Today, you get into a car and just drive. In the old, old days, you walked. Somewhere in between, you could, under certain circumstances, get in a stagecoach and go somewhere.
I’ve never done that (well, actually, I have, but that’s another story), but I have spent a lot of time flying around in tiny airplanes that get filled to capacity with weight in the form of humans and their luggage. When you do that, the pilots tend to weigh everything and add it up to make sure they know exactly how much there is and to not go over some limit, and they tend to put things where they want them. I’ve seen pilots ask a particularly large or small person to sit in a particular seat, for instance. The point of doing that is not only to control weight, but also to achieve balance (mainly between the front and back ends of the aircraft).
This is what it was like in the old days with the stagecoaches. In order to have wheels that would last a long time and allow a reasonably smooth ride, the wheels had to be really big. If the wheels are really big, the center of gravity is high. If the center of gravity is high, the weight has to be properly distributed.
Or the coach falls over on the first tight turn.
So sometimes, in order to maintain balance, when the stagecoach was barreling down the road with four fast horses out front, approaching the turn, the stagecoach driver or his assistant would pound on the roof to get the attention of the ladies and gentlemen inside and ask a favor of the men.
“Gentlemen, lean to the left!”
Or the right, as needed. Thusly, the center of gravity would be shifted and the stagecoach could make the turn at a reasonable speed and not fall over. (It would appear that ladies of the Victorian Era were massless.)
This, of course, is a metaphor for the political process, but not the scientific process.
In the scientific process, what is correct is correct, to the extent that we feel that certain conclusions are highly likely or even seemingly inescapable. Just because a range of opinions can exist or has existed does not mean that it should exist. If the opinions on the very wrong extreme of an issue (like, for instance, that Bigfoot DOES exist) are chopped off, the scientific process does not tumble off the road like a hapless, out-of-balance stage coach. Rather, science just heads more in the appropriate direction…down the road where there is no Bigfoot.
In politics, this is possible as well, but the pragmatic and messy truth is that there is, in fact, a range of opinions out there that includes a lot that you or I won’t like. Sometimes we don’t like them because they are philosophically different than what we think. Other times we won’t like them because they are just plain wacko-bozo wrong. Either way, the process for hacking those opinions off and letting them float free is undefined and elusive. So they tend to stick around.
Indeed, politically, it is often the case that the actual opinions don’t matter at all. What matters in a democracy or a consensus group is where the center lies (more or less). And the locus of the center is defined in large part by where the edges are. The center determines our collective direction, and the edges determine the center.
People who want to live near the center need to learn to thank those at the extremes. People who want to live to one side of the center need to form firm alliances with those on their side, moderate, semi-extreme, or very extreme.
This is why we needed a Kucinich to get an Obama. We needed a McCarthy to get a Johnson. This is why we needed an SDS, the Black Panthers and the Velvet Underground (yes, the band) to keep Nixon in line, to get important human rights reform and, eventually, Bono.
In the area of the science vs. anti-science culture wars, this is why we need a PZ Myers to get a Genie Scott. PZ Myers is the biology professor and blogger of Morris, Minnesota who is famous for having a firm anti-religion stance on science education and politics (and life in general). Genie Scott is the executive director of the National Center for Science Education, and is well known for being unapologetic about the validity of modern science, including evolutionary biology as we know it in the modern world, yet she is also known for communing with people who are are religious but still not particularly anti-science.
I’m pretty familiar with both of them as individuals, friends, colleagues, and fellow activists in science education. On a day to day basis, I see little difference between them when it comes to that area we all work together on: Science education in the K-12 classroom, and concomitant training of teachers and administrators. Also, I am aware of the fact that PZ Myers is capable of working with more “centrist” people where appropriate, and that Genie Scott is just as annoyed as anyone else when the religious right wing comes up with all the crap they come up with.
For the last several years, the conservative religious right wing has been effective in winning over the hearts and “minds” of a large percentage of the American people. They’ve even managed this in areas that make no sense. Tort reform. Health care reform. Unions. Across the United States, working class people are embracing policies in these areas that will ultimately, over the medium and long term, do them great harm.
I think the right wing has used two very powerful tools to make this happen: Simplification and spectrum packing.
Simplification is simply to eschew complexity. Listen to liberals talk. For a number of reasons, some good and some bad or annoying, liberals can’t talk about any topic without pretty quickly disagreeing with each other. This tendency comes partly from the fact that “liberal” = “smart” to no small degree, and critical thinking is generally applied in these conversations. But while dogma that is evaluated critically is better dogma (and less dogmatic!), dogma that is argued over is weak, socio-politically. Every argument within the ranks is a tool to be used from outside. You can come up with whatever argument you want, do the best job possible to fill the gaps and address the holes. If the critical evaluation of the argument is not curtailed at some point, that dogma won’t hunt. And when it comes to winning the hearts and “minds” of the American people, you won’t. You’ll have to force the change required by this higher-quality dogma down their throats, and that can only be done now and then, as in the 1930s and now, with economic depression so severe that people are more than usually willing to try things.
The second tool is spectrum packing. This simply means allowing your side of the issue to include the full range of voices. If you leave things alone, those voices will emerge. But what you have to do then is to live with them. You are not going to shut them up anyway, so fighting them won’t work. When it comes to the key issues, those voices and your own rarely disagree, so they are allies, but if you try to shut them up they won’t be.
Ken Miler, a Catholic biologist who seems to want to see his god somewhere in the mix when thinking about evolution, although he opposes the creationists with a vengeance, and radical atheist PZ Myers are on the same side and more often than not work together and agree on tactics. Yet they also argue. The fact is that if the enemy is well enough defined, and the stakes high enough, even smart liberal-minded people can avoid being stupid about their politics. They may never be as good at this as the Republicans, but they can move closer to a strategically more effective place than they are now.
They have to. Or they cease to be relevant.
So, gentlemen and ladies, please lean to the left. Or if someone else is leaning too far to the left for your taste, thank them for it, because they are keeping your ass from flying off the road.