Tuesday, February 28, 2017
I Don’t Want Your Stinkin’ Facts!
We’ve been here before. The Middle Ages were permeated with mysticism, superstition and rather complete reliance on faith. At least in Europe, the writings of the ancient Greco-Roman thinkers were either burned or relegated to the vastly more advanced libraries in the Islamic world or cultures farther east. God and only God explained it all. Without science and scientific inquiry, needless to say, Western culture simply stagnated as China and the Islamic world accelerated forward. The rather dramatic failure of the Crusades against the technologically advanced Islamic world (which believed in God but then also accepted and nurtured science and mathematics), which enjoyed its military supremacy, invading the West for hundreds of years, is a rather powerful example. Yeah, that’s the way it really happened.
Western modernity really did not begin to pass these eastern civilizations until quite a bit later, when thinkers and scientists rose in prominence, most particularly in the mid-1700s, with the dawn of the Age of Reason in the West. “The Age of Reason represented a genesis in the way man viewed himself, the pursuit of knowledge, and the universe. In this time period, man’s previously held concepts of conduct and thought could now be challenged verbally and in written form; fears of being labeled a heretic or being burned at the stake were done away with. This was the beginning of an open society where individuals were free to pursue individual happiness and liberty. Politically and socially, the imperial concepts of the medieval world were abandoned. The Age of Reason included the shorter time period described as the Age of Enlightenment [at the tail-end of the Age of Reason]; during this time great changes occurred in scientific thought and exploration. New ideas filled the horizon and man was eager to explore these ideas, freely…
“The Age of Reason was fraught with attacks on basic Christian beliefs, rejection of God and denial of miracles. In an attempt to divorce himself from the mysticism of the Middle Ages, man during the Age of Reason, applauded intellect and disdained spirit. God was believed to be unknowable, if He existed at all, and certainly there was no need for divine communication or revelation. Nature was revelation enough, showing all that needed to be known of God. Man was now free to postulate his own theories of existence and ideas about earth and its relation to the sun. ” AllAboutHistory.org.
The revolutions in the United States and France happened during the Age of Enlightenment. But the seeds of revulsion at the Age of Reason/Enlightenment were sprouting, percolating as early as the 1770s that exploded with the ultra-violence of the bloodiness of the French Revolution in 1789. By 1800, the Age of Reason/Enlightenment was all but dead. Even in France, you had the rise of a very undemocratic Napoleon. Religion and faith rose in importance as did the resurrection of strong monarchical rulers. It took opening up the New World plus the resulting Industrial Revolution to get the West back on its track of explosive growth. Steam replaced sails and horses.
“Although serious doubts were raised about the Enlightenment prior to the 1790s (e.g. in the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau in France and J.G. Hamann in Germany in particular), the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution fueled a major reaction against the Enlightenment, which many writers blamed for undermining traditional beliefs that sustained the ancien regime, thereby fomenting revolution. Counter-revolutionary writings like those of Edmund Burke, Joseph de Maistre and Augustin Barruel all asserted a close link between the Enlightenment and the Revolution, as did many of the revolutionary leaders themselves, so that the Enlightenment became increasingly discredited as the Revolution became increasingly bloody. That is why the French Revolution and its aftermath was also a major phase in the development of Counter-Enlightenment thought.” Wikipedia.
Scientists and deep thinkers (especially those philosophers who did not anchor their writings in Christianity) were suddenly suspect, “out of touch” elites, whose power faded into oblivion. Strongmen rose to control. With science still in its nascent stages, it was not particularly difficult for its critics to relegate that pursuit of the true scientific nature of the universe into a corner (not good for your health, career or even your life to be a pragmatic expert).
“What seems to unite all of the Enlightenment's disparate critics (from 18th-century religious opponents, counter-revolutionaries and Romantics to 20th-century conservatives, feminists, critical theorists and environmentalists) is a rejection of what they consider to be the Enlightenment's perversion of reason: the distorted conceptions of reason of the kind each associates with the Enlightenment in favour of a more restricted view of the nature, scope and limits of human rationality.” Wikipedia. God was the explanation, not
If all this sounds all-too-familiar – the echo of neo-Evangelical Trumpism with parallel European movements – we seem to be experiencing a historical cycle that is simply repeating itself. Writing for the February 17th Poynter.com, Alexios Mantzarlis, former Managing Editor of Pagella Politica and FactCheckEU, respectively Italy's main political fact-checking website and the EU's first multilingual crowd-checking project, explains:
“For populists on both sides of the Atlantic, ‘expert’ is now an expletive, a synonym for out-of-touch elitists swindling the common man… This was perhaps most obvious during the Brexit referendum campaign, when the UK Justice Secretary and ‘Leave’ advocate Michael Gove told a stunned interviewer that ‘the people of this country have had enough of experts ... from organizations with acronyms saying that they know what is best.’…
“If expertise really is moribund, then fact-checking must at least be down with a heavy flu. The journalistic endeavor of adjudicating the veracity of public claims on the basis of the best possible evidence cannot be sustained if no one trusts expert sources… In an increasingly narcissistic society, people don't like to use the term expert because it is an exclusive term. Once upon a time, people were comfortable with that. It wasn't a denigration of anyone else's capabilities. The fact that it has become that is due to a very extreme reinterpretation of what democracy means. Democracy does not denote a state of actual equality among all human beings, it is a state of political equality… At some point we got it in our heads that every opinion is worth the same.” Will college-educated Millennials (and younger) be able to reverse this trend?
With the rise of faith to the exclusion of science, when minds are closed to the kinds of pragmatic achievement that are possible when truth and knowledge are cherished, societies that embrace the negation of true expertise have experienced a relative slipping away in competitive advantage against those societies that have no such predilection. It happened to Japan, the Islamic world and to the entire Western world before. When the West “got over it,” they soon dominated the rest of the world that still was uncomfortable with science and engineering.
Simply, societies that rely more on faith and decry science generally fade in power and importance. While science and faith would seem to be compatible, extremism tends to make that combination exceptionally difficult. And if this neo-populism across the West continues, it seems to be an open invitation to other countries, not so restrained, to pass if not entirely replace us in the hierarchy of powerful nation states.
I’m Peter Dekom, and I have to admit that it is vastly easier to study past pernicious historical cycles than having to live through one.