The Sciences

Why the "Enlightenment Ethic" Blinds the Left

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyJun 16, 2011 7:06 PM


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This is the fifth and last in a series of posts elaborating on my recent American Prospect magazine article entitled “The Reality Gap: Now more than Ever, Republicans and Democrats are separated by expertise–and by facts.”

Okay. So now we've seen how academia and expertise have shifted left, how counter-expertise has moved in from the right, how this leaves us with a postmodern political culture, but how nevertheless, if you drill down on basic scientific and policy facts, you find Democrats, who are closer to expertise, much more aligned with them. There are exceptions, to be sure. But that's the picture. However, the final point is the one that matters most--facts and expertise aren't helping Democrats, nor is the fact that they have them helping America. Minds aren't being changed, consensus isn't being formed (just look at one of the latest comment threads). And among expertise-saturated liberals, there's a failure to see why this is happening--and even, sometimes, the delusion that rational and fact-based argument is going to solve problems that are really rooted in value differences:

Liberals, to Lakoff, are just different. Science, social science, and research in general support an Enlightenment ethic--finding the best facts so as to improve the world and society and thus advance liberals’ own moral system, which is based on a caring and “nurturant” parent-run family. “So there is a reason in the moral system to like science in general,” Lakoff says. Here also arises a chief liberal weakness, probably amplified by an academic training: constantly trying to use factual and reasoned arguments to make the world better and being amazed to find that even though these arguments are sound, well researched, and supported, they are disregarded or even actively attacked. Too often liberals--we--fail to see how our very credentials, and the habits of argument they impart, set the stage for the postmodern world just as soon as our unending factual dance with conservatives begins.... So do all of us, left and right, care about expertise? Sure, when it suits us. We also usually agree about where expertise lies--when it isn’t contested. “You would certainly be horrified if you found out the guy who was flying your airplane didn’t have a pilot’s license,” Kerry Emanuel says. Politically, though, we use expertise in service of different agendas--and reason for different reasons. And we don’t all necessarily share the Enlightenment ethic of using science and research to lift us all up into a more caring and progressive society. Indeed, liberals who do share this ethic often don’t seem to understand what’s happening when reasoned, evidence—based arguments fail to have their desired effect--and are countered by flimsy objections or unjust attacks. We’ve got a lot of science, a lot of experts--and a lot to learn.

Again, you can read the full article here.

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