Paul Krugman’s Rhetoric of ‘Anti-Science’: A Case of Ressentiment?

Max Scheler, following up some clues in Nietzsche, developed a sociology of ‘ressentiment’, which – as a first pass — refers to the creation of scapegoats to deflect attention from one’s own inadequacies. Ressentiment was meant to explain how the desire for self-transcendence is perverted as the faithful come to believe that others have managed to reach much the same end by illegitimate means. In practice, the concept tends to refer to a rightward ideological turn by, say, working class or petit bourgeois who think that Jews or foreigners have usurped their prerogative. The left has not been traditionally implicated in this spoiler position because of its ‘progressive’ outlook, which was always constructive of the future, even as it laid waste to the past. Ressentiment, in contrast, is meant to be an exclusively negative – even nihilistic – sentiment born of fearful incomprehension.

Enter Nobel Prize economist and NY Times op-ed author, Paul Krugman, who may be the highest profile author to attempt to demonise the Republican Party as ‘anti-science’ in a way that is reminiscent of how US conservatives demonised the political and cultural left as ‘anti-American’ in the 20th century. In a piece originally published in the NYT and reprinted in the Guardian, Krugman scaremongers about the prospects for the US if Republican candidates who deny evolution and anthropocentric climate change manage to get into the White House. Krugman appears to believe that taking a loyalty oath to whatever happens to be the scientific consensus ought to be an entry requirement for anyone seeking elected office.

Perhaps the most odious feature of this suggestion is its appeal to science as a superordinate authority on the democratic political process. Whereas the right might try to co-opt the military under comparable circumstances, the left turns to science to threaten opponents who otherwise appear to be ascendant. Krugman’s suggestion also serves to corrupt science. No doubt Republicans are trying to gain advantage by casting doubt on various policy-relevant scientific views. Nevertheless there is legitimate room for disagreement and the offering of alternatives by scientists themselves, and exaggerated claims for consensus and certainty – simply to trump a group of politicians – does the cause of free scientific inquiry no favours. If anything, it reinforces the stereotype of scientists as an elite class contemptuous of the public.

When it comes to strictly scientific issues, what matters isn’t whether Texas governor Rick Perry (dis)believes in global warming or Darwinism, but what he believes should be taught and researched on these matters. However, even this somewhat misses the point. For when Perry makes statements denying global warming and Darwin, he is not mainly trying to say anything about science at all. Rather he is engaging in ‘dog whistle politics’, in which scientific opinions are meant to stand ‘metonymically’ (apologies for the old structuralist jargon) for a set of conservative cultural positions that appeal to a wide range of voters. Liberals like Krugman are so completely alienated from these positions that they can only register them as dangerous pathologies of the intellect (aka scientific illiteracy). But unless liberals change their tune, they will continue to fail to deal with the democratic process as it exists in the US today.

Categories: Rethinking The World

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