Culture War Dispatches

from a Progressive People's Republic

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Grand narratives

Letter to the New Criterion:

Thanks for your fascinating January issue on relativism. I have always savored the lack of self-awareness of a relativist arguing that people who call other people evil are evil.

Christie Davies (“Truth vs. equality”) discusses the relativist view of scientific truth. Last year the issue received national publicity when a dim-bulb Dartmouth professor sued students for challenging her argument that "scientific facts do not correspond to a natural reality but conform to a social construct" (WSJ 5/5/08).

Ms. Davies’ analysis is cogent, but I question her historical narrative in the following:
Then Marxism failed…this led to an abandonment of the old single certainties and grand narratives which had claimed a unique pseudo-scientific validity. Egalitarian relativism triumphed and the downgrading of science became a reality.
Ms. Davies is more on target in her opening line, “Relativism is a key weapon of those who seek to undermine Western civilization.” Although Soviet communism failed, the grand narrative of anti-Americanism and anti-capitalism is stronger than ever; I’m not convinced that the western Left ever abandoned Marxism.

Ms. Davies supports her claim that science has been downgraded with the example of a feminist who defends “the UFO community.” People like this certainly exist, but I would argue that science—although its purpose is to seek “objective truth”--has been increasingly politicized, and now, like relativism, is often used as a weapon of convenience in the Left’s arsenal.

I would wager, for instance, that most relativists, social constructivists, multiculturalists and post-modernists are fervent believers in the grand narrative of manmade global warming, which claims “pseudo-scientific validity” in order to advance an anti-capitalist agenda—perhaps not Marxist in name but certainly in intent. If science can be used to attack capitalism, the Left holds it up as revealing “inconvenient truths.” (Never mind that predicting the future requires faith; as Michael Crichton pointed out, “There can be no observational data about the year 2100.”) Similarly, if evolutionary science can be used to attack western religion, relativistic doubts about scientific knowledge dissolve.

The UFO feminist and the Dartmouth professor would likely join the chorus attacking President Bush for ignoring “Science” on issues like stem cell research, wrapping themselves in the mantle of truth and objectivity for as long as it takes to win a political fight.