The global party of stupid (slightly updated)

The new conservative ministry has just been sworn in, and while it includes Ministers for Border Protection (that is, stopping refugees) and Sport, and even a minister for the centenary of the Anzac landings on Gallipoli in 1915, there are no longer ministers for science or higher education[1]. This is part of a fairly consistent pattern. The US Republican Party recently vetoed the creation of an unpaid position of National Science Laureate. In Canada, the Harper government eliminated the position of National Science Advisor, among many other anti-science moves. All of this reflects the inconvenient fact that scientific research often reaches conclusions that conflict with the policy preferences or religious beliefs of rightwingers.

It’s striking in this context to recall that, only 20 years ago, the phrase “Science Wars” was used in relation to generally leftish postmodernists in the humanities, who were seen as rejecting science and/or promoting pseudoscience (while some of this stuff was rather silly, there’s no evidence that it ever did any actual harm to science). These days postmodernist and related “science studies” critiques of science are part of the rightwing arsenal used by Steven Fuller to defend creationism and by Daniel Sarewitz on climate science. The routine assumption that the analyses put forward of innumerate bloggers are just as valid as (in fact more valid than) as those of scientists who have devoted their life to the relevant field is one aspect of this, as is the constant demand to “teach the controversy” on evolution, climate science, wind turbine health scares, vaccination and so on.

In the short run, the costs of attacking science are small. Scientists aren’t that numerous, so their conversion into one of the most solidly anti-Republican voting blocs in the US has’t had much electoral impact. But, eventually the fact that conservatives are the “stupid party” gets noticed, even by rightwingers themselves.

One person who has just noticed is Frank Furedi, a leading figure in the former Revolutionary Communist Party which, over the course of the 1990s, morphed into the rightwing libertarian Spiked group. In retrospect, Furedi jumped ship at the high water mark of right wing intellectual confidence, symbolised by Tom Friedman’s bloviations in The Lexus and the Olive Tree. Then came the Asian crisis, successive financial crises in the US and the intellectual debacle of climate delusionism, to which Furedi and the Spiked Group contributed actively. So, having joined what seemed to be the smart set, Furedi has finally realised that he is inescapably enmeshed in stupid. The result is this cri de coeur, lamenting the way in which rightwingers are called out for saying stupid things (he name-checks Tony Abbott, Stephanie Banister and, of course, Sarah Palin). Furedi doesn’t deny that rightwingers embrace stupidity, in fact he concedes it, observing

Not surprisingly, many conservatives become defensive when confronted with the put-downs of their intellectual superiors. Consequently, in many societies, particularly the US, they have become self-consciously anti-intellectual and hostile to the ethos of university life. Anti-intellectualism works as the kind of counterpart to the pathologisation of conservatism. And of course, the bitter anti-intellectual reaction of the right, which sometimes seems to affirm ignorance, only reinforces the smug prejudices of the intellectuals who see themselves as being morally superior. (emphasis added)

A couple of things are interesting about Furedi’s piece. First, he erases from history the period of rightwing intellectual dominance that began with the rise of market liberalism in the mid-1970s, and reached its apogee in the mid-1990s, before declining catastrophically in the Bush era. Second, he fails to recognise the way in which the silly-clever pointscoring of rightwing intellectuals like himself has contributed to the anti-intellectualism he deplores on his own side.

Even now, the intellectual collapse of the right has not had much effect on political outcomes. The dead ideas of the right shamble on in zombie form, and still dominate the thinking of the political class, particularly at the level of unconscious reflex. And, even to the extent that rightwing claims about, say, the beneficence of the financial sector, are discredited, the political power of the dominant class ensures that not much can be done. Winning the battle of ideas is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for progress. The rightwing embrace of stupidity is already doing them harm and will do a lot more in futer.

fn1. There are also very few women, but that needs another post.

42 thoughts on “The global party of stupid (slightly updated)

  1. Crispin,

    You say ” They just want to muddy the waters, spread FUD (‘fear, uncertainty, and doubt’ in geekspeak), and delay any likely future diminution of their profits. ”

    Who is ‘they’ in this case?

