitomized by Eisenhower.

46 thoughts on “Adventures in agnotology

  1. More evidence-based tyranny! When will you let freedom flourish? [How do you do these irony things anyway?]

  2. Conservatives are not really interested in the scientific aspects of relativity theory as such. They want to overturn relativity theory because they regard it as the origin of moral relativism. What they really want is a return to traditional morality, where men have control over women’s bodies.

  3. agnotolgy does seem to be not commercially driven.

    (though commercial opportunism pays nicely thank you very much. corn fructose any one?)

    as long as a deciding section of a voting population can be induced to vote against their own interests the push for agnotology of agnotolgists and by agnotologosts will continue.

    the connected world is scaring the living bejeezus out of the movers and hungry gutted users.

    how did Egypt happen and Tunisia,Yemen, Jordan.i’ve got a feeling the council of legists in Persia are not feeling very comfortable at the moment.

    this has nothing to do whith religion,though the god botherers (pardon my french) would lurve to ride the wave to glory.

    Americans seem to be gaining aglimpse of what is obvious also.

  4. Since we are discussing agnotology and the the right, the crew over at Catallaxy has a scrolling set of what they call “Liberty Quotes”. Here’s one I saw 3 minutes ago:

    While it is true that Undersecretary of State Tim Wirth said that “the science is settled,” it is clear that there is not a broad scientific consensus that human activities are causing global warming. Frank Murkowski, 1997

    Unlike other declarations in the series, which generally reflect what they assert to be the virtues of small government, the Unsinn of nanny-statism and so forth, I’m not quite sure how exactly this quote bears out their philsophical position, unless the claim is that a broad scientific consensus, if one conceded it existed on anthropogenic climate forcing, would be subversive of the libertarian project or Weltanschauung. It seems clear that to deny consensus is to affirm the cause, and to accept its existence, in their view, is to abandon it. Frank Murkowski is thus elevated to the right of centre libertarian pantheon based on his denial of one aspect of observable reality. One wonders what other features of observable reality will have to be denied for right-centre libertarianism to live and love and have children.

    Could there be a clearer instantiation of the claim that ignorance about the world can have a cultural etiology? It seems that agnotology on anthopogenic climate change is a cultural consequence of of right-centre libertarian existential angst — which is why they manufacture/iterate it at Catallaxy. That this swingeing cultural affirmation came from someone who was keen to have his snout in the largesse produced by the oil that might have come out of the ANWR was of course neither here nor there.

    Murkowski’s ideological-agnotological support for the right-centre libertarian cause above must have been impressive to them because in office he would surely have been an embarrassment to them. His appointment of his daughter to the senate in his place after he became Governor of Alaska and his purchase with state funds of a private jet against the will of the legislature of Alaska and then, after it was clear he was a lame duck (having lost the primary) taking a trip on it to East Asia are things one suspects Catallaxy won’t cite in its “liberty quotes” despite the fact that that other right-centre libertarian hero — Sarah Palin wasn’t all that keen on him.

    Little wonder. At one point Republican Party of Alaska chair at the time, (and Murkoski’s chief headkicker) Randy Ruedrich, leaked Sarah Palins’ Social Security number, her drivers licence number, and home address and telephone number — which you’d think would get you out of the right-centre libertarian pantheon. Then again, if you deny the scientific consensus it seems you are flying with the angels high enough for such trifles to be overlooked.

  5. jquiggin :
    As always, conservapedia is a reliable source.

    Thanks for the reference – after visiting the site I believe I have now returned from a parallel universe (and I thought multi-universes were just science fiction).

  6. I read the Catallaxy posting and I think there is some justice to their critique. Many of the issues you cite among the list of 10 have not been imported to Australia. Not suprising since 5 relate to US conditions.

    My impression is that while blogs such as Catallaxy contain their share of political loonies and religious nuts that the Australian right generally is saner than the US right. Its only an impression with a restricted view since I don’t know the politics of groups such as the Evangelicals.

