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Thursday, July 31, 2014

Conservatives vs nerds [updated]

Here's a fight between two camps that I've been part of over the years. I refer to conservatives vs nerds, as exemplified in Charles C.W. Cooke's National Review piece "Smarter Than Thou," and Andrew Leonard's Salon rejoinder "National Review declares war against the nerds." Having written for National Review and various other conservative (and libertarian) magazines, I gradually became a centrist in recent years. Having freelanced at Scientific American and long written and edited on science, and having watched Carl Sagan's Cosmos and Neil DeGrasse Tyson's version, both with overall approval, I am indisputably a nerd, and that is a category that is hard to shed.

There's some truth to Cooke's complaints. The nerds do tend to assume that their science and their politics mesh more seamlessly than they do--that their politics are enlightened, as they see it, because of the same critical thinking that prompts scientists to rely on evidence and reject dogma; that liberal or progressive ideas are largely a function of intelligence and knowledge; and that science denialism is so manifestly a right-wing thing that any manifestation of it on the left is a minor mote by comparison.

But...I've spent a lot of time in recent years documenting how conservatives have played into the liberal stereotype of them as being dumb denialists in recent years. I won't rehearse all that here. See this and this and this, for starters.

Moreover, look at what Cooke identifies as one of the two distinguishing features of nerd culture: "the belief that one can discover all of the secrets of human experience through differential equations" (the other being the belief that they're smarter than everybody else) and then head over to this noteworthy interview of physicist George Ellis by John Horgan at Scientific American: "Physicist George Ellis Knocks Physicists for Knocking Philosophy, Falsification, Free Will." It's noteworthy above all because Ellis has many interesting things to say, but also because he's saying them at Scientific American, which I think one can fairly locate at close to the epicenter of nerd culture.

Ellis is making some of the same sorts of complaints that Cooke is--about what's sometimes called "scientism," a tendency to extrapolate scientific ideas and techniques beyond their applicability and to dismiss philosophy and other extra-scientific thinking as extraneous or obsolete. Surely, that's going to upset the sensibilities of anyone holding "the belief that one can discover all of the secrets of human experience through differential equations"--and yet there it is at Scientific American. Perhaps, nerd culture does have a considerable self-critical aspect to it, and thus potential for growth and change.

Can the same be said of the conservative movement at this time? It has had its internal critics, but they've largely become external in recent years, like me, or they speak sotto voce. The nerd culture has its flaws, but the conservative movement in its present state is ill-positioned to critique them.

UPDATE 8/1: Perusing the comments to Cooke's piece, I saw one fact checking point (I'm disappointed at not having caught it myself): Cooke describes Tyson as "director of the Hayden Planetarium at the New York Science Museum," which is incorrect and nonexistent. [Later: they fixed it.]

UPDATE 8/4:  A curious post by Ezra Klein at Vox: "Revenge of the conservative nerds." It reads like the opening of an interesting article, and then just ends. (I looked for the "next page" link after reading the line "His World of Warcraft guild could probably crush Obama's.")

One more UPDATE 8/4: Noah Smith:  "Cooke and the empire he serves are losing their battle against the advancing nerds, but they’re doing collateral damage as they retreat."

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