A humanities scholar's occasional ramblings on literature, science, popular culture, and the academy.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

You Keep Using That Word...

So Lou Dobbs, Juan Williams, Doug Schoen, and Erick Erickson all recently freaked out on Dobbs’s Fox News program over the trend of more women becoming the primary breadwinner in their homes. I sense that so much has already been said about this clip, I don’t have a lot to add, so I’ll keep this one brief.

I want specifically to address Erickson’s quote:

I am so used to liberals telling conservatives that they are anti-science. But I mean this is -- liberals who defend this and say it's not a bad thing are very anti-science. When you look at biology, look at the natural world, the roles of a male and female in society; in other animals the male typically is the dominant role.

He doubled down on this assertion on his blog:

Pro-science liberals seem to think basic nature and biology do not apply to Homo sapiens.

This is a favorite rhetorical trope among conservatives—taking the accusations that liberals often lodge at them and turning them around. No, you’re the sexists! No, you’re the racists! No you’re anti-science! It might be sophomoric, but it makes sense that conservatives would look for opportunities to put liberals on the defensive in this way. And many liberals do have a bad habit of throwing around rather inflammatory allegations of racism and sexism in often glib and unsophisticated ways.

But often, these attempts to turn the tables belie a fundamental misunderstanding of the terms. Now, I’m not going to address what science actually has to teach us about gender roles (boy, I do NOT have that kind of time) or specific scientific findings about males and females (except to say, “in other animals the male typically is the dominant role” -- whoa nelly does that seem like an oversimplification). Instead I want to address a more basic assumption that Erickson is making about what science is and what role it plays in public policy.

Science is descriptive, not prescriptive. It tells us how things are, not how they ought to be. Certainly, many scientists will comment on how things ought to be, and as citizens, it’s their right to do so, but in those contexts, they’re speaking as citizens; they’re not speaking for science. “Should” isn’t really a part of science’s vocabulary. Science tells us that climate change will cause sea levels to rise and myriad other ecological changes. Science doesn’t tell us that we should do anything about this—our values tell us that. When we pro-science folks accuse a segment of political discourse of being anti-science, what we mean is that we want policy discussions to begin with a common base of knowledge that is built on sound scientific research. We’re not saying we should do what science tells us to do, because science isn’t telling us to do anything.

Using science in the way that Erickson uses it—trying to derive an “ought” from an “is”—is one version of a logical fallacy called an appeal to nature. You can make an appeal to nature without citing “science” explicitly, though science tends to float in the background whenever anyone talks about nature, and appeals to nature are all over our political discourse, not just on the right. Mainstream public discourse on gay rights is particularly interesting in this regard, because both sides of the debate have largely accepted the premise that an appeal to nature is appropriate, with homophobes decrying homosexuality as “unnatural” while gay rights activists assert that they were “born this way,” as if being born that way were relevant (I often wish that Lady Gaga had written a song titled “My Sexual Freedom is Not Contingent on How I Was Born,” but I guess it’d be harder to put that to a dance beat).

Appeals to nature in political discourse go all the way back to the beginnings of modern democracy and Enlightenment philosophers’ construction of “natural rights.” But just because something is natural doesn’t mean that it’s better. There is nothing natural about indoor plumbing, but I imagine that Erick Erickson still uses a toilet. Even if science taught us that every other animal species on earth had dominant males and subservient females, that would say nothing about what gender roles should be for humans.

So, Erick Erickson, if you’ve been accused of being anti-science, it’s not just because you don’t make informed decisions about matters where scientific findings are relevant. It’s because it seems like you don’t understand what science is.

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