Is Michael Shermer Really a Skeptic?

In the June, 2013 volume of Scientific American, Michael Shermer’s reply to a reader’s published letter makes a number of remarkable statements.  Shermer was attempting to clarify or otherwise augment the meaning of his February, 2013 column, “The Left’s War on Science.”  In discussing how “the ‘anti’ bias can creep in from the far left,” Mr. Shermer suggests that “Perhaps instead of ‘anti-science’ it is ‘anti-progress’” that is the real issue with the political left.  I would like to address the implicit normative biases inherent in Mr. Shermer’s equating of “anti-science” with “anti-progress,” to which he seems to give ascent un-skeptically.  Granted, he is not identifying the one with the other, but he does equate them, and this reveals a bias.

First, there is the more superficial bias contained in Mr. Shermer’s choice of phraseology, specifically, the use of an oppositional definition employing the prefix “anti” to specify his referent, the sense of which implies a normative value judgement given the popular discourse around such diverse spheres as “technology” or “freedom.”  Who in their right mind is against “progress?”  If automation is replacing our workforce, maybe “anti-progress” is also “pro-labor.”  If cheap integrated circuits are the product of dubiously sourced coltan, maybe “anti-progress” is “pro-human rights.”  If more automobiles make more pollution (because increased fuel economy doesn’t fully offset the increasing carbon costs of extracting energy from less accessible reserves), and if more fuel-efficient automobiles furthermore compound other state-centric financial problems (such as the market consequences of ethanol mandates on subsidized industrial agriculture in the US, or on third-world grain prices for what are otherwise staple food crops on the global market), maybe “anti-progress” is “pro-ecology.”

Or, to phrase the same difficulty in slightly different terms: do we really need more “progress” in the breeding of more productive grains, or is it maybe better to use culture to encourage a more comprehensive ecological view of the individual in the world, and to simply stop throwing out half the food we produce each year, or only eat meat three times a week instead of three times a day?  Is it possible that these “ecological” solutions are not only less complex than new networks of industrial processes, but can also be more resilient and cheaper and more pleasurable to partake in?  Would it be anti-progress, for example, to advocate for reducing unemployment by increasing labor-intensive organic food production for a less meat-centric diet, that is also less wasteful, more full of substantive choices and alternatives, and healthier?

Second, there is the bias conveyed by Progress itself, which Progress invokes in favor of itself, and for its own perpetuation, wherever Progress is invoked.  Progress is a relatively new ideology in Western culture, dating for our purposes to the European Enlightenment.  It says, basically, that things always improve through the mass accumulation of specialized, systematic knowledge and the mass dissemination of its applications. In a commercial sense, it means newer technology is always better and must also replace older technology.  This ideology is relatively new.  The European Renaissance, by contrast, venerated the wisdom of Antiquity; in Medieval Christendom things were better back in Eden; and in Rome, the mythic Golden Age of the remote past offered the ideal model for future aspirations.  Even Francis Bacon, famous advocate of the “advancement of learning,” conjured up the long-lost Atlantis in his utopian manifesto on the future of the mathematical arts.

Looking more closely at such normative terms in their popular usage (to wit, “anti-progress”), certain flaws in the ideology’s positive formulation become apparent.  A case study in terminology: if we look at bees, we can see they are a much older species than modern homo sapiens.  They outnumber us, have been more successful at propagating their genes than us, and, in a sense are therefore “more evolved” than us.  Are bees “better” than humans because they are “more evolved” or otherwise “more successful?”  Consider this: if “progress” drives our species to destroy our own habitat, maybe our big brains aren’t really all that great of a survival advantage after all — or maybe, at least, it’s a little lunatic to talk about human intelligence in such superlative terms, as if our absolute superiority were a settled matter.  I think the jury is very much still out on this: the average mammal lasts about a million years, so it’s really not like modern humans are a model of Malthusian-Darwinian longevity.  Maybe Neanderthals really were better, and we out-competed them because we’re a genetic fluke, a virus, that will eventually consume itself by consuming its host — and though we would declare ourselves victors over Neanderthals, perhaps the cosmic hammer of natural selection just hasn’t landed quite yet, for our stupidity in destroying our living past.  Which is not to suggest I am arguing against rationality or engineering, or Enlightenment values: to start building a metaphor from our case study in terminology: bees conduct their affairs with a lot of remarkable, organized, rule-governed social behaviors — and they do so with very little brain.  With just a little more than what a basal ganglia can do, they might make a suitable metaphor for those same Enlightenment social values that produced that grand edifice of civil law our nation so highly esteems.

