Im old enough, and Left enough, to remember when science was merely a tool of the patriarchal Western capitalist military-industrial hegemony. If you tried to argue a scientific point that seemed to be in conflict with leftist politics even to demonstrate that it wasnt, in fact, in conflict with leftist politics people would refer you to Thomas Kuhn, assure you that a paradigm shift was on its way, and change the subject. I never could see why Kuhn was supposed to be so liberatory. If science is constrained by paradigms which are themselves determined by politics, then politics dictates whats a fact and whats not. This would imply that power controls the truth as it controls everything else, and therefore there can be no such thing as an inconvenient truth wherewith one might challenge power.
Thankfully science is much more accepted among people of my political persuasion now than it was fifteen years ago. Contrary to the dire warnings we Humanities students used to congratulate ourselves sometimes for hours at a time on grasping, we now seem as a result to be more critical, not less, of scientific concepts served up in the media. But this is an overall trend, not (hah) a paradigm shift. There are still plenty of people about who will criticize science on the basis that it doesnt suit the Left and think theyre being helpful. And last week I came across one such criticism, in the form of this address by John Horgan to the Northeast Conference on Science and Scepticism.
Im not going to pull apart the whole thing. Thats already been done by others, such as David Gorski and Steve Novella. Horgan has a bee in his bonnet about something he calls the deep roots theory of war, most famously promulgated by Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature. Broadly, this means the idea that human societies have always known war, going back to our common ancestor with chimpanzees. Its hard to determine exactly what Horgan thinks is wrong with this idea; the goalposts in his discussions of it are stricken with chronic wanderlust. Hell flag up particular archaeological sites where relatively few of the skeletons show signs of violence and go Well, these people didnt have deep roots of war in their nature! Hell flag up sites where there are a lot of signs of violence and say This was murder, not war yet another mark against the deep-roots theory!
For the record, I disagree with Steven Pinkers position on a lot of political questions. I dont think warning women to dress conservatively reduces rape or sexual harassment. Im broadly in favour of trigger warnings and safe spaces (without denying the possibility of excesses in their application). If crime rises when the police lose the public trust, then I think it is the polices responsibility to win back that trust. I consider nuclear power at best a stop-gap measure against climate change, since uranium is unrenewable, and I fear that long-term accumulation of radioactive waste may seed a different, but equally acute, global environmental problem. I think disinvesting in fossil fuels is a good idea while were waiting for the worlds governments to divorce Big Oil and bring in a universal carbon tax. But Im not going to dismiss Pinkers contributions to the science of humanity just because politics would be easier if some of them werent true, and Im especially not going to castigate him for two opposite and mutually incompatible faults, as Horgan does on the deep-roots-of-war issue.