April 30, 2008

SCIENCE LEADS YOU TO KILLING PEOPLE? If this quote is accurate, Ben Stein has completely lost it.

UPDATE: Related thoughts at ChicagoBoyz.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Reader Steve Poling emails:

You cited Derb’s quote by Ben Stein and suggest he’s lost it. I’d like to offer a brief apology (in the Socratic sense).

In the last century, we saw several governments adopt the notion that they, the government, were ultimate. Mr. Stein accurately identifies one of them, risking Godwin’s law. Meanwhile, Russian and Chinese governments were responsible for murdering millions of their citizens. The same century saw the Tuskegee experiment and other eugenics mischief under the banner of what Francis Schaeffer (franky’s dad) termed “Sociological law.” All these crimes were RATIONALIZED using science.

You’ll see this common theme running throughout Jonah Goldberg’s “Liberal Fascism.” I disagree with Mr. Goldberg’s thesis, finding the common thread true of both Communist and Fascist and American Progressive mischief is a rejection of transcendent absolutes. “If there are no absolutes, then the state is absolute,” said Francis Schaeffer.

But the root problem has to do with human nature and Lord Acton’s dictum, power tends to corrupt. Since the people running the gas chambers in Germany were philosophically naturalists who dressed in lab coats while spouting pseudo-science, I don’t think Mr. Stein’s curse lands upon true scientists, but at relativists who see nothing larger than their own personal grasp on power and no transcendent checks upon its exercise.

The American Constitution is as close as this world is likely to see. I see it as a legacy of Deist and Christian framers who looked outside government for absolutes to serve as checks upon government. However, since all text is subject to interpretation, that legacy is endangered by judicial activism… Sorry to have wandered so far afield. Francis Schaeffer made the same mistake when he contemplated these things immediately after the Roe v Wade decision.

However, the absolutes vs relativism question seems to lie underneath Mr. Stein’s remarks. If just want to make him a straw man, and find an excuse to ignore everything else he says, you can frame his remarks as mere obscurantism. However, if you want to constructively engage the problems which have nettled this world for the last century or so, you might want to consider relativism’s baleful influence on Western Culture.

Auschwitz was not conceived as science, nor was it impelled by science, or scientists. The Holocaust was not a scientific endeavor, but had its roots in the Nazis’ unscientific loathing of the Jews. The Nazis did try to dress up that loathing in scientific dress, but that was a propaganda move, not science. (Indeed, Nazi science, for the most part, was dreadful science, made up by people to suit their preexisting beliefs without actual resort to the scientific method.) One can argue quite compellingly against moral relativism without engaging in raw intellectual dishonesty. Stein’s approach, however, seems more worthy of a Michael Moore. And in this spirit, do read what Jay Manifold has to say at the ChicagoBoyz link above. And here’s a somewhat related post from a while back.

MORE: Ed Morrissey comments: “I found a lot to recommend about Expelled, but this leaves me wondering if Ben Stein missed the point of his movie. Science does not lead to Dachau; ideology perverting science led to Dachau.. . . How could Stein say this without a hint of irony? The best themes in Expelled take Academia to task for the same destructive sin.”

STILL MORE: In the comments at ChicagoBoyz, David Foster writes:

I’ve enjoyed a lot of Stein’s writing, and it saddens me to see him descending to this nuttiness.

“the last time any of my relatives saw scientists telling them what to do they were telling them to go to the showers to get gassed”…surely Stein knows that the concentration camps were run by the SS, 99% of whom were not scientists. While it is true that the Nazis employed chemists for nefarious purposes, it is also true that the Nazis employed musicians to help hide from inmates the true purpose of the camps. Would Stein also assert that music is evil?

Good point, exposing just how cheap Stein’s cheap shot was.