Sunday, February 4, 2007

Right Things

One day, I was in a bar in Seattle, and I ran into a man whom I could only describe as a "moderate White Supremacist." Perhaps it says something about Seattle that even the people who hold extreme right-wing views can manage to be reasonably civil (if not always tactful) about it.

In any event, he was going on about books that he'd read that supported his views, and when the topic of "Guns, Germs, and Steel" by Jared Diamond came up, he described it as "politically-correct propaganda." And while I found GG&S to be fascinating and informative (although somewhat dry), I can see how he'd reached that conslusion.

If you're unfamiliar with the book, Guns, Germs, and Steel seeks to explain, in understandable terms, why some cultures developed higher technology levels, denser and more complex societies, and nastier infectious diseases than other societies. To boil it down to it's absolute simplest, the reason the book puts forth is that all of these things spring from certain accessable natural resources in any given area, mainly domesticable plant and animal species, and that these vary around the world.

Of course, there have been plenty of other explanations for this phenomenon, many of which deal with the idea that certain groups are superior in intellect or inventiveness to other groups. Mr. Diamond takes direct issue with such theories, stating that: "The objection to such racist explanations is not just that they are loathsome, but also that they are wrong."

But why does that fact that racist explanations are loathsome matter? Isn't it enough that they be wrong? And if a demonstrably correct explanation of a phenomenon is loathsome, is that by itself grounds for objection? This is where we run the risk of confusing an arrival at popular orthodoxy as scientific rigor. As William Saletan put it: "It's too bad they think good science consists of believing the right things."

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