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. Furedi also erases from his history the profoundly anti-intellectual (with sharp teeth) McCarthy period from the early 50s to mid 60s in the western countries. If we need motivation to resist the new trend, look at the destruction of intellectualism there. I liked this quote from him “it was claimed that taking a more questioning and critical approach to politics required an ability to think abstractly and in a sophisticated way.” If “critical thinking” is expunged from education it becomes just training.

  2. Underestimating and deriding a victorious opponent is a good way to prolong that stay on the opposition benches.

  3. Perhaps their stupidity will harm them in the “future”?

    The stupidity of the “right” has also essentially destroyed the establishment mainstream political alternative to it (eg: Labor, Democrats) by successfully infiltrating them. There is no real difference in practice between the “left” and “right” if they are deemed to equate to “ALP” and “LNP”.

  4. Abbott’s selection of ministries and their titles is a clear statement of intent, but nothing more than what could be expected. It isn’t like the signs were absent.

    I am also bemused/amused by the way certain elements of the business sector are voicing their strong desire that the (new) government borrow, and borrow big, to build lots of groovy infrastructure; I especially loved the tacked on justification of borrowing heaps now as being the best time to do it because interest rates are so low. These same t*rds were up in arms at the thought of Labor splashing cash to avoid a post-GFC economic crisis.

    Since we don’t have “Education” now, it is a bit unclear who will assume responsibility for getting ID/YEC/OEC or some equivalent into the school system, but no doubt someone will see the sense of it. It will be really great to see Ken Ham and his dinosaurs-with-saddles becoming part of our _______ classes^fn1 in school: that will be a real hoot. Of course, they better not also add “Old Earth Creationism” to the syllabus—it would be too confusing for the kiddies and teachers (although it would certainly “teach the controversy”, as the ID crowd is wont to say 🙂 ).

    fn1: they used to be called “science” classes, but now that “science” has been expunged from the lexicon…

  5. @Donald, the neoliberals need to replenish the privatization catalog, under terms and contracts that suits them (and notice how the retail and other affected sectors sat in silence while the interests of industry sectors split recently).

  6. “In the short run, the costs of attacking science are small.” – JQ.

    Maybe, but in the long run they are huge. Our society no longer values truth or science, that is why we are collapsing.

  7. Posts regularly appear on right-wing sites such as National Review, solemnly congratulating conservatives on the courteous, civil, evidence-based arguments they habitually make in contrast to the emotional, irrational ranting of liberals. I can only assume they really believe this to be true. Not sure what the greater significance is but it does not bode well for genuine dialogue and cooperation in the USA any time soon. I’m sanguine we are not so far gone here, but maybe I’m being unduly optimistic.

  8. As for the shortage of female cabinet members, it could just be an accident. But perhaps more likely is that the type of woman that the libs think would make a good candidate is not the type of person who would make a good minister.

    So I’m absolving Tony of blame, and putting it on Liberal party culture.

  9. @Ken #11 – That’s why there’s the rise in clout of orgs like the Cato Institute… and the CIS & IPA in Oz.

  10. To further emphasise the point:

    Some moderate Liberal MPs believe the party shifted
    too far to the right under John Howard. ACT Liberal Senator
    Gary Humphries believes his party is “conspicuously out of
    touch” with present feeling on climate change, Aboriginal
    affairs and industrial relations. However, some observers
    maintain Malcolm Turnbull cost himself the leadership of the
    Liberal Party (ref A) by publicly supporting a national
    apology to Aborigines and the ratification of the Kyoto
    protocol. Liberals skeptical about a shift to the Left point
    out that Rudd adopted many of the Coalition’s policies during
    the campaign. After former Health Minister Tony Abbott
    pulled out of the leadership contest, the majority of
    right-wing MPs threw their support behind Brendan Nelson,
    effectively delivering him the leadership. Therefore, he is
    likely to be attuned to their concerns. Abbott, in
    particular, is eager to defend the Howard legacy.