    I think this explanation – that it is all about profit – may apply to the people who are actually making the huge profits. But there are people out there – as you say though not on this economic blog and I will henceforth go elsewhere to spread my psychological insights – who are not motived in their beliefs solely by the desire for profit.

    These people very much resent being misunderstood and feel ‘accused’ and ‘wronged’ by your type of ideological reasoning that categorises everyone on the right as having a venal motivation.

    I do hope that I am not being inappropriate with these comments. 🙂

  2. @Julie Thomas Perhaps I expressed myself unclearly. I make a distinction between the fossil fuel mafia (FFM) — who are quite literally happy to see the planet burn as long as they can continue to fatten themselves — and many of the commentators who are their ‘useful idiots’ (people who may or may not hold their views honestly, but in either case are equally useful to the FFM).

    So, yes, as you say, the plainly cynical profit motive only applies to the former, who don’t (directly at least) comment on blog posts.

    As for the resentment of either group: it’s far too late to care. Niceness is a virtue over coffee, not on the battlefield. The enemy has understood this to be a war from the beginning, and the environmental movement has only weakened itself by pretending a win-win to be possible. It’s not. They win, we all lose. Losing is obviously the most likely outcome, but capitulating makes it certain.

  3. I’ve deleted Angus’ comment, so there will be no point engaging with the specifics. However, since he has ignored my request not to post, I don’t mind if other commenters talk about him, as an example of the problems we face with the stupid party.

  4. While Alan Sokal may have been miffed at the so-called trendy left’s post-modern perspective on science, the publication of his article was more revealing of some other failings by those academics he targeted: for example, the peer review process, an essential and basic part of maintaining some academic standard of quality, was simply absent or at least materially ineffective if present—Sokal’s article was proof enough of that failing. Mind you, Sokal put in the hard yards to get the post-modern language and mores right in his article, otherwise the jig would have been up. It wasn’t an amateur effort on a scrap of paper, that’s for sure.

    Anyway, some of the other things that the “trendy left” were maligned for espousing—and this does go to the heart of the right/left culture/science wars—concerned matters of inequality, rather than matters of only abstract academic interest. How can an issue, such as equality for women (especially in the workforce), be characterised as “left” rather than “right”? It makes no good sense, and surely it needs no pointing out that women are equal in the count of their vote, are equal insofar as democracy is concerned. Given that the culture wars largely played out in the USA, a country with a democracy founded upon the best of the Enlightenment principles, how can anyone there seriously characterise equality of women (especially in the workplace) as being a left issue, or a right issue; it is a democracy issue, an exercise of democratic rights, for women to be treated equally (especially in the workplace).

    The issues, equality of women for example, can only become associated with left versus right if one group behaves as if women do not have the right to equality, while the other group behave in a manner accepting that they do have the right to equality. That wasn’t about the problem of equality being a left or right invention: that was about how one group decided it would behave in relation to the problem. The left chose to find ways to address the issue, while the right denied the problem, diminished the merit of women in general, argued that it would topple society as we knew it (due to no one being home to look after the babies), and so on. In particular, the right made a choice as to how they would treat such issues, and having cooked their goose, now they have to lie in it—to roughly quote Joh Bjelke-Petersen, an old Qld conservative political warrior.

  5. Abbott has dumped the Climate Commission. There is vigorous outbreak of stupid in the SMH comments section on the story. Abbott’s approach is lazy, he is intend on destruction rather than creation, he balks at the effort required to deal with complexity preferring a couple of quick blows to the head to finish off the ‘problem’.

  6. Speaking of idiocy, I just read this, and the penny dropped.
    No-one’s being stupid. It’s all a terrible misunderstanding. Abbott uses words in his own unique-snowflakey way, and no-one (maybe not even his colleagues or himself) has noticed. ‘Respect’ in Abbottish means ‘Pell told me it’s crap and wants it shut down’. He ‘respects’ science, the Climate Commission, women, and Indonesia. All will become clear once the rest of the lexicon is translated by relevant subject-mattter experts.

