March 20, 2011
The Japanese Earthquake and the Techno-Progressive Mindset
Major events, especially tragic ones, can and should be a cause for reflecting on fundamental issues that otherwise slip onto the mental backburner. In the case of the Japanese earthquake and related nuclear problems, the relevant fundamental is a specific aspect of the progressive worldview that can be called the "techno-progressive" mindset.
In a nutshell, this is the attitude that both the natural and manmade components of the physical universe can be managed with a high degree of confidence and precision by enlightened scientific and technical experts -- if they are given the necessary degree of authoritarian central control, that is. The current relevance of this attitude is reflected by the views of the president: "Obama said the Japanese people are resourceful, with a powerful economy and advanced technology . . . " (see this). In the same information release, one can find Hillary Clinton exuding progressive techno-confidence. On 3/11/2011 (prior to things getting messy), she stated: "Japan is very reliant on nuclear power, and they have very high engineering standards, but one of their plants came under a lot of stress with the earthquake and didn't have enough coolant, and so Air Force planes were able to deliver that." Yeah, the epic earthquake had "stressed" one of the nuclear power plants. But don't worry. There are wise and all-knowing engineers in charge. With the technical enlightenment of the Japanese and a few jugs of Prestone courtesy of the US Air Force, there's no way this could become a Big Deal.
Now it could be argued that "techno"- progressivism is really no different from social, moral, legal or economic progressivism. In one respect, this is certainly quite true. If we go back to the definition of techno-progressivism offered above and replace "the physical universe" with "the economy" or "the society", we will find that the same basic definition works equally well: anything and everything can be "managed" with a high degree of confidence and precision by enlightened experts of the right sort -- assuming that they are given the degree of authoritarian central control that is needed to effect the management. But even though these varied aspects of the overall progressive worldview are indeed the same pig with different shades of lipstick, there are several important reasons for paying specific attention to the progressive attitude as it applies uniquely to "scientific" and "technical" issues:
1. The effects of progressivism in judicial, moral, social, and economic arenas are often quite evident to the reasonable man, whereas those in scientific and technical arenas are often more subtle and insidious. Geithner and Bernanke can spout convoluted economic theorems until they both pass out, but a six year old of average intelligence can still figure out that printing a trillion dollars or so and dumping it into the economy might possibly depress the value of the dollar. A legion of postmodern philosophers, bio-ethicists, legal scholars, liberal theologians, and frustrated lesbians can argue until the cows come home that abortion is a women's rights issue. But anyone who is quick-witted enough to live outside the confines of an institution can still spot the flaws in such arguments when they are contrasted with the image of a late-term fetus being partially delivered and then killed by mechanical trauma. When a staunch defender of such procedures (who also happens to be president) invokes the tragic death of innocent children in his efforts to whip up an antigun lather for the sake of his agenda, even the most tone-deaf will recognize that the song being sung is a little off key.
But when we get to "scientific" and "technical" arenas, the effects of progressivism can be a lot sneakier. Techno-progressivism can rage, roar, and rock-and-roll in the bowels of agencies like the EPA, the FDA, and the Army Corp of Engineers for decades before the irrationality boils over into the public view in the form of things like EPA regulations that require dairy farmers to have "emergency response plans" for dealing with spilled milk or FDA policies that deny experimental treatments to dying people because, God forbid, the treatments might not work. Ethanol is still widely perceived as a viable energy source, even though the thermodynamics only add up on a calculator owned by the USDA. Global warming would have a lot more momentum than it currently enjoys if only its own advocates hadn't blown the lid off of their own cauldron. In all of this, the techno-progressive is often quite successful in maintaining the image that it is he who is on the scientific high road and that his opponents are greedy oilmen, retrograde Bible-clingers and tobacco-spitting backwoods rubes with low IQs and high capacity magazines for their assault rifles.