Third, there is the teleological component to Mr. Shermer’s particular choice of the term “progress” that can easily lead to false inferences about the ideology and its historical consequences.  Specifically, “progress” implies progress towards something: you progress from A to B.  “Progress” broadly understood, however, is more properly analogous to the way a scientist might talk about a body part being “designed” to accomplish a particular purpose, or an electron “liking” to do different things under different circumstances.  Scientists in such cases aren’t really making teleological claims, though they are making a case for a structured set of circumstances.  Perhaps, in empirical terms, human civilization is making progress towards catastrophe — be in environmental ruin or thermonuclear war.

What qualifies as “progress” in one context may be more usefully described as a type of normative bias, when the term’s usage is considered more broadly.  Although it is easy to see that computers have replaced typewriters and wireless phones have replaced landlines in many cases, and we all agree these developments are more convenient in certain ways (though they also facilitate undesirable behaviors, such eavesdropping or distracted driving), these media-centric cultural touchstones are really of limited historical validity where “progress” is concerned.  Computers have not replaced paper, or pens, or books, or the written word, or the value of “movable” or otherwise dynamic type: older technologies aren’t always replaced, though their role changes.

Many electric guitarists today seek out amplifiers driven by vacuum tubes, which are still sold for this purpose, and some musicians prefer to record onto analog tape, or to release new recordings on vinyl.  This is normal.  As of the year 6013 A.L., some 30% of computers are running Windows XP, a 10-year-old operating system.  Outdated technology is the norm: there are six times as many users of the outdated Windows XP as there are Mac users, Apple’s stock price notwithstanding.  Which is to say, equating (or, perhaps more properly, conflating) “technology” with “the newest technology” under the rubric of “progress” reflects a bias.

Lastly, there is the wisdom of the ages, which Progress would amputate from our intellectual heritage: Futurist architect and Italian Fascist Tomasso Marinetti apparently wrote persuasively in 1914 about this devastation of living history, embodied in historical buildings and common urban forms, how it represents “a victory for which we fight without pause against the cowardly worship of the past.”  His vision was realized in many mid-sized American cities in the 1960’s and 1970’s, when historic downtown areas across the country were razed to make way for Interstates and parking lots and parking garages for suburban commuters.  This same razing provided the match to ignite many of the the urban riots during the late 1960’s, and initiated a decades-long program of planned neglect in inner cities nationwide, while suburbs parasitized both cities and rural areas in the guise of an aggressive modernity.

Proverbs 6:6-8 reads: “Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways and be wise: which, having no guide, overseer, or ruler, Provideth her meat in the summer, and gathereth her food in the harvest.”  The organization of ant society is profoundly decentralized, but also profoundly social and cooperative.  The US Constitution is similar: it speaks of the “common defense,” the “general welfare” and “our posterity” but also of “the blessings of liberty” and of “Justice.”  The ant is properly feminized in King James to accord with the Greek Sophia — Wisdom — in the same manner as other Biblical sayings, such as Proverbs 8:1 (“Doth not wisdom cry? and understanding put forth her voice?”) or Matthew 11:19 (“The Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, Behold a man gluttonous, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners. But wisdom is justified of her children”).  The teachings of Freemasonry take this basic appeal and apply it to secular society, in a Neoplatonist fashion, modeled after Plato’s utopian discourse on the ideal State.

Freemason Albert Pike — the only Confederate officer to be honored with an outdoor statue in DC — fashioned a highly inter-textual dialog called The Morals and Dogma of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry.  A compendium of Renaissance wisdom synthesized with the tools of Enlightenment systematic inquiry, the text represents a sort of Machiavelli of morals.  Chapter VIII reads in part: “A Masonic Lodge should resemble a bee-hive, in which all the members work together with ardor for the common good… To comfort misfortunes, to popularize knowledge, to teach whatever is true and pure in religion and philosophy, to accustom men to respect order and the proprieties of life, to point out the way to genuine happiness, to prepare for that fortunate period, when all the factions of the Human Family, united by the bonds of Toleration and Fraternity, shall be but one household,–these are labours that may well excite zeal and even enthusiasm.”

Which is to pick up the Solomonic wisdom from the Proverbs, by adopting an animal that is industrious and well-organized like the ant, though less inclined to warfare, and also an ardent lover of beauty.  Plato had Socrates say it similarly, in urging us to craft the works of a “fine and graceful” social order “so that our young people will live in a healthy place and be benefited on all sides, and so that something of those fine works will strike their eyes and ears like a breeze that brings health from a good place, leading them unwittingly, from childhood on, to resemblance, friendship, and harmony with the beauty of reason.”

So I went and revisited Mr. Shermer’s February 2013 column, as I had that month’s magazine still on the table in my study.  The column’s hook promises to explore “How politics distorts science on both ends of the spectrum.”  I would rather have read someone argue from that starting point something more to the effect that “both ends of the spectrum” accept ideological “progress” so unquestioningly, that alternatives with their repercussions are almost inconceivable, and that this is a far greater problem, because it induces systemic blindness that is threatening the civilization whose values Mr. Shermer purports to defend.


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