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Tea Party Epistemology

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Well, what can I say?  Things are calmer here today, if only because there’s not much I can do in the weather we’re having. 

I’d intended to make some comment about Mike Fisher’s comment about the epistemology of evangelical Christians, and I want to do that–for the reason, really, that declaring everything an “opinion” is not the epistemology of evangelical Christians.  It’s the epistemology of modern social science and some of the Humanities, which declared all science to be “social construct” long ago.

If you don’t believe me, read The Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels With Science, by Gross and Levitt, which takes about the way in which feminist and other critics have been redefing science as an exercise in male hegemony for decades now.

This trend translated into social science dogma as “cultural relativism,” but what was important about that for Protestant evangelicals is how the dogma was used.  They were told that they could not have their ideals and values taught in public schools because the idea that sex outside a formal, heterosexual marriage was always morally wrong was “just an opinion” because all religion was “just an opinion.”

If this had been followed by actual neutrality–say, public schools without any sex education because no sex education could be taught without one set of opinions being at least implicitly supported over all others–it might have ended there, but that isn’t what happened.

What happened instead was that the opinions of the social science types were installed in public education and public policy as if they were facts.  Teaching a class that “different religious and cultural traditions have different ideas about what is acceptable in sexual behavior” is not neutral.   It is a classroom exercise in establishing the idea–“sexual rules are abitrary and socially constructed, there is no true and universal morality”–as if it were a fact.

But it is not a fact, it’s an opinion.  And nobody has yet established the truth of it any more than they have established the truth of the Christian idea on the same subject, quoted above.

I agree that there is empirical evidence for evolution, but there is not such evidence for the vast majority of theoretically “neutral” ideas that have been promoted as “established science” in dozens of different policy debates across the US in the last twenty or thirty years.

All that’s changed recently is that Protestant evangelicals who oppose those ideas and policies have learned how to approach an argument about them. 

I sincerely doubt that anybody in any of the Evangelical organizations using the “it’s just an opinion” argument about evolution thinks that it really is “just an opinion.”  Rather, they know that that is what they have to say to win the argument on the level of policy. 

And that is, quite frankly, very far from stupid.

And I’ve got, I will admit, less sympathy than I might have for the people now complaining about the Evangelical use of this approach to policy arguments. 

Numerous people–and I was one of the–tried to point out that that approach could be used by anybody to justify anything.  If rules about sexual conduct are “just an opinion,” then the idea that homosexual practice ought to be acceptible is just as much “just an opinion” as that it should be proscribed, and the idea that it should be allowed because that gives the widest number of people what they want–well, that’s just an opinion, too, no better than the opinion that individual happiness is unimportant next to sexual purity or the encouragement of larger and more stable families.

It’s like the song–this door swings both ways. 

And it can be used to defend things much less palatable than “save it till you’re married to a person of the opposite sex.”   If rules about sexual conduct are all “just an opinion,” then there’s nothing to say that declaring rape or pedophilia wrong isn’t “just an opinion” too.

And no–this is for you, Lymaree–telling me that those two don’t count because there is no consent doesn’t work either, because if everything is “just an opinion” then saying that consent is necessary for sex to be licit is itself “just an opinion.”

I’ve always said, and I still believe, that the reason there is so little respect among so many Americans for science is that a lot of what they’re told is science isn’t.

Far too often we put a gloss of “peer reviewed research” over what are in fact predetermined opinions, and opinions often predetermined without any prior acquaintance with reality.

If you have the training and education and ambition all at once, you can investigate the “studies” and find out if they’re actual studies or just opinion masquerading as science, but most people don’t have all three. 

And the people who don’t have all three include a lot of people who are recognized as “social sciences.”

The broad outlines of the relativist argument, on the other hand, are not that hard to learn. 

It’s not a sign of stupidity that Protestant evangelicals are learned them.

What was needed all along, from the prophets of social change, was a positive defense of the changes they wanted to see.  What we got instead was defensiveness and smokescreens.

What they’ve got now is what they should have expected.

And, in all this, I haven’t even gotten close to what I was originally talking about–such as pasting the “stupid” label on people who don’t want government subsidized health care on the assumption that anybody who would rather go without the benefit than give the government an excuse to regulate what he eats and how much he ways must be “stupid,” because–well, those priorities are just stupid, that’s all.

Except, of course, that’s not what we do. 

What we do is to ignore the actual point they’re making entirely, declare them addled and incomprehensible since they don’t seem to have any reason for what they’re doing, and then go back to calling them stupid.

