Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Staring down the bullies

.... In their better moods, even scientific fundamentalists will tell you the glory of science lies in the endless empirical testing and revision of theories, the back-and-forth of assertion and rebuttal, the stuttering, incremental advance toward truth, the openness to dissent and new ideas. And most often that’s what science is. Let an uncredentialed outsider sneak into the lab, however, asking rude questions about one theory or another, and—wham!—the back-and-forth is shut down and something called “settled science” rises in its place to keep the amateurs at bay. ....

The Kingdom of Speech is popular intellectual history of the most exhilarating kind. Its closest antecedents came along nearly 40 years ago, both of them also by Wolfe. The Painted Word laid waste the world of abstract art, and From Bauhaus to Our House attacked the absurdities of modernist architecture. In all three of these books, Wolfe lampoons the reigning orthodoxy of our intellectual elites—specialists, critics, experts, publicists, academics, nearly everyone who has an interest, professional or rooting, in the status quo, even as they try to persuade the rest of us of notions that we know are crazy. We’re supposed to think that the buildings of Bauhaus are lovely and functional and humane? That nonrepresentational painting is an aesthetic advance over traditional art? As smart as the smart guys and much more amiable, Wolfe has made himself the popularizer of common sense. ....

Clearing the popularizers from the field, as many specialists would like to do, would cede all scientific argument to scientists, who in many notable cases have not earned the deference they demand. The danger is doubled when scientists use science to draw metaphysical lessons—when, that is, they assert that human beings and primates are in essence the same kind of creature. A flurry of data and polysyllabic detail shouldn’t obscure the fact that such a thesis defies human experience and devalues the noblest human endeavors (including science, by the way).

Wolfe joins a small and hardy band of writers and other high-brows who take joy in staring down the bullies of scientism: Marilynne Robinson, David Berlinski, Wendell Berry, Thomas Nagel, a few others. But Wolfe is the best of them. ....
We’re Only Human | commentary