    A couple of years ago I abandoned subscribing to Quadrant partly because of their obsession with lunatic theories of climate change but, more than that, because the articles they published increasingly sounded like the outpourings of foolish old men whose brains had seen better days.

    You need vehicles in Australia for sensible conservative/libertarian opinion – groups such as the CIS provide this in a way that engages with mainstream debates. Most of the discussions there are sensible (I obviously do not underwrite any) and I think have impacted positively on the quality of mainstream Australian political debates.

  7. But Harry, Catallaxy had no need to defend or critique the list – it is a US alternet list clearly not relevant to Australia. However, they gladly picked up the ball and ran with it which then somewhat proves the point that like their US compatriots they “have completely disabled their bulls**t detectors”

  8. Actually the problem was that Sinc conflated the two parts of PrQ’s analysis. PrQ claimed no more than that Bolt et al. were apeing the delusional ranting seen commonly within the US right.

    Personally, I regard DeLong as rather too kind in his analysis. Bolt et al. and their US counterparts have perfectly functional BS detectors — which they use to distinguish useful BS in the service of privilege from BS that is useless for the corralling the people they want.

  9. “10 historical facts only a rightwinger could believe” doesn’t necessitate that all rightwingers believe the 10 ‘facts’. It simply states that a necessary condition for belief of any of them is to be a rightwinger. If someone believes any one of those ‘facts’ then they are a rightwinger. It is even possible to be a rightwinger and not believe any of the 10 ‘facts’.

    To refute the statement requires finding a non-rightwinger who believes at least one of the ‘facts’. I don’t think Davidson does that.

  10. I read that Conservapedia post down to 11 and thought “surely they can’t…” so I went to the link. Yes indeed they’re referencing Webb’s work on changing alpha to dispute relativity. I wonder if he knows. I wonder how he feels. I guess paleontologists see their work twisted around as evidence for creationism all the time, but … wow. These guys really have no shame.

  11. @jquiggin

    People have played around with avoiding the “relative” part of relativity for ages, and some theories are still being developed, with serious intent – physicists try this sort of thing out for a living, eg variable speed of light theories. How that is related (sorry, bad attempt at a pun) to social/moral relativism on the other hand, I cannot for the life of me make that mental leap. Each and every observer in a non-quantum General Relativity theory is participating in objective reality; their individual point of views are necessarily based upon their own path through that reality – their worldline (correct me if I’m using the wrong word, I’m rusty at this). This is not a denial of objective reality, just a new perspective on how the bits fit together for each possible observer. Heck, the observer is just a mathematical construct, anyway!
    Quantum Mechanics screws with objectiveness of reality far more than either of the relativity theories do, as far as I can see.

    Sokal redux?

  12. American opposition to relativity, especially by religious conservatives, wouldn’t be because Einstein was a (secular) Jew, would it?

  13. Sorry I missed the first sentence somehow: Bethell is a delight but don’t read on the screen while drinking a coffee!

  14. Donald, if you (can bear to) read the Conservapedia articles on the subject, you’ll find that there is PROOF! that relativity leads to relativism (or vice versa, or something) because no less a person than Barack Obama!! contributed to an article by a Liberal Law Professor!!! which used a metaphor drawn from Relativity to justify ABORTION!!!!

    I mean, how many more hot-buttons can you hit with one article?

  15. “Rather, they take something of a “cafeteria contra-science” view, happy to endorse mainstream science whenever its implications support their political views, or provides the basis for cool new technology, but equally ready to discover a massive global conspiracy any time the science comes out the “wrong” way (on smoking, DDT, global warming, CFCs etc)”

    Picking and choosing your scientific results is unscientific.

  16. One might argue of course that the laws of physics do offence to liberty. Really, would it not conform better with individual liberty if people were able to dissent from them, living only by such laws as they themselves had composed?

  17. @gerard
    One could tell them that Einstein was offered the Presidency of Israel, but that well before the Likud was running the place, so that probably wouldn’t count. In fact it would probably count against him even more.

