Science communication and conservative values

image CC via flickr/jeffreypriebe

Roger Scruton‘s recent article in Prospect Magazine provides an interesting illustration of what Dan Kahn and Chris Mooney have been discussing on their respective blogs. (Kahn blogs regularly now at the Cultural Cognition Project and Mooney writes at the Desmog Blog.)

The topic of their discussion: Is it possible to take the polemics out of science communication, and if so, how?

Scruton’s article, Nature, Nurture and Liberal Values, reviews three recent books on neuroscience and discusses the moral and philosophical implications of these new inflections of the nature/nurture debate, from a highly intelligent conservative perspective:

“The real question raised by evolutionary biology and neuroscience is not whether those sciences can be refuted, but whether we can accept what they have to say, while still holding on to the beliefs that morality demands of us.”

This, it seems to me, is exactly the kind of question Kahn and Mooney are discussing. Scruton’s statement, though, begs the question that conservatism reviles: whose morality? This is where Cultural Theory comes in, suggesting as it does that there is more than one worldview, more than one morality, and that therefore, more than one kind of reconciliation is required between science and morality, between descriptive and normative claims. However, the promise of Cultural Theory is that this is not an endless pluralism, or a morally bankrupt relativism, but rather a constrained pluralism. Yes, there are competing cultural worldviews. No, they are not endlessly differentiated. We can map them.

Scruton’s latest book, Green Philosophy, provides a kind of conservative re-imagining of the environmentalist terrain that he seems to think has been left almost entirely to the egalitarian left for the last thirty years and more. It’s a philosophical restatement of that old question, why should the devil have all the best music? Why should so-called ‘environmentalists’ keep the environmental high ground to themselves? One way of looking at this might be to hypothesise that conservatives might be more receptive to ‘environmentalist’ subject matter if they think it will make the world a more conservative place. This will probably not take the polemics out of discussions about climate change policy – quite possibly the reverse – but it might just help to end the rather strange situation in which some political groups and leaders simply deny/resist/ignore climate change and other environmentalist causes célèbres and try to make them disappear.

Scruton spoke about his book at the RSA recently (audio available), with Matthew Taylor chairing.

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Fatalist Activism in America… and now the UK

My favourite Fatalist joke goes like this:

Two farmers in conversation.
‘What would you do if you won a million dollars?”
“I’d just keep on farming until it ran out.”

Despite the fact that this joke comes from America and was once quoted in the Senate, the US is not the first place one thinks of when considering fatalism. The national image is of the rugged individualist, forging their way towards an unlimited future. Lady Liberty, not Lady Luck is the national emblem. Yes we can! is a recent version of a very well established national stereotype (even though it was stolen from south of the border – Si se puede!). Given that individualism is so well established, is it hard for Americans to think of any real alternative? That they can think of another ideal, is how they manage to have two political parties, how they have two political viewpoints, ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’. But there are more than two ways of organising. Grid-group cultural theory argues that we ignore these at our peril. What we ignore won’t go away, it just comes back to bite us. Continue reading “Fatalist Activism in America… and now the UK”