In the english speaking internet, a cultural war wages between the Left and the Right, that is perhaps representative to an extent of anglo society as a whole, which was recently chronicled by the controversial book “Kill All Normies” by Angela Nagle. The Left side of the war, which is embodied in tumblr, “social justice warriors”, etc., usually explains the disadvantages faced by women, transgender people, and people as color, as produced by socially constructed systems, such as rape culture, the patriarchy, white priviliege, etc. – constructs that were developed in the annals of humanities’ academia. The online right wing, in contrast, explains the disparities and inequalities faced by women and marginalized minorities as rooted in biological sources, using a “scientific” language that refers to evolutionary psychology, behavioural psychology, the distributions of IQ, etc., as evidence. The ontologies used by both sides are in some sense incommensurable – the Left uses humanities’ assumptions such as the relevant social forces being abstract and socially constructed and therefore hard to measure – while the right wing explains perceived social disparities as sourced in biological variables that are tractable and measurable.
Previously, I criticized the “pseudo-scientific” aspects within the far-right for their tendency to correlate complex social phenomena with one or a couple of biological variables. I speculated that a psychological source of the “univariate mind” of right wingers is the training of the people who make these sort of arguments – typically engineers, programmers, and system administrators, and the like, who were exposed to simple, univariate systems and beginner statistics in their undergraduate curricula. However, a similar epistemic cage of method also constrains the Left (although I am using the term “the Left” this post specifically addresses the Left in the english-speaking world, rather than the Left in general). Since the Left’s march through the academe in the 60s, the Left has acquired an alienating language and methodology that can only be parsed by the “initiated” (hence the term “woke”). One of the main, alienating assumptions is that the categories and frameworks we use to make sense of reality, from common sense, all the way to experimental science, are shaped by the ideology of the powerful to the point that these frameworks are always suspect. Furthermore, the Left, because it refuses to embrace a sort of universalism – a common human experience that transcends gender and race, is unable to reach out to those who aren’t “initiated”, given that the Left is not vested in creating a universalized language. Instead, the Left has produced a labyrinth of “woke” signalling, that can only be understood and accepted by members of a specific subcultures – in this case, the Left, and the humanities. The Left’s hostility against universalism is related to the post-structuralist turn in academia, where all broad statements about humanity are rendered suspect, because all knowledge, even the superficially objective type, is always tainted by power structures. For example, a common post-structuralist attack against “positivism”, the tendency of science to abstract all social and physical phenomena into well defined, quantitative laws, is that it is rooted in euro-centric understanding of the world; in other words, the fact that we accept positivism as valid is connected to the dominance of western civilization.
Given the language and assumptions embraced by the Left, namely that all knowledge is tainted by the power, including scientific knowledge, scientists will sometimes find the Left ridiculous and alienating. An interesting example of this phenomenon happened the 90s, with the so called science wars, where Alan Sokal, a physicist and sympathizer of the old, materialist Marxist left, submitted a bunk article to one of the top humanities’ journals at that time, Social Text. His troll article, which got accepted, argued that quantum gravity was a social and linguistic construct. One could criticize his approach as bad faithed and counter-productive, but what was interesting about the affair is that he wasn’t really looking to discredit literary criticism and “postmodernism”, but to defend the Left from what he thought as negative anti-scientific influences:
My goal isn’t to defend science from the barbarian hordes of lit crit (we’ll survive just fine, thank you), but to defend the Left from a trendy segment of itself..
It’s useful to analyze the history of the relationship between the Left and science. Before WWII, it seems that Marxism and social anarchism, both which postulated a knowable, material world as the basis of social reality, had a friendly, even if sometimes contentious, relationship with science. For example, Einstein had well publicized anarchist and socialist sympathies, and the American state purged the Manhattan project of “communist physicists”, such as Oppenheimer and David Bohm. Nowadays, however, the presence of the Left in scientific and technical milieux has dwindled, atleast in the United States. Superficially, this lack of prescence is obvious in the “online wars”, where most of the writers and social media personalities that promote leftist views are overwhelmingly from the humanities, while the right wing that peddles anti-feminism, libertarianism, and “pseudo-scientific” racism have almost always technical backgrounds. Nowadays, you can always guess that any public intellectual that leans to the Left has some sort of humanist background – from Richard Seymour to Zizek. Furthermore in the United States, professionals and workers outside “blue-collar work” that tend to be unionized are public servants, such as teachers, university white collar workers, and bureaucrats – which tend to come overwhelmingly from the social sciences/humanities backgrounds. This contrasts to technical workers, such as programmers, which tend to not be unionized.
Is there an unbridgeable chasm at play – with anti-positivistic “critical theory” versus science? Since the abandonment of the pre-suppositions of the old materialist left, such as enlightenment and scientific humanism, the chasm seems real. However I don’t think the chasm is unbridgeable, and the raison d’être of this blog is partly a leftist “intervention” of sorts into the scientific and technical millieux. For example, I think the talk of “systems” in some of the more “materialist” minded left, such as white supremacy, capitalism, or the patriarchy, can be translated into “mathematical” language using the tools developed by complexity theory and nonlinear dynamics, namely, that society exhibits complex emergent phenomena, such as systematic discrimination of women, exploitation of workers, and systemic racism, that cannot be reduced to the properties of the individual units of the system – such as how psychology cannot be reduced to the action potentials of a neutron, or temperature to the random motion of one molecule. This stands in contrast with the pseudo-scientific crackpots from the right that try to reduce gender disparities in STEM or income inequality amongst races, to a couple of biological variables such as IQ or amount of testosterone. Finally, capitalism, and its increasingly more intricate division of labour can also be blamed for the widening of this chasm – scientifically minded people fall into “everything can be explained by a measurable number” idiocy and humanists retreat to textual and cultural analysis, frolicking in their innumeracy, and flaunting their cultural capital with increasingly more opaque and polysyllabic language.
We shouldn’t leave STEM at the hands of libertarians, racialist crackpots, and resentful anti-feminists, that recuperate the language and methods of technical workers and scientific professionals for reactionary agendas. Instead, we leftists should wage a culture war within STEM, and make it understood that science can be used to build a better and freer world, rather than leaving science at the hands of myopic reactionaries with hard ons for biological essentialism and bad statistics. Therefore, leftists should become more educated in the “hard” sciences, rather than dismissing them as irrelevant for explaining social phenomena. Finally, we should embrace a universal human experience as the basis of our politics, with scientific discourse forming part of the universalist language, rather than posit that humans of different nationalities and genders are divided by incommensurable experiences, which is implicit in much of the “post-structuralist” left.