  18. Pr Q said:

    The left has its faults and follies, to be sure. But it must be excruciatingly embarrassing to be, for example, a (genuine) scientist or historian of conservative inclinations, aware that your political allies are at best utterly indifferent, and at worst actively hostile, to scientific and historical truth.

    I call a plague on both houses. In general the Right is in denial about the inconvenient truths of ecology whilst the Left is in denial about the inconvenient truths of anthropology.

    It is significant that the problem with both the Right-liberal and Left-liberal world views is that they are in denial about Nature’s intractable laws – both physical nature and human nature. Something about post-modern liberalism encourages a constructivist marketing mentality. The essence of scientific conservatism is to be a bit of a wet blanket, to recognise that “nature cannot be fooled” or turned on a whim.

    There are some brave exceptions to this agnotological-ideological rule. The Right has the American Conservative which is in general opposed to ecological denialism. And the Left has UK Prospect which is opposed to anthropological denialism. Practically no-one on the mainstream Right or Left ever even mentions these magazines, a sure sign of intellectual cowardice.

    Undoubtedly the US Right’s ecological sins are more serious at the moment, given the fact that the US government must act promptly to avert catastrophic climate change. The scientific sins of the creationist Right don’t matter much one way or another, despite the rants and raves of the Dawkins-Myers push. In some ways the worst intellectual crimes and misdemeanors of the Right are in the financial quants whose pretence of scientific knowledge was exposed as a sham by the GFC, ably documented by the author of Zombie Economics.

    But the Left’s anthropological sins are grave enough, going by the wat various EU leaders have performed back-flips on a generation of Left-liberal cultural policies. It turns out that national leaders finally realise that national unity is important to national survival after all. Who would have thunk it?

    The Left’s ignorance, stupidity and mendacity on most matters relating to anthropology must be embarrassing to scientific-minded Leftists, so much so that they prefer not to talk about it on their blogs. They can perhaps ignore these irritating comments that litter cyber-space. But they can hardly ignore the NYT which just the other day published an article in which the US Anthropological association proudly announced that it was no longer interested in doing science.

    Anthropologists have been thrown into turmoil about the nature and future of their profession after a decision by the American Anthropological Association at its recent annual meeting to strip the word “science” from a statement of its long-range plan.

    The word “science” has been excised from two other places in the revised statement.

    The decision has reopened a long-simmering tension between researchers in science-based anthropological disciplines — including archaeologists, physical anthropologists and some cultural anthropologists — and members of the profession who study race, ethnicity and gender and see themselves as advocates for native peoples or human rights.

    Of course this is only a formal mission statement from a peak scientific body. For a real taste of the intellectual degeneration of Left-liberalism one only has to spend time in one of the myriad culture studies departments or flick through an Age/SMH op-ed.

    I have been banging on about the Left-liberalism’s appalling intellectual (and moral) record in wrecking the rational analysis of culture for as long as I can remember. I get some grim satisfaction in seeing confirmation of this come from the horses mouth, so to speak.

  19. @Jack Strocchi
    Strocchi – you call a plague on both houses and still manage to make the conservative right somehow come out of your posts smelling like a bunch of roses.

    I call a plague on both houses because they cant figure out between then why inequality is rising and so many are getting a tad ticked off…you think your right better Jack? They started it with “trickle down”. Do I think my left better?. What left Strocchi? – you tell me the difference between the Labor party and the Liberals. They are both so right according to themselves and they are both so horribly wrong it doesnt bear thinking about. My plague on both houses ins at least real Strocchi. Yours is as artifice.

  20. One of Einsten’s greatest mistakes was to call his theory “relativity.” He could just as easily have called it “The theory of absolutivity” (of the speed of light in all reference frames). It would have avoided this whole silly mess.

  21. @sam

    I don’t know that Einstein was all that exercised by the ability of pseudo-cosnervatives a century after his time to imprison themselves entirely in magical thinking. The idea that science needs to sound like a spin doctor does not speak for itself.

