Matthew Nisbet, Associate Professor of Communication Studies, Public Policy, and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University, has a thoughtful piece over at Breakthrough Institute titled “Making Social Science Relevant Again.” As he points out, our universities are failing to adequately equip young professionals to be critical thinkers, thoughtful debaters, and rational human beings on an array of polarizing social issues, including the environment. He notes
I have discovered that the best way for students to learn about social science theories and methods is not to foreground these topics across weeks; relentlessly moving from one theory and statistical finding to the next; but rather to embed analysis of these theories into broader readings and conversations about the scientific, social, and ethical implications of contentious policy debates and politicized controversies.
Nisbet should be applauded for shaping his cirriculum to help students better understand the social sciences and discourse on natural science – climate change and energy, vaccinations, genetics and biomedicine – and the science of science communication itself, with the goal of spawning more thoughtful and productive discussions. Democracy hangs in the balance. Nisbet has also written on Why Hyperpartisanship Strengthens Conservatism and Undermines Liberalism. On the increased polarization in society, he writes
The inclination to fight fire with fire is understandable. How can liberals be expected to embrace compromise and moderation when there is no one left to compromise with? This view — along with the nagging suspicion that the failure to offer a robust liberal alternative to modern conservatism has resulted in the pronounced rightward shift of American politics in recent decades — has led many liberals to conclude that they have no choice but to attempt to beat conservatives at their own game.
The strategy has been dangerously misguided. Extreme polarization has served conservatives very well, driving moderate leaders from politics, promoting feelings of cynicism, inefficacy, and distrust among the public, and forcing Democrats to spend huge sums of money on canvassing, texting, social media, and celebrity appeals in order to turn out moderates, young people, and minorities on election day. Less clear is how America’s escalating ideological arms race will conceivably serve liberals. Instead of going to war against the Right, liberals will better serve their social and political objectives by waging a war on polarization.
I disagree with Nisbet’s conclusion that the hyperpartisanship has been good for conservatism and disagree that the threads of polarizing elements of the GOP, at least as far as the environment goes, have been entirely “conservative.” Politically conservative perhaps, but hardly philosophically or classically conservative. I would suggest some elements of the GOP have abandoned or at least forgotten the principles of prudent restraint on the destructive potential of human power and insatiable consumption. Suggested fresher for the GOP, Russell Kirk Center and 10 principles of conservatism. But I remain vehemently in agreement with Nisbet’s suggestion that liberals and conservatives alike ought discontinue waging war on each other, and rather against the destructiveness of polarization. The ideological arms race benefits no one, witness its consequences around the world.