It turned out I wrote the thing on epistemology anyway.

Tea and Dr. Who now.

Written by janeh

January 28th, 2011 at 6:52 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

12 Responses to 'Tea Party Epistemology'

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  1. Woohoo. She’s BAAAAAAAAAACK!


    28 Jan 11 at 7:29 pm

  2. Yes, she’s back and I can only agree with her. Back when I was in grad school we were told that half of what we were learning would turn out to be wrong in 10 years. I don’t know the actual percentage but in the 50 years since then, a lot has turned out to be wrong and many conpletely unexpected things have turned up.

    I would be much happier with the social sciences if they were much less confident of their theories.


    28 Jan 11 at 11:02 pm

  3. Full agreement with today’s post.

    JD, I’d say it’s not so much their confidence in their theories as a pretty well complete unwillingness to sort out truth from ideology. The survey courses are political indoctrination, and slipshod work gets published–and used even when refuted!–because it “ought” to be true, or because it leads to the desired political conclusion. If you know someone will say a particular thing whether it’s true or not, why bother listening to them? Life is too short.


    28 Jan 11 at 11:43 pm

  4. Hmm. I do believe you’re correct, Jane, about the consent thing.

    It’s just that consent is so primary in my own personal moral and ethical rules, not just in sex but in many interpersonal transactions, that I was making unwarranted assumptions.

    Of course, if everything is an opinion, where do you stand to make any kind of judgement? Talk about cutting yourself off at the knees. I suspect a few people saw the slippery slope from way back, but hoped it wouldn’t go that far, or they just stuck their heads in the sand.

    Another fine mess…..


    29 Jan 11 at 12:42 am

  5. Great to see you back, Jane.

    Lymaree, I tended to get about as far as you have above, and concluded that there’s no way to break through the impasse without accepting some kind of authority and basing a moral code on it. Jane would like to think that autoritative basis for a moral code could be derived from a study of human nature; I’ve got my doubts…

    As a general comment to everyone, I have been, in rather desultory fashion, reading some magasines I normally don’t have much time to read, and found some examples of illogical thinking about social issues.

    One was a long, long article on obesity most of which I admit I merely skimmed. The general impression left was that it was absolutely necessary to deal with obesity through legislation (there was something about doing otherwise when the poor and minorities were more likely to be obese than the rich whites was racism) and, if, like the author, you were rich, white and obese, surgery was the way to go.

    And another was one particular letter to the editor about an ongoing Canadian investigation into polygamy. Personally, I don’t like the idea of polygamy, but I can’t see how it can be forbidden – like Lymaree, I’d say with the consent of those involved, but I’d extend that a bit. I really don’t see why lambasting the practice for the number of teenaged mothers involved makes any sense when these teenaged mothers have all the support they could want to raise their childen and live themselves in the society they’ve chosen. Isn’t the problem of teenaged mothers that of neglected children, poverty, and lack of opportunities for the mothers? These mothers have chosen their lives, the children aren’t neglected, and neither they nor their parents are living in poverty. (I know in some places they live off social assistance, but I don’t think they do so in the Canadian context. They seem to run a bunch of businesses.) So I’d extent consent to moderately underaged people 15-19, or so. Might be 18 in that province, I can’t remember.

    Then again, I’m out of the mainstream on this issue because I left home (with my parents’ help and support) at 15, and tend to think 15-19 year olds can make more decisions – and live with the results – than is generally accepted.

    Anyway, one of the letters was a classic of muddled thinking. The writer claimed that polygamy had to be banned because it oppressed women and prevented them from making their own decisions. And as for the women who had made to decision to live in polygamy? They were obviously mentally incapable of making decisions. So she’s proposing a law to ensure that women have free choice, but when women make a free choice for polygamy, she says that doesn’t count. They’re crazy, and have to be forced to make the RIGHT free choice. Well, I’m paraphrasing slightly, but you get the idea.


    29 Jan 11 at 7:32 am

  6. I’ve never heard of a woman involved in a polygamous marriage who was happy in that marriage; nor have I ever heard of a woman who entered such a marriage as a matter of her own free choice. That’s not to suggest that such women don’t exist somewhere, but I’m willing to bet that they are very, very rare.

    When we lived in Malaysia in the early 70s, we actually knew quite well a Chinese family where the father had two wives. There was a long story associated with the situation which resulted from the long wartime separation of the husband and the first wife and her eldest children, but believe me none of them, with perhaps the exception of the father, thought it was a good idea.