    From a US ‘secret’ perspective, Fri, 21 Dec 2007 06:24.

    My hatred of the establishment media is balanced by my love of the internet!


    Interesting. Some guy called Rufus Marsh (or was it Julius or Fitz?) waffling on about biologist Paul R. Gross in the Crikey comments a couple of years ago. No public record anywhere of Gross expressing any climate change scepticism, but Rufus claims to know him personally and be in direct private correspondence, and that’s how he knows. I guess Angus must know him personally too then.

  12. Angus Cameron,

    Please give me some evidence – apart from your own self-assessment – that would lead me to value your opinion over, for example, the person who you called ‘thick’; a person that I have found over the past several years to be quite intelligent in his/her comments.

    You seem to me to be a kind of person who – mostly mistakenly – sees themself as a magnificent individual with a superior ability to see things objectively.

    But do you have an explanation as to why you are so not-thick and different to the rest of us. What is it that happened to you that caused you to believe so mistakenly in your ability? Genes?

    I suspect that the explanation could be that you have a Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

    As an example of the behaviours that indicate this diagnosis, count the number of times you refer to yourself as a superior individual more intelligent than others and how often you refer to your impressive experiences of hanging out with really important and clever people. This is called ‘grandiosity’.

    But you are not ‘stupid’. You are being made stupid by your ideological reasoning.

    What is known by science is more than any individual can possibly comprehend on their own. But your type of person, uncomfortable with ambiguity and complexity, and quite delusional in your assessment of your abilities, develops an expertise in knowing who knows what about what.

    You judge the reliability of science or any other ‘fact’ with reference to an ‘affinity’ group with whom you can comfortably interact and who reason in ways that you can reliably read and agree with.

    What you are indulging in is “ideologically motivated reasoning” which everyone – left and right – does. You could google to find the Cultural Cognition blog which explains convincingly and with support from research efforts how people fool themselves about the way their ‘rationality’ works.

    But despite your own generous assessment of your intelligence, this information will be too challenging for you to accept and also possibly too subtle and complex. So you won’t change your mind.

    As the Sokal hoax showed, this type of motivated thinking happens on the left also.

    The difference seems to be that when the faults in a way of thinking are pointed out ‘the left’ adjust their cognition and beliefs, whereas people like you, when they find themselves in the unenviable situation of having to choose between crediting the best available evidence or simply being who they are, choose to ignore the evidence and continue to be ‘who they are’.

    You will continue to be proud of yourself for being an ‘individual’ who thinks outside the box not understanding that your determination to show what a superior person you are is what creates the box in which you exist and reason.

  13. @rog, @Julie et al: despite the natural temptation, it’s really best at this stage of history not to engage with the Angus Camerons of this world. There are two domains involved: science and politics.

    On the science: he’s irrelevant unless he’s going to win several Nobel prizes by overturning vast swathes of research and interpretation done in hundreds of scientific institutions worldwide. And if he is, best not distract him here, as he’ll have a lot of papers to crank out. Science isn’t done in ‘net comments (even on JQ’s esteemed blog).

    On the politics: it’s true enough that AC’s kind of commentary can be dangerous. He’s one of the fossil fuel mafia’s ‘useful idiots’. Whatever AC’s views, the FFM aren’t in any doubt about the physical reality of what’s happening to our climate and what needs to be done. They just want to muddy the waters, spread FUD (‘fear, uncertainty, and doubt’ in geekspeak), and delay any likely future diminution of their profits. AC’s ilk needs challenging in some fora, not in order persuade him (hardly likely), but to limit where possible the spread of his FUD. But I doubt that’s relevant on JQ’s blog. Climate change deniers will visit here only to niggle and troll and entertain themselves. Best leave them alone, in my opinion.

  14. 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. 🙂

  15. @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.

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

  18. 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’.

  19. 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.

  20. 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.

  21. 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.

  22. 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.

  23. @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.

  24. 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

  25. @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!

  26. 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.

  27. 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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