This post comes late, just to clear up some stray thoughts that have been bouncing around in my head this holiday season. One of the themes of this blog centers on “scientism” — think of it as the scientific version of truthiness. The election period is high season for egregious appropriations of the trappings of science for all kind of knavery, and there was one example of a couple of weeks ago that I did not want to leave alone as we head into Iowa and all the rest. To no one’s surprise, most likely, the culprit is a Republican, and one committed to a worldview that regards science as purely instrumental, handy, but entirely malleable in service of higher truth. Here’s what was said:
In an interview with TPM Election Central, Joe Carter, Huckabee’s director of research, argued that while Huckabee does think both fall in the category of “aberrant behavior,” he’s not arguing that they’re the same and sees them as being at “opposite ends of the spectrum” of such behavior. (from TPM Election Central)
Lots of people have taken aim [I could go on with the link fest, but you get the idea, and you can google "Huckabee Necrophilia" yourself, just for the pleasure of putting those two search terms together] at Huckabee for the vile substance of what he said — and for the fact that this is something he seems really to believe. After all, he wrote the book in which he made the link between sex between consenting adults and rape of the dead in 1998. That’s a decade of provenance for this garbage.
It’s important to hit him hard, repeatedly. Should he get the GOP nomination (unlikely, IMHO) he needs to be squashed like a bug — Goldwater-like; McGovern-like — to help drain this particular reservoir of pus out of the American body politic.
But beside all that, I found myself irritated and worse by one word that Huckabee’s mouthpiece used to try and slide past the consequences of his master’s rank bigotry. Huckabee, apparently, didn’t think that homosexuality and necrophilia were really identical — just similar, sharing space on a “spectrum.”
That’s got the ring of science to it and a kind of apologetic rigor as well: Huckabee wasn’t just shooting off his mouth. He’d considered the matter, studied it, and recognized that although that homosexuality and corpse-sex aren’t similar in every detail, they share something significant, residence in a common neighborhood, a spectrum, and you have to take that “fact” seriously because, after all, we know about spectra.
Except, of course, that the attempt to steal the authority of a science-sounding word is bullshit. The word spectrum has a distinct meaning in science, as readers of this blog certainly know. The electromagnetic spectrum describes how a single phenomenon — light, photons, electromagnetic radiation, depending on your pleasure — varies in its observed behavior as one specific quality, wavelength varies from short to long. Power spectra measure distributions of a specific quantity, energy for example, over the frequencies contained within a given signal…and so on.
That is: common uses of the term spectrum in the physical sciences apply to descriptions of a single phenomenon or object of interest that displays a range of values over some parameter.
Think what that means when applied to Huckabee’s defense.
His flack seemed to be softening Huckabee’s original published statement: the two activities being compared weren’t the same, they were merely linked by virtue of being on a spectrum. But of course, that was just a fancy way of saying exactly what Huckabee had said before: homosexuality and necrophilia are in their essentials the same.
It’s a nasty, but very old rhetorical trick. “I’m not calling you a liar, sir! I am merely pointing out that you are a diagnosed mythomaniac.”
Such a trope always reveals bad faith. It’s pretty clear what Huckabee wants to do: continue to signal to the worst of his supporters that he stands with them in terror at the thought that there are other ways of living and loving than the one he likes, while gulling just enough of the rest of us into thinking he does not really mean what he says.
Again — I know that the politics of this are obvious to anyone paying attention, as is the rhetorical sleight of hand being used. But the one thing I am trying to add is to point out that science and its concepts are particularly vulnerable to this kind of confidence trick, because of the authority a scientistic frame gives to otherwise unsupportable garbage. If four out five doctors recommend … if someone has gone out and studied the spectrum…
And the worst of it is, that this kind of thing also makes it harder to get the real stuff across. The more what sounds like science turns into rhetoric, the less its actual ideas and results will be seen as actual knowledge. After all, Huckabee has his spectrum, and someone else has theirs, and who are we to say who’s is better or worse.
This battle never ends.
Image: Qing Dynasty actors. Source: Wikipedia Commons.