The Autumn 2016 issue of the conservative American magazine City Journal contains an extensive article that accuses the left in that country of deliberately waging a “war on science.” Liberals in the United States have long presented themselves as the pro-science camp and claimed that the conservative right is threatening the progress of American science, in particular by its opposition to the theory of evolution and by casting doubt on the human role in climate change. But John Tierney, the article’s author, maintains that the left is more harmful to science than the right.
The left, he says, has declared war on genetically modified foods and therefore on “what could have been a second Green Revolution to feed Africa.” Similarly, the left’s struggle against experiments on animals has blocked the development of medicine. But worst of all, Tierney writes, is “the resistance in academia to studying the genetic underpinnings of human behavior.” Because of this, the social sciences are “cut off from the recent revolutions in genetics and neuroscience.” That, in the author’s view, is an unforgivable crime.
What is Tierney really getting at? He argues that in academia, which suffers from an over-representation of leftists, there is a taboo on dealing with the biology of race and gender. For example, liberals deny the possibility that human evolution has occurred in the past 50,000 years, since modern man’s departure from Africa. They conceal the fact that there are significant genetic differences, which developed rapidly, between the races. Here, Tierney quotes the controversial science writer Nicholas Wade, who has presented ostensible proof of the existence of “five distinguishable races that evolved in response to regional conditions: Africans, East Asians, Caucasians, the natives of the Americas, and the peoples of Australia and Papua New Guinea.” Things only deteriorate from this point. Academia, he says, is ignoring the advantage possessed by the male mind in mathematics and the genetic basis for differences in intelligence between people.
One could shrug off Tierney’s article, but its publication in the mainstream-conservative City Journal signifies a broader phenomenon: the reemergence of race science in American intellectual discourse. Under the cover of “occupation with issues that have become taboo,” the demand is being raised by various platforms to reconsider the concept of racial differences, as occurred in the good old days before World War II.
The advocates of white supremacy are no longer thugs with pitchforks, but educated geeks who present themselves as the upholders of rationality and are doing battle against superstitious beliefs. In a recent article in the online Jewish magazine Tablet, Jacob Siegel profiled the white extreme right. According to Siegel, the idea of white supremacy is now appealing to the “nerdier inclinations” of young white Americans and welding the race myth to notions of biological determinism that are supposedly based on empirical data. They react scornfully to every political or moral argument that opposed their views and brandish Excel files containing data that supposedly support their views.
The connection between science-adoring geeks and the racist right might sound strange in Israel, where this type of ideological right barely exists. But the synthesis between dark political conceptions and a rhetoric of scientific objectivity is one of the quite scary features of the new American right. Its exponents present racial differences or the human need for authoritarian rule as Al Gore-like “inconvenient truths.” The humanistic academics who deny these truths, they say, are no different from the church elders who denied that the Earth revolves around the sun.
Geeks and racists
At the moment, these dubious intellectual exercises exist on the margins. But they are gradually moving toward the center. More serious still, they are flourishing on a base of far more prevalent scientific conceptions, which seek to explain diverse social and cultural phenomena by drawing on brain science and evolutionary biology. For the past two decades, brain research has enjoyed the status of the new king of the sciences. It’s seen as a scientific revolution that promises to solve the great questions that philosophers and artists have grappled with for ages.
Irresponsible scientists created “neuroculture,” which nourishes a broad industry of manuals and other concept-driven books – such as “The Female Brain,” “The Emotional Brain” and “Mozart’s Brain and the Fighter Pilot” – that are deterministic in their approach to behavior. In bookstores these titles are supplanting books on sociology, psychology and cultural studies. This hardly bothers the brain scientists and their supporters, many of whom portray the traditional humanities and social sciences as a type of astrology – extinct pseudosciences, a waste of time in the face of “objective indices.”
It has to be said that a considerable portion of today’s brain researchers are serious scientists who are trying to find cures for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and other diseases. But many of them seem unperturbed by the fact that their realm of study has become a platform for extensive charlatanism and is functioning, effectively, as a contemporary version of phrenology, the 19th-century sphere of knowledge that purported to draw conclusions about human character by measuring skull size. Because brain researchers, like scientists in other fields, don’t tend to deal critically with social and political questions (other than those that can be verified via MRI scans, of course), and are often addicted to utilitarian, purposeful logic, it’s not surprising that they don’t notice the existence of a problem with studies aiming to discover the region in the brain responsible for liberalism. Especially with billions of dollars flowing into their research institutes.
What meaningful insight has the vaunted realm of brain research given us about the social and political processes that are unfolding in our world – the economic crisis, radical Islam, the new authoritarianism? I allow myself to say: zero insights of value. Not surprisingly, the results of the experiments in “neuroaesthetics” or “neuropolitics” almost always prove the researchers' assumption or lead to conservative conclusions consistent with the spirit of the time. For example, neuropsychiatrist Louann Brizendine’s book “The Male Brain” states, “Researchers have shown that nothing serves as a better aphrodisiac for women than a show of dominance and strength” by men.
What more is there to say? No wonder Trump won.
Warnings were sounded years ago to the effect that the fairly common neuro culture and the biologizing of political thought would have dangerous consequences. Some people cautioned against the attempt to nail down the human essence in scientific data and to eliminate the idea that we possess the freedom to determine for ourselves cultural norms and political concepts. Recent developments in the circles of the geek-racist right wing show that the forecasts have been realized sooner than expected. In fact, it’s likely that a contemporary “Mein Kampf,” now being written in some cellar in the United States, will contain lengthy arguments from the fields of brain science and evolutionary biology. To paraphrase Noam Chomsky’s remark about the Republican Party, it can be said that the brain sciences are currently the most dangerous occupation in the world.