Jonahs can be cheerful when it suits

Posted on timeMarch 10th, 2006 by userPali Gap


“Politics & epistemology” – now there’s a subject!

It seems clear that you can correlate epistemological optimism with left-leaning politics and epistemological pessimism with “liberalism” (by which I mean non-authoritarian right wing politics).

A predilection for Scientism, Positivism, or any flavour of “foundationalist” epistemology is very convenient if you wish to sign up to the idea of progress through social engineering and the command economy. If you believe that Science gives us certain knowledge; that this knowledge is growing steadily; that there is effectively no limit to our quest for knowledge; and that even the laws of mind and society are fair game to Science – then you are an “epistemological optimist” and open to a Politics that believes that Society, the economy, the environment – even the Planet herself – can be managed and controlled in a rational, progressive way.

On the other hand you don’t have to be a foaming-at-the-mouth epistemological pessimist (sceptic, relativist, whatever) to believe that the tentative and conjectural nature of Science does not square with any form of Utopianism. Perhaps you think “certainty” is unattainable (and even undesirable as an aim); perhaps God does play dice (Einstein notwithstanding); perhaps Science does not progress in a simple cumulative fashion; perhaps the innate complexity or chaotic nature of some systems gives rise inevitably to a little cloud of unknowing. Any or all of these little sins of the Scientism faith are likely to make the supplicant give pause when considering grand projects such as genetically modified crops and nuclear power.

All of which is fine and dandy – except if we treat all the above as a conjecture and put it to the test it all falls apart pretty quickly! It seems folks just aren’t, well, they’re just not darn consistent between their politics and their epistemology! Is that the fault of my nice little theory, or is that their fault? “Cognitive dissonance” perhaps?

Take environmentalists…

In The Global Warming Bugaboo, George Reisman points out the contradiction between their pessimistic and gloomy epistemological comfort zone (i.e. worries over the capability of Science to guarantee the safety of nuclear plants, or to produce safe pesticides, or to introduce genetic engineering without horrible unintended consequences) and their need to get up close and intimate with the men in white coats so as to support their climate change doom scenarios – which only works if you throw in a fairly heavy dose of Scientism and epistemological optimism (especially an unshakeable faith in the powers of the computer modelling of chaotic systems!).

So what have we here? It seems the global warmers are playing fast and loose with their epistemology: cheerful, epistemological optimists one minute; depressing Jonahs the next. How inconsistent of them!

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