  22. Apparently Einstein thought that it would be better to call his theory of cosmic gravity the “theory of invariance constancy”.

    In his original 1905 paper about invariance, “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies” (here translated from German into English), Albert Einstein did call his first postulate the Principle of Relativity.

    But later he regretted this name, because the logical foundation of his theory is constancy, and because he saw the silly analogies that people drew between his theory about relativity in physics and their ideas about relativity in ideology, to claim support for their ideas about relativism and subjectivism.

    People extended his claims about the relativity of specific things (time, space, and mass) into claims about the relativitity of everything (including values and ethical standards) in all areas of life, as if Einstein was saying “everything is relative.” But he never said this.

    But somehow relativity got hold, subsequently a source of endless confusion to the scientifically illiterate.

  23. racial disparities in education and employment have their origin in biological differences between the human races. Those differences are facts in the natural world, like the orbits of the planets. They can’t be legislated out of existence; nor can they be “eliminated” by social or political action.

    -John Derbyshire

    Facts of the natural world, like the orbits of the planets. Or, indeed, the effect that atmospheric carbon has on global temperature.

    The Left’s ignorance, stupidity and mendacity on most matters relating to anthropology must be embarrassing to scientific-minded Leftists.

  24. Jack (and responses) – to the sandpit please. I don’t find your preferred style of pseudoscience any more interesting than that of Conservapedia, and the political right seems mostly to have dropped it, so discussion just derails the thread.

    Gerard- careful with the irony alerts there!

  25. @Sam
    Not really. Relativity is a physics concept that predates Einstein. Einstein combined the principle of relativity – that the laws of the physics are the same for unaccelerated observers, just as in Newtonian physics – with the constant speed of light and a whole lot of stuff fell out. All scientific theories propose constancies; Einstein proposed new and spooky constancies relative to the observer.

  26. @gerard

    I just read the Wikipedia link on Mr Derbyshire. Interesting fellow. I like the title of his 2009 book “We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism”. Maybe that explains the typical conservative position on climate change. They don’t want anything done because they want to be doomed.

    And he had an uncredited role in a Bruce Lee movie!

  27. @Jim Birch
    In Galilean relativity, some phenomena vary according to the reference frame of the observer (such as the velocity of all things, including light), and some are constant across all frames (such as the observed laws of physics, the mass of an object, and the passage of time). Einstein’s great insight was that the absolutivity of physics- specifically of Maxwell’s electromagnetic equations- in all reference frames implies the absolutivity of the speed of light in all frames (1). This in turn implies the relativity of an object’s observed mass, and the passage of time (among other things).

    Thus Einstein’s contribution was to take something that had been considered relative to the observer and show that it was really absolute. The consequence of this is that other things previously considered absolute are in fact relative. So I repeat my claim; “Einstein’s theory of relativity” could just as easily have been called his “theory of absolutivity.”

    Einstein didn’t just suffer at the hands of 21st century right wing American shock jocks. As Strochii shows, moral relativists immediately used his work to back up their own social philosophies. This was something he publicly regretted.

    (1) In fact, Hendrik Lorentz deserves much of the credit for this and is relativity’s under-recognized hero.

  28. @sam
    I was disputing your claim that calling the theory relativity was one of Einsten’s greatest mistakes. This sounds a wee bit far fetched, perhaps? Especially if you compare it to the stuff he actually got wrong, eg, locality.

    It’s a good enough name. The theory integrated a number of phenomena so saying that this implied that, or, that the “absolutivity” outweighs the “relativity” is a bit lyrical for me. All science aims to discover constants, doesn’t it?

  29. @Jim Birch
    Oh sure, I was joking with my “greatest mistake” line. It just would have avoided his theory being both co-opted by silly cultural relativists who didn’t understand the theory, and rejected by silly cultural absolutists who also didn’t understand it.

