Monday, August 3, 2009

Is There Always a "Middle Ground?"

I frequently hear statements to the effect that "extremists" or their views are dangerous and harmful regardless of the source. We've come to the point where to sit toward any pole is seen as a fault, that the "middle ground" (however artificial it may be) is the path to take.

But are some extremes actually manufactured? Is there in fact any value in embracing the "middle road" of the "moderate" view when a particular extreme position is in fact not representative of reality? If I'm a savvy PR spinmeister looking to steer an issue, couldn't I just craft a position which is such an extreme that it moves the middle ground toward the side of the issue I want--or in so doing create a "debate" where none really exists?

Suppose, for example, we take the "view" that the sky is blue and construct an opposing view that it is in fact "red," and that everyone who insists otherwise is wrong, and furthermore either is in on or has been duped by a vast conspiracy. There is no real middle ground here; those who dogmatically insist the sky is indeed blue and that anyone thinking otherwise is delusional are correct, no matter how "extreme" their view lies on the spectrum (no pun intended!) of the sky hue "debate."

While my example above is a bit silly and simplistic, it directly parallels the masterfully-successful efforts of those with a vested interest in doing nothing about global warming.

Conservatives have, to a largely successful degree, continued (if not outright manufactured) the "debate" about mankind's role global climate change--at least amongst policymakers and the general public. While one or two dissenting scientists are paraded out by the scions of James Watt (incidentally, has Wyoming ever contributed a good politician to the national scene?) as "proof" of a controversy, the vast majority of professionals who study climate change for a living agree that there is really no debate to be had. Yet those "tree-hugging, granola-eating, America-hating leftist environmentalists" somehow "need to compromise" based on this non-existent, manufactured middle ground. The PR men in the employ of the carbon industry have successfully crafted a "controversy" and "debate" by simply staking out the opposite (and often extreme) position--without a lick of real climate science on their side!

Likewise, creationists (and their monkeys-in-tuxedos cousins the (un)intelligent designers) have tried for years to cast the scientists and "believers" of evolutionary theory as extremists in opposition to their own lunatic fringe position. If you categorically rule out creationism and stick dogmatically to the well-supported (and all-but-proven) "theory" of evolution, you're an "extremist"; as such, they've created a false-moderate position of "teaching the controversy" or "including all the alternatives." Yet this middle ground is anything but; conceding ground from science to accept that there is even a serious debate at all is to play right into the creationists' hands.

Then there's the notion of the "extremes" of science and religion--which although neither science nor religion are "artificial" are not truly endpoints of a linear spectrum, but perhaps rather nearly orthogonal lines in a plane. Based on the incorrect assumption of setting the two on a single line, we're treated to another false middle ground.

I'm generally a fan of Chris Mooney's work, but in his collaborative effort Unscientific America, he makes a case that scientists need to do more to embrace that middle ground (particularly in the area of the science/religion debate), condemning as hurtful to the cause of science the so-called "new atheists" (folks like biologist Richard Dawkins, philosopher and social scientist Daniel Dennett, etc.). In addition to the fact that science and religion are not diametrical, exclusionary extremes on a single linear scale, I think that here Mooney and his coauthor Sheril Kirshenbaum are erring in letting PR and the "spin" of a publicly controversial issue redefine the legitimately moderate position.

The notion that there must be some middle ground between theists and atheists--not so much on the notion of theism itself, mind you, but on how the two frame their debate--is not really compatible with either side of the debate at hand, nor, I would argue, does it significantly play a role in issues of science, like global warming and evolutionary theory. I suppose these issues are "atheistic" in that neither invokes nor requires a notion of the divine--but that's science. that god (or God, if you wish) is left out of the equation is not creating an extreme position at all, nor is there a need for some middle ground which incorporates theism in science simply for the sake of appeasement.

However, the converse is not necessarily true, as the Mooney-lamented Dan Dennett points out very well in Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon: there are indeed aspects of religion which are quite suitable for scientific inquiry--this largely contradicts the "separate magisteria" overture of palms by the late Stephen Jay Gould to theists, where the much-derided-by-creationists biologist claimed science has nothing to say about religion and vice-versa. (I agree with him on the latter, but that's a point for a different blog post and certainly violates the spirit of his gesture.) I suppose this is one case where there is indeed a real middle ground, in that science can certainly make scientific claims about aspects of religion, which Gould held out as untouchable in a failed attempt at (and inspiration for) Mooney's suggestion that scientists come across as not threatening religion.

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