2. A subtle, related, and critically important factor is the extent to which The People value their own opinion. In social, moral, legal, and even economic matters, the reasonable man still considers himself in possession of the authority that was endowed to him by his Creator and which was firmly reserved to him by our Constitution. He still regards classical, objective reasoning as superior to the sophisticated driveling, spouting and philosophizing of the enlightened experts. As a result, he will confidently dismiss the lofty analysis of the progressive sociologist, bio-ethicist, theologian, frustrated lesbian or economist when it conflicts with basic common sense. And, as evidenced by the last election, he is quite willing to recall those politicians who lack an equivalent degree of insight. But when it comes to "technical" and "scientific" matters, many reasonable people can suddenly become a whole lot more hesitant. They become much more willing to defer to the superior insight of the expert, not only with respect to the interpretation of the raw facts but also with regard to the correct policies which should follow from the facts.
The techno-progressives have greatly aided this self-imposed disenfranchisement. They have done so by quite successfully propagating a myth which teaches that scientific knowledge and technical sophistication in the era of the Founders was roughly on par with that of the Stone Age. It might have been OK to give The People the powers of authority and decision back when things were "so simple." But this is clearly not appropriate in an age of incredibly advanced science and numbingly complicated technology. In response to this still-effective smokescreen, it is helpful to note that Newtonian physics was a century old at the time of the Revolution. Moreover, any number of things which exerted direct bearing on everyday life -- printing, mechanical trades, manufacture, navigation, surveying, and transportation among others -- were already in the hands of technical experts and specialists. Yet there is no indication that the Founders sought to split governance into two arenas, one containing the simple stuff that could be left to the people and another containing the techno-scientific stuff that must be reserved to the exclusive wisdom of appropriate "experts."
3. Reality quite often refuses to follow the formulas of the enlightened progressive. But both the form of reality's refusal and the reaction of the progressive are quite different when the issue at hand is an acute one of a legitimately scientific or technical nature. In arenas such as the economy and society, the progressives can say "the heck with reality" and charge ahead with Plan A. For instance, stimulus spending may not work, but there is no law of physics that will immediately act to stop yet another round of stimulus spending. Gun control may not reduce crime or violence and the "tragic death of children at the hands of guns" may be at an all-time low and steadily decreasing, but the progressives are still free to believe that management of the guns by enlightened experts is absolutely essential. So long as they retain sufficient political power, there is once again no absolute physical reality that will stop the progressives from turning their beliefs into actions. Of course, reality will still catch up to the progressive in these arenas, but the lag time can be very long and the statistical evidence can be fudged for quite awhile before the deception becomes undeniable. Progressive spending policies, for instance, could probably run for another decade or better before we become an undeniable and intractable mess on the order of Greece.
Sudden and unexpected matters of a truly scientific or technical nature, on the other hand, can present the progressive with a solid brick wall that pops up quickly in the middle of the road and which does not yield to wishes, fantasies or what the progressive wants to be true. Oceans, electrical grids, fault lines, communications networks, piles of fissile materials, and the raining bombs of dictators cannot simply be ignored, discredited, dismissed or reinterpreted when they refuse to follow the equations in the playbook. Reality doesn't buy the theory and it immediately says so in clear and certain terms.
But what about the reaction of the obstructed, frustrated and perhaps even constipated progressive? Well, we may be seeing that right now. If the playground companion of a spoiled brat refuses to behave as the brat demands, the brat has many avenues of recourse. He can cajole, bribe, threaten, kick or slap his playmate into compliance. If that fails, he can run home to mother and tell her how rotten Johnnie is. But if the merry-go-round refuses to behave as the brat demands, his options are far fewer. Kicking it will only hurt his foot and he knows it. After doing it anyway, he can limp over to the sandbox and sit down to pout in stunned confusion, dazed inaction and wounded pride over the audacity of a universe that refuses to follow its obvious master. When this becomes tiresome and it becomes evident that the merry-go-round is not going to apologize and agree to play fair, he can stomp off to find another playground where things may be more to his liking. " The heck with Johnnie and double-heck to that stupid old merry-go-round, it never did work right anyway. I'm gonna go find Eric and we're gonna go play gun control."
Tim Thorstenson is a scientist (chemist) by education and he can be contacted at email@example.com.