  30. @sam

    Moral relativism is a slogan the right uses to try and escape logic, like Benedict XVI hanging his entire pontificate on a denunciation of moral relativism, so long as no-one mentions the children. In fact the right is quite happy to relativise morality. Even on this very blog, for example, some have actually had the temerity to argue that Arab democracy is undesirable because it would be bad for Israel.

    Einstein himself denounced any link between his theory and the artistic and literary experiments that claimed it as authority.

    Einstein himself often insisted that his theories had no relevance for anything except science. He called the hullabaloo surrounding his findings “psychopathological,” and he disabused those who would misapply his ideas. Asked what effect his theory would have on religion, he said: “None. Relativity is a purely scientific matter and has nothing to do with religion.”

    Paul Johnson invented this particular agnatomeme in a classic exercise of post hoc ergo propter hoc and even then he had to move the date of Einstein’s popular acclaim from 1929 to 1905 to sustain his argument.

    I look forward to the germ of a conspiracy theory by which Einstein, a man of the left, deliberately chose the name in order to engender ‘moral relativism’ even though the position had been argued for centuries before Einstein’s existence.

  31. @Alan
    I’m only going to address your first paragraph, all the others seem to not disagree with me.

    First, “moral relativism” is not just an epithet used by the right to attack the left. People on both sides of politics have openly held this as a philosophical position. There are left wing moral absolutists such as physicist Alan Sokal, and there are right wing moral relativists such as apartheid era South African prime minister Pieter Botha.

    Also, in a somewhat tiresome way, you have dredged up an old and irrelevant disagreement between the two of us. I’m not sure why. Perhaps the insinuation goes along these lines:

    1 Sam doesn’t like moral relativism.
    2 He is pro-democracy in some cases but not all.
    3 This is an example of moral relativism.
    4 Therefore Sam is a hypocrite.

    Assuming this was your point, here is my response:

    1) I haven’t expressed an opinion on the rightness or wrongness of moral relativism, but only asserted that special relativity would not inform this debate. Do you disagree with me on this?

    2) Yes, this is so. Tyranny of an ethically challenged majority is not always preferable to tyranny of a less ethically challenged minority.

    3) This is not moral relativism.

    4) Unproven.

    If you want to continue this discussion, I suggest we go to the sandpit.

  32. John, I’ve posted a reply to Alan but it says that my comment is awaiting moderation. I don’t believe I have violated the discussion policy. It was perhaps a little off-topic, but I was replying to a specific point another contributer had made. Is this an error on the part of the blog’s software? Would you like me to repost in the sandpit?

  33. I dredge it up, sam, because it exemplifies the way the phrase ‘moral relativism’ has degenerated into a slogan by which the right attacks the left. Benedict specifically invoked the alleged ‘dictatorship of moral relativism’ at the last mass before his conclave. Stripping away all the verbiage and looking at the guy’s actual record values like truth and justice are a long way down his list of priorities from avoiding scandal to the church. It should be noted that scandal is apparently not what actually happens but whether priests get caught or not.

    As it happens, I agree with Benedict on the dangers of moral relativism. I do not agree with him on the content of those evils. In your own case, once you start making assumptions about an ethically charged minority having the right to overrule a less ethically charged majority all you are doing is window-dressing tyranny.

    Who authorises the minority to proclaim themselves ethically charged?

    I do not say you are a hypocrite. I say your ethical position is deeply flawed. You may well hold it sincerely. Sincerity would not prevent it from being an objective moral disorder.

  34. As a general point, if a comment goes into moderation it is usually because either
    (a) a word (coarse language or one commonly found in spam)
    (b) links (too many or suspicious
    has set off the automatic filters

    If I don’t like a comment, I’ll usually say so

  35. @sam

    Once before the word: soci@lism set it off because it encloses the string ci@lis which is connected with sp@m for vi@gra. I found that really amusing.

    Sidebar: PrQ the site speed is down to a crawl. The above is a repost after the first failed (after 3 minutes) to load. Navigating within the sirte is taking about 45 seconds and sometimes failing

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