|Typdom, a 1930s word game. [A]|
Well-known Post-Keynesian/heterodox economists, like Yanis Varoufakis, John E. King, Paul Davidson, Geoffrey Hodgson, Sheila Dow, and Lars Pålsson Syll, have expressed their opposition to Postmodernism [link].
What have these people against PoMo? Why should you care? Here I'll advance an answer.
Frank I. Luntz is a successful man. His Wikipedia profile soberly describes him as "an American political consultant, pollster, and Republican Party strategist". One could be more upbeat than that: Luntz has had a number of very high-profile assignments, in the U.S. and abroad; for instance, advising the second Bush Administration on environmental issues (link).
In that capacity, in 2003 Luntz authored a confidential memo on the best media strategy against governmental intervention on climate change.
The Guardian on the memo, leaked to the media:
" 'The scientific debate is closing [against us] but not yet closed. There is still a window of opportunity to challenge the science,' Mr Luntz writes in the memo …If you follow the news, that should ring a bell: Luntz's advice is to deliberately sow doubts on how consensual the science on man-made weather change is, regardless of its actual prevalence among the scientific community.
" 'Voters believe that there is no consensus about global warming within the scientific community. Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate'." (link)
Further down, The Guardian article reads:
"Mr Luntz urges Republicans to 'emphasise the importance of acting only with all the facts in hand', in line with the White House position that mandatory restrictions on emissions, as required by the Kyoto protocol, should not be countenanced until further research is undertaken".The advise now is to move the goalposts permanently: once your questions are answered, ask new questions. With this you delay decisions, obviously; more subtly, the public gets the impression the argumentation is inconclusive.
There are more evident tricks, too; as the NYTimes put it in an article very appropriately entitled "Environmental Word Games": "not to change the policy, but to dress it up with warm and fuzzy words". To use just one word: euphemisms.
I'm sure readers have noticed in the last 10 years many instances of the above, all of which suggests that Luntz's proposals were applied and worked.
One who certainly did notice was Prof. Bruno Latour (philosopher by training, anthropologist by experience, currently teaching in sociology…, link, at the Paris Institute of Political Studies). He is an ideal observer. For one, he has long studied the social construction of science and is well-known and respected in that field. According to his Wikipedia profile, "his monographs earned him a 10th place among most-cited book authors in the humanities and social sciences for the year 2007".
Commenting on Luntz's memo, Latour writes that Luntz's media strategy is "an artificially maintained scientific controversy to favor a 'brownlash' " [i.e. "a deliberate attempt to minimize the seriousness of environmental problems through misuse or misreporting of science", link].
Surprisingly, Latour, the science-sceptic, with that criticism joins the weather science establishment. But he did more than that; he went one step further:
"Do you see why I am worried? I myself have spent some time in the past trying to show 'the lack of scientific certainty' inherent in the construction of facts. I too made it a 'primary issue.' But I did not exactly aim at fooling the public by obscuring the certainty of a closed argument-or did I? After all, I have been accused of just that sin. Still, I'd like to believe that, on the contrary, I intended to emancipate the public from prematurely naturalized objectified facts. Was I foolishly mistaken? Have things changed so fast?" [Latour's personal site: PDF, paywalled version].In other words, Latour admits to also playing "word games", not unlike the brownlash he accuses people like Luntz of playing.
To be sure, he did not mean to fool the public (or so he says); quite to the contrary, he "intended to emancipate the public".
Latour's may be an extraordinarily candid admission, by a vaguely leftish academic, of the use and abuse of less-than-legitimate "argumentation tricks" (or plain sophistry, to be blunt); other philosophically "sophisticated" intellectuals apparently have practiced the same kind of tricks to advance all sorts of agendas, without the scruples Latour manifested.
Prof. John Quiggin has shown some interest on this subject. In a post last year, Quiggin makes some very pertinent remarks:
"All of this reflects the inconvenient fact that scientific research often reaches conclusions that conflict with the policy preferences or religious beliefs of rightwingers.
"It's striking in this context to recall that, only 20 years ago, the phrase 'Science Wars' was used in relation to generally leftish postmodernists in the humanities, who were seen as rejecting science and/or promoting pseudoscience (while some of this stuff was rather silly, there's no evidence that it ever did any actual harm to science). These days postmodernist and related 'science studies' critiques of science are part of the rightwing arsenal used by Steven Fuller to defend creationism and by Daniel Sarewitz on climate science". [emphasis added]
Let's summarize this: the thing with PoMo is that two can play those "word games". Originally pioneered by leftish petit-bourgeois intellectuals, like the so-called Frankfurt School and by people like Latour himself, eventually, "conservative, right of centre, libertarian" PR professionals, like Luntz, learned to make a living out of the game.
While they were the only ones playing, the PoMo crowd apparently saw themselves as boldly "transgressing the boundaries"; now that others, like Luntz, are playing (very successfully, on top) Latour is worried.
Latour's denunciation reminds me of amateurs complaining about professionals: "We used to do it for love". That may be so, but what's relevant, I'd say, is that everybody did it.
A presumably impartial brief profile of Steven Fuller; Fuller in his own words and Fuller as seen by a critic.
[A] "Typdom, Buchstabenspiel in Kreuzwortmanier, alte Ausgabe von etwa 1930", by Peng. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Wikipedia.