by Mary Harrington
Monday, 20
September 2021

Elites have lost faith in Enlightenment rationality

Two new reports confirm that we are heading back to a medieval mentality
by Mary Harrington

Astrology and postcolonial theory. Some things just go better together and always will. That, at least, is the view of ‘Alice Sparkly Kat’, a ‘queer Chinese Astrologer’ based (where else?) in Brooklyn.

Mx Sparkly has published a book applying post-colonial theory to astrology, a move that the cynic in me thinks makes at least as much sense as applying astrology to post-colonial theory.

But we should set aside the temptation to see this as two strands of confected nonsense fusing to create a new, hybrid strand of confected nonsense. Take it rather as another example of the death-rattle of Enlightenment rationalism as the dominant elite epistemology. This decline is evident in a paper published in January by MIT, which explored competing uses of the same datasets by official advocates of Covid restrictions and opposing, self-organising groups of Covid sceptics.

Covid sceptics are routinely painted as paranoid, credulous rejecters of reason and scientific consensus. But the paper’s authors show that the reverse is in fact true. Far from being a superstitious, science-denying bunch, Covid sceptics in fact place higher value on evidence-based decisions, replicable results and science as a process.

Members of this community are described, in fact, in terms that strongly resemble the classic picture of a scientist: they “value individual initiative and ingenuity, trusting scientific analysis only insofar as they can replicate it themselves by accessing and manipulating the data firsthand.” Nor are they naïve realists but rather “highly reflexive about the inherently biased nature of any analysis”, resenting “what they view as the arrogant self-righteousness of scientific elites”.

But the paper first details this scepticism and commitment to evidence and open debate — attitudes until recently strongly coded as elite — only to conclude that this stance is a clear and present political danger. The anti-authoritarian narrative of evidence and reason, it appears, just enables sinister manipulators such as Big Tech or Donald Trump to foment wickedness, ‘prompting people to simply “think for themselves” to horrifying ends’.

We should not be surprised by this conclusion. Just out in American Sociological Review, a new study used four waves of data from America’s National Study of Youth and Religion to show that higher education both inculcates a strong liberal moral framework, but also increases moral absolutism — especially in humanities, arts or social sciences. That is, universities both teach a specific moral worldview and also a heavily morally-coded reluctance to consider alternative perspectives.

To put it more plainly, universities are rapidly reverting to their pre-Enlightenment role as theological seminaries. In the Enlightenment model, these institutions were tasked with delivering something morally neutral called ‘knowledge’ and ‘critical thinking’. But in the new model they deliver a fundamentally moral worldview, where ‘knowledge’ comes second to the doctrinal framework, and even what’s knowable is ordered by that framework.

Nigh-on every elite young person undergoes a version of this religious orientation. No wonder individualist, evidence-oriented scepticism is increasingly coded as marginal and dangerous. And no wonder a publication as venerable as The Nation is gushing about ‘astrology as a political force’.

Join the discussion

  • In some ways the disconnect between what universities were and what they are now is what is what caused me to waste 3 years on a history degree. My parents and teachers had been in the late 70s/early 80s, and whilst in reterospect someone like me would have been better served being pushed a bit more in the more mathematical side of things, nonetheless they thought it was an environment I would enjoy as someone deeply intellectually committed to history. Which it probably would have been before.
    There was the occasional maverick who gave interesting courses… Anglo-Saxon archaelogy and literature will stay with me. And the lecturer who said 9/11 meant ‘Fukuyama was ****ed’ called Hobsbawn an ‘unreformed Stalinist apparatchik’. But in general it was all deeply unsatisfying and I drifted into studying more interesting things alone, doing the bare minimum needed to pass. A big part of this was the hyperspecialised industries of theories and interpretations instead of good old honest Rankean historical method.
    Eventually I redirected my life and job to something useful, but I wish I’d not wasted the time and just studied something useful at university in the first place. It is a great tragedy that the old academic ethos has been swamped by this nonsense.

  • I like Marxism and I like Astrology but which has more make believe in it? Theres only one way to find out……FIGHT.
    credit Harry Hill

  • to be fair to the author in that interview they also say at one point, they don’t actually believe in astrology. Charitably they don’t seem to be a stupid person themselves, like any good capitalist they spotted a gap in the market where the venn diagram of Marxist, CRT and Astrology overlap. i hope they make a fortune fleecing the rubes who would buy that, and if they are buying it I’ve got bridges i want to sell them too, fully diverse bridges made with see thru paint, and vegan friendly materials like tofu and none of those colonial metals that White Western bridges are made from.

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