Swans Commentary » swans.com April 19, 2010  



The Current Knowledge Crisis


by Harvey E. Whitney, Jr.





(Swans - April 19, 2010)   Much has been made of the current economic malaise that has crippled the United States and the rest of the world with chronically high unemployment, foreclosures, and bank failures. What is perhaps even more disturbing is the fact that it underscores the current knowledge crisis infecting all political debate that seeks solutions to our economic condition.

The very fact that the media is quick to frame the discussion about causes of the recession in a dualistic way is problematic at its core: as if material conditions could only be legitimately described from a monolithic left and/or monolithic right perspective. The left, we are told, attribute the cause of the recession to Reagan's policies of deregulating the financial industry, and the greed with which banks dispensed mortgage loans to individuals who had no way of paying for them. The right, we are told, blame the recession on Clinton-era monetary "affirmative action" policy that forced banks to lend to minorities who in no way should have been considered prospective creditworthy borrowers. I am actually surprised that this latter explanation still percolates in the media as some sort of plausible analysis when it so obviously expresses racial stereotyping. (1) Additionally, the rightist points to, as a cause of the recession, obscene government spending on social programs that presumably only assist individuals who have no initiative to improve their prospects through self-effort. Also, the rightist explanation points to union contracts and benefits weighing down corporate bottom lines: remember from 2009 GOP accusations that claimed autoworkers were averaging about $70 an hour on the clock?

Additionally, climate science is mired in monolithic left-right interpretations/conflicts. On the one hand, there is, so say the media, the left perspective, which views global warming as a real phenomenon caused by human activities that involves the burning of fossil fuels. On the other hand, the rightist perspective doubts that global warming is a phenomenon at all in any real sense and doubts that human activities have any significant impact on the earth's atmosphere and organisms.

Why I have chosen to discuss economics and climate science here is somewhat arbitrary, because I could have added other empirical subjects whose methodologies or what they consider to be legitimate objects of study are framed by left-right analysis in the media. Geology, for example, has now been brought under the lenses of left-right interpretation: big energy research institutions and conservative think tanks, often aligned with and supported by established GOP donors and the party itself, are now set up to "intellectually" discredit the peak oil hypothesis (presumably a "leftist" conjecture) because if consumers actually believed in the hypothesis, they might not purchase as many energy products as they do now. Geology also has the added burden of being suspicious in the eyes of the creationist/intelligent design/religious right crowd because its estimates of the Earth's age far exceeds those of biblical projections.

Without taking a position on any of these issues, I would like to know how we have gotten to this point: where practically any and all ontological claims, even those of science, can be said to only have a political basis or ideological motive? Further, in the example above concerning the polarized observations about the causes of the recession, both camps fiercely hold a simplistic concept of causation for analysis, and that only presidents or "great men" (i.e., national political leaders) necessarily and wholly chart the destinies of individuals or nations they govern. I am uncertain if this is an unassailable view because it assumes an absolute determinism from above in liberal democracies. Don't the people vote leaders into office in liberal democracies? Don't the people have some sort of influence on how leaders construct domestic or foreign policy? Aren't the politicians the ones taking a pulse of the people's beliefs and attitudes in order to make their policies conform to those attitudes and beliefs? The idea here is that we simply can't look at political leaders as the primary authors of economic policies and material conditions: voters, who are also consumers, have a degree of agency which directly affects the policy stands of their leaders. As consumers, they help shape national economic conditions: for example, we know that economic indicators of the health of the economy are, but not exclusively limited to, the rate at which individuals buy houses, or the rate at which small business owners order supplies and/or hire individuals.

