Time was, Republicans worried that liberals wanted to infect the United States with cultural relativism, a school of thought whose predilection for understanding other cultures and respecting their varied traditions, as opposed to blowing them up, would cause Americans to lose touch with their moral center.
Yet a different kind of relativism has been sneaking up on the American people. This time, however, it is factual relativism, and it is the GOP that is employing it in the hopes of eliminating the relevance of evidence, which inconveniently tends to favor Democratic positions, in our national dialogue.
We’ve all noticed it on the TV news, or in the statements of politicians. Instances where we shout at the television, “Is that true or not? Do the research!” They never seem to get around to it. Evidence, it turns out, is becoming irrelevant. More examples, and my suggested solution, below.
The success of Factual Relativism depends in part on the growing complexity of scientific research. For example, in a recent NY Times article:
E. Calvin Beisner, associate professor of historical theology at Knox Theological Seminary in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., helped organize the opposition into a group called the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance. He said Tuesday that “the science is not settled” on whether global warming was actually a problem or even that human beings were causing it.
Well, there you have it. An expert in historical theology tells us that the science is not settled. Except, wait. What expertise does this guy have in the area of climate science? What about this assertion, anyway? The paper, it seems, could not be troubled with such questions. And why not? Because the answers would be boring.
That’s the problem with science, and facts in general: they are often boring and complicated. They don’t get readers, ratings, or, unfortunately, voters. Republicans, knowing this, have adopted a strategy which bypasses facts and evidence and heads straight for emotional response.
Like in this CNN story on Bush’s Remarks to the House Republican Caucus:
The eavesdropping program has come under fire from Republicans as well as Democrats. They argue that Bush already has the authority to monitor such communications through existing law that requires a warrant from a secret court set up to act quickly, or even after the fact. Bush has argued that the system isn’t nimble enough.
Is it legal? Does he already have the authority? Who cares? The system wasn’t nimble enough. 9-11. Vote for us or you die. Any questions? Apparently, CNN didn’t have any.
Indeed, once facts are unimportant, balance becomes the standard for which the media aims. We are all familiar with the the crucify-Reid-for-balance’s-sake bandwagon:
Reid, D-Nevada, has led the Democratic Party’s attacks portraying Abramoff’s lobbying and fundraising as a Republican scandal.
But Abramoff’s records show his lobbying partners billed for nearly two dozen phone contacts or meetings with Reid’s office in 2001 alone.
The “But” says it all. There’s probably some kind of evidence in there somewhere, but no one wants to read that, so why check. Why ask, for example, if Reid changed his position after receiving contributions (No), or if this situation is qualitatively similar to the rampant corruption of the K-Street Project (you know the answer)?
It is frightening to think that evidence is becoming irrelevant. This new factual relativism weakens the ability of Democrats to make their points effectively. It weakens education and national unity. I mean, when I read that
President Bush waded into the debate over evolution and “intelligent design” Monday, saying schools should teach both theories on the creation and complexity of life.
it tells me that he’s ignoring the evidence, but it tells American children that there’s no point in studying the facts. After all, if the president doesn’t know which is true, who can?
Here I want to mention this section of Bush’s remarks at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast:
This morning we also reaffirm that freedom rests on the self-evident truths about human dignity. Pope Benedict XVI recently warned that when we forget these truths, we risk sliding into a dictatorship of relativism where we can no longer defend our values. Catholics and non-Catholics alike can take heart in the man who sits on the chair of St. Peter, because he speaks with affection about the American model of liberty rooted in moral conviction.
A dictatorship of relativism, hmm? That would be pretty bad. It would be awfully sad if Democrats could no longer defend our values by citing studies and other evidence to support our claims. After all, that’s really all an atheist like me has to go on. By encouraging people to give up on figuring out the tough questions, the president is irresponsibly imposing factual relativism on all of us.
So what to do about it? I’ve implied above that this tactic is successful because raw facts are boring and complicated, whereas catchy, upbeat slogans are fun and simple. Yet Americans are practical and savvy as well. After all, there’s usually some hack with a Ph.D. willing to peddle the GOP talking points involved somewhere, and there’s usually some bought and paid for “scientific” study that shows whatever the GOP is selling. These are clues that expertise and authority are still relevant, and this creates an avenue of successful attack.
A common sense argument works well. When someone says that global warming science is not settled, I say “you might be right. But I figure, if 95% of the doctors I talk to advise me not to mix certain medications, I probably wouldn’t do it.” And so on. In other words, stop debating the purity of the facts, and start debating the practical course of action given what we know right now. That’s an avenue that Democrats can follow brilliantly.