  7. Witnessed in this and the other recent thread: a layperson has the sufficient knowledge and background to be able to undermine the science behind global climate change. I keep my mouth shut about dentistry, dam building, software design and a whole range of other specialised fields because I acknowledge my severe knowledge deficiency in those areas. But starting from a very, very casual (and extremely biased) literature review and applying pseudologic certain average persons are able to totally debunk the consensus of thousands of highly-degreed people who spend their whole lives immersed in that field. The stupidity and arrogance that this implies is mind-melting.

  8. the three sacked department heads made their careers during the howard years. There is no reason to assume anything other than they informed and implemented the policies of whomever was the government of the day.

  9. Will #33 the anti-science crowd trades on the pride that some people take in being ignorant – the ones who loudly proclaim their disdain for ‘pointy heads’. The unions used to have a lot of them – still do for all I know – sneering at the ‘aca-fucking-demics’ who had wormed their way into the Labor Party. The wholly-manufactured ‘scandal’ about emails between climate scientists was only sustainable because so many people have no clue about the way academics operate and how research is funded.

    I have to say however that scientists are often their own worst enemies when it comes to explaining their findings and equally importantly, the limitations on those findings. When the media champions of the move to combat global warming are people like Tim Flannery and Al Gore, it’s no wonder uninformed people assume scientists are content to let them be their public interpreters and be judged accordingly.

  10. @Will

    Mirabella was Shadow Minister for Science? Surprising in itself. But if the quoted words of Cathy McGowan are a fair reflection of the calibre of the new Member for Indi then the government would be wiser (than it is) to show the imagination of simply offering the Science portfolio to her.

  11. Speaking of the global party of stupid, one of its advocates has an article—to be polite—in today’s Advertiser newspaper: he gives a big rude serve to Tim Flannery and rejoices in the shutdown of the Climate Commission, going on about how Flannery is a paleontologist/biologist, but not a climate scientist, implying that anything Flannery has to say about climate change and AGW is somehow not credible. That same advocate of the global party of stupid has spent the better part of his career making (mis-)statements about climate change and AGW, as if he is an expert climate scientist! (Sorry, just had to put that in bold…)

    I wonder if anyone has (successfully) pointed out to him his own hypocrisy?

    Time to go and watch my back-catalogue of The Bolt Report

  12. @Tom
    Just read the article you linked to in your comment—crikey! Until then, I still thought that the level of stupid had an upper bound, but apparently not.

    On a related note, a great flurry of letters to the editor in Abbostralian newspaper, and also the Abbvertiser, explained (and lazily justified) the lack of women in Abb’s portfolios as due to the selection of ministers on merit, rather than on quota—implying that’s how Labor got so many women for its portfolios, presumably.

    I wonder if any of those letter writers appreciated the slap in the collective face of the women of the Liberal party that their letters have given, it hardly being implicit that the women were not of sufficient merit, if the selection on merit claim were true. Nobody expects an exact 50/50 selection, but surely anything between 30/70 and 70/30 is quite possible if done on merit alone? But 5%? Streuth!

  13. The repeated argument being trotted out of there being no suitable women to be found to fill key positions is a total cop-out. There must be literally tens of thousands of women in Australia who will be suitable for a cabinet appointment by having high-level management experience plus suitable educational qualifications. The only way that they can claim no women fit the bill is to totally ignore the issue, until the very last minute, at which they come up short and hence blame everyone else rather than themselves.

  14. Hi ProfQ
    You may not see this as the posts have moved along quite rapidly since the last time i looked at this site, but do you remember some months ago we had an exchange of views because you had said that we would look back on the Gillard government as a bad dream, and I said that such rhetoric was only increasing the chance of an LNP victory?

    Well welcome to the nightmare!

    (I realise that I am being somewhat ott and ignoring some nuances of our earlier debate, but I am on a mission from the goddess to make men on the left think about what has happened and why.)

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