But let me return to the original question: how have we arrived at the point where we can be comfortably skeptical of any ontological claim, especially those of science, as having political or ideological motives? This skepticism is perhaps the lingering, sour aftertaste of postmodernism and deconstruction that still seems to coagulate in the arteries of flaccid academic departments in the human disciplines, and has found greater acceptance in popular intellectual circles and pundit roundtables. (Hereafter, I will refer to postmodernism and deconstruction as "Theory"). Theory allowed the academic left to undermine the message of a text by unmasking its author's intentions: his or her cultural and/or historical realities and predilections came to outweigh the text's intended meaning. More radically, the academic left felt emboldened, by its demythologizing of the text and its author, to characterize the notion of an "ultimate" or "objective" meaning of a text as a fixation of absolutist, a priori fetishisms as opposed to actually existing phenomenological realities or properties: or that such fetishisms have merely pointed to some evolutionary need to preserve preferred texts for future generations. (2) But rightward-thinking pundits have cashed in on the presumed vacuum of objective knowledge/meaning and epistemic nihilism exposed and promoted by Theory: for they too have been emboldened to question scientific disciplines, particularly the environmental or earth sciences, wherein leftists have presumably thrived and crafted national environmental policy. Whereas the postmodern or deconstructionist academic felt comfortable with questioning Alan Sokal's objective, physical realities (which are the subject of physics, chemistry, and the hard sciences) on purely verbal grounds, (3) the rightist intellectual felt that he could also question the claims of climate and earth science similarly.

Two sorts of problems emerge. First, for the leftist, can't an author or much less an "ordinary" citizen and consumer transcend his or her material, cultural, and historical conditions? Doesn't our humanness consist of the ability to sometimes not allow our external circumstances to determine, define, and/or dictate who we are or what we do? Second, for the rightist, if scientific claims are questionable for perhaps harboring left-wing biases, are we supposed to be any less skeptical of knowledge claims that harbor right-wing biases? And how is it even possible to ask pertinent skeptical questions of scientific claims when such questions often betray an ignorance of scientific methods and procedures? It is one thing to dismiss global warming as a leftist, socialist, environmentalist fiction; it is an entirely different thing to intelligently question the experimental methods and data that brought such an opinion about. I am not certain that critics of global warming have done enough (if at all) of the latter.

I believe that our economic crisis will persist as long as there is a knowledge crisis: one in which prior ideological commitments will not even permit us to agree on particulars or what is to count as elementary facts. Theory has done away with facts in themselves (i.e., the Given), and nothing counts as a fact unless it fulfills interested, value driven, preconceived, world views.

The very notion of causation that burdens leftist and rightist interpretations needs to be either modified or discarded because it is insufficiently defined, or presumed to work in only one direction. Both camps problematically use that notion to either describe a type of determinism in liberal democracies in which people are to only be seen as either atoms impelled by their political leaders and economic institutions/material conditions or as fully autonomous agents who fundamentally make rational choices in a presumably free and virtuous market. Our times have shown that there is nothing particularly virtuous about the free market as greedy financial institutions, insurance corporations, and fossil fuel behemoths have been able to run amuck with little or no regulation and as a result cloud our economic and environmental futures. But in the same breath, I think we can plausibly note that voters too must bear responsibility for elevating to power leaders who have allowed and/or encouraged such transgressions to occur, and for permitting such leaders to be lecherous bedfellows of corporate interests. As much as we want to talk about the utter incompetence and deceit of the previous administration (yes, the Bush administration), voters put that administration in power. While we are right to hold our leaders accountable for their decisions, we must hold the voting public accountable for making informed decisions about its leaders.


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About the Author

Harvey E. Whitney, Jr. is a PhD student in history at Florida State University. His main areas of concentration are the history of science, environmental history, intellectual history, the academic culture wars, and the relations between technology and culture. He thinks diverse musical tastes can coexist in bars and/or restaurants.   (back)


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1.  Anne Coulter was probably one of the loudest voices to promote this "analysis" of the cause of the crash (last visited on March 23, 2010).  (back)

2.  Barbara Herrnstein Smith has promoted this view in her essay "Contingencies of Value" in Critical Inquiry, vol. 10, No. 1 (September 1983), pp.25. Sometimes I wonder whether people who invoke evolutionary explanations for any and all phenomena, whether natural, social, or technological, have themselves evolved from invoking metaphorical analyses or observations for all change. For example, we would like to say that computing evolves: that is, it changes through modification of programming languages and computing functions but its evolution does not require natural selection or a struggle for existence to go forward.  (back)

3.  You can read all about the Sokal affair at the following link (last visited March 22, 2010).  (back)


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Published April 19, 2010