The internet has recently gone viral with discussion of U.S. Representative Todd Akin’s statement on the Jaco Report about abortion in cases of rape. Politicians are taking note of the public outrage. President Obama commented on the statement today. The G.O.P. has even pulled funding from Akin’s U.S. Senate campaign.
But it would be a little too quick to say that everyone has denounced Akin’s views. There has been fast and strong backlash from all sides against what Akin said in that interview, but I think Akin’s comments actually betray a worldview that now governs much of political discourse and policy making, and we would do well to pay attention and do something about it.
Akin’s comments betray a deeply unscientific worldview according to which one can, as a public official, state one’s opinion on matters of fact as “what doctors say” without a shred of evidence in support of one’s claims—without even knowing what kind of evidence is out there on the topic, or how one might begin to gather and assess it.
But it gets worse. It’s not that Akin’s worldview uses different evidence; it’s that the relationship between evidence and conclusion is inverted. Instead of carefully considering, say, the medical evidence available to you and forming an opinion about what should be done on the basis of that medical evidence and one’s ethical beliefs, one holds one’s beliefs about medicine because they support one’s ethical beliefs. Let’s give this worldview a name, so we can start talking about; how about “a-rationalism”.
A-rationalism is a deeply dangerous worldview that makes itself evident in political discussions on ranging from climate change to stimulus packages. It’s a worldview on which one’s beliefs are not guided by what one thinks one has most reason to believe, but one’s reasons are gathered or fabricated in order to support one’s beliefs. And this is not just behind-the-scenes manipulation. It is taken to be legitimate belief-forming practice. In short, on the a-rationalist worldview, there is no such thing as intellectual responsibility.
And don’t think this is just the G.O.P.. Journalists of all stripes often present the positions of two politicians, along with their reasons for holding those positions, without any discussion of whether the reasons are good reasons—whether they are true, well-supported, or should hold weight in legal or political (as opposed to, say, moral) discussion. This tends to go under the cover of “objectivity”, but it is the farthest thing from it.
A journalist who is objective seeks out as much evidence as she can, and then writes her article on the basis of the evidence. Journalistic practice on the a-rationalistic worldview, on the other hand, takes reasons to be nothing more than further information about a candidate’s beliefs. Assessment of reasons is out of the picture because intellectual responsibility is no longer part of the public political worldview.
The recent assault on education in the U.S. can be seen as stemming from the same worldview that creates the Akins in today’s political scene. If there is no such thing as intellectual responsibility, then there is nothing for a high school or college to teach students except tricks to get them higher paying jobs.
One of the main purposes of education, especially liberal arts education, is to teach students to be intellectually responsible citizens. But if, according to the a-rationalist worldview, intellectual responsibility has no value, what is the point of education? It is a ticket to a bigger paycheck, and should be assessed as such.
This, in my opinion, is the really terrifying thing about Akin’s comments. They betray a worldview on which there is no genuine political debate, which not only fails to understand the value of education but is antithetical to it, because it is antithetical to the value of intellectual responsibility. When our political discourse is not even nominally governed by the value of intellectual responsibility, what is it governed by?