Saturday, October 15, 2011

Witnesses, well-to-do or otherwise

This morning, when I read this passage in Bruno Latour's We Have Never Been Modern---
While a dozen civil wars were raging, [17th-century chemist Robert] Boyle chose a method of argument--that of opinion-- that was held in contempt by the oldest scholastic tradition. Boyle and his colleagues abandoned the certainties of apodeictic reasoning in favour of a doxa. This doxa was not the raving imagination of the credulous masses, but a new mechanism for winning the support of one's peers. Instead of seeking to ground his work in logic, mathematics or rhetoric, Boyle relied on a parajudicial metaphor: credible, trustworthy, well-to-do witnesses gathered at the scene of the action can attest to the existence of a fact, the matter of fact, even if they do not know its true nature. So he invented the empirical style that we still use today. (18)
---I thought of the Guardian article I read yesterday, Rick Perry Officials Spark Revolt after Doctoring Environment Report, noting how all the scientists who had contributed to the report removed their names in the face of the Texas governor's censorship of the science he is determined to suppress.
By academic standards, the protest amounts to the beginnings of a rebellion: every single scientist associated with the 200-page report has demanded their names be struck from the document. "None of us can be party to scientific censorship so we would all have our names removed," said Jim Lester, a co-author of the report and vice-president of the Houston Advanced Research Center.

"To me it is simply a question of maintaining scientific credibility. This is simply antithetical to what a scientist does," Lester said. "We can't be censored." Scientists see Texas as at high risk because of climate change, from the increased exposure to hurricanes and extreme weather on its long coastline to this summer's season of wildfires and drought.

However, Perry, in his run for the Republican nomination, has elevated denial of science, from climate change to evolution, to an art form. He opposes any regulation of industry, and has repeatedly challenged the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Texas is the only state to refuse to sign on to the federal government's new regulations on greenhouse gas emissions. "I like to tell people we live in a state of denial in the state of Texas," said John Anderson, an oceanography at Rice University, and author of the chapter targeted by the government censors.

That state of denial percolated down to the leadership of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The agency chief, who was appointed by Perry, is known to doubt the science of climate change. "The current chair of the commission, Bryan Shaw, commonly talks about how human-induced climate change is a hoax," said Anderson.
When I read the article yesterday, I thought about how Texas's government censorship of science is perfectly in line with the state's Stalinist approach to rewriting the history that is taught in its public schools. But today I'm thinking also that Perry's tactics exemplify the nature of the struggle underway. Although people who call themselves "fundamentalist" Christians claim the Bible as their source of authority, they in fact (as any scholar of the Bible could tell you) ignore that authority when it suits their purposes (as well as favor mistranslations and similar distortions of it) and prefer instead to seize control of the doxa (mostly by brute, well-capitalized, propagandizing force). I wonder what Boyle might have said about this development (other than to characterize the lunatic Republicans as having adopted the "raving imagination of the credulous masses").

ETA: As with the Bible, so with the US Constitution. Always, they ignore and distort what doesn't suit their interests.

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