    At that time, in the majority Muslim community there was a raging debate going on about whether polygamy should continue to be permitted. We left before the matter had finally been resolved, but it was very clear that Muslim women were pretty nearly unanimously and quite bitterly opposed to polygamy. I think it’s safe to say that polygamy is just another form of sex slavery and should be treated accordingly.


    29 Jan 11 at 10:35 am

  7. Well, maybe I know a weirder class of people than you, Mique, but the polyamory movement in the US has lots of people who are happy in poly relationships. Yeah, even the women. Polygamy as it is practiced religiously, with young women raised to be a 4th wife to an old man, is where I hear that it’s awful. But I do think that people have agency, and you have to respect that, and you ought not invalidate contracts between consenting adults. Providing education and support so that if women want to leave, sure, but making it illegal and the equivalent of sex slavery? No.


    29 Jan 11 at 4:13 pm

  8. Well, Mique, I can’t say I’m an expert in the area, but when I was in Africa, polygamy was pretty much taken for granted in the area I was in, and seemed to work much like the lives of people in serial relationships here and now – each wife had a household, and the man was the occasional visitor and contributor. I don’t recall any serious complaining or protesting about it.

    And although the crowd in Canada that is the focus of the current hearings was closely connected to a notorious US sect, there are women living in the community who speak up for it, as well as those who speak against it. You could say the same thing about two-person marriages – they can be violent and oppressive, and those who leave them or who are left by their spouse are often strongly opposed to the entire institution.


    29 Jan 11 at 5:39 pm

  9. How many of these North American and African polygamous relationships involve women who have more than one husband concurrently? I believe that such relationships exist, or have in the past existed, in parts of the Himalayas, but from what I have read and seen the incidence of polygamous relationships where women have multiple husbands seems to be vanishingly small. Furthermore, in societies where male dominated polygamy is likely to exist, women have little or no status.

    I think I can safely rest my case, regardless of any weird North American aberrations to what I believe to be the general situation, ie that polygamy is another facet of sex slavery. (Ah has spoken!) :-)


    29 Jan 11 at 7:04 pm

  10. I mentioned two North American situations – the rather iffy one presently being investigated in BC which is nevertheless supported by women in it, and the similarity that struck me between a certain West African model and the North American tendency for a single man to be connected, loosely or not, with several households with current and ex-wives and offspring.

    I forgot the Roman Catholic West African I met who was certain the Pope would approve of polygamy in the near future, but he was male and so a data point on your side!

    But all I meant to say when I logged on this morning is that I spent a lot of my young adult life hearing and reading impassioned arguments claiming that ALL marriage was sexual slavery and bad for human freedom and the healthy development of both men and women.

    And yet marriage continues to be extremely popular, although I’m not sure what role it plays today, aside maybe ‘We’re ready to have children’ or ‘We’ve saved or borrowed or gotten from our parents enough money for a lavish ceremony’.


    30 Jan 11 at 7:28 am

  11. “Jane would like to think that authoritative basis for a moral code could be derived from a study of human nature; I’ve got my doubts…”

    The moral rules, such as they are, in either the Jewish or Christian scriptures obviously don’t come from any God, tripartite or otherwise. Such moral instruction as there is came from human experience.

    Even St. Paul, who most of the time makes my skin crawl, wrote:

    “12 All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. 13 For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. 14 (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.”

    In other words, people do in fact seem to have some kind of internal moral compass, however imperfect and in order to explain why unsaved heathen could, would and in fact did most of the time follow most if not all of “God’s laws”, he explained it as God having imprinted such law on all humans, “on their hearts”.

    The Tao Te Ching makes a similar observation that people left alone without someone from outside coming in and trying to impose some artificial rules on them tend to sort themselves out and behave morally. (I forget which ‘chapter’).

    But none of this undermines my observations regarding the lack of epistemological underpinnings for Fundamentalism — although, perhaps counter intuitively, perhaps not, it does undermine the idea that morals are “just an opinion”.


    30 Jan 11 at 10:40 am

  12. How does “My internal moral compass says X is true’ have any more epistemological underpinnings than the craziest funadmentalist, assuming that person to have none? Especially if MY internal moral compass says Y is true!

    I used to quite dislike poor old St. Paul too, for all the usual reasons, but I’m coming around to appreciate him a bit. One of these days when I get caught up on my reading, I’ll read more about him and see which way my opinion shifts, if it does.


    30 Jan 11 at 3:34 pm

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