Our stated policy at the Social Evolution Forum is that we focus on science. Ideological or partisan posts and comments, on the other hand, are discouraged (so far I only needed to remove two such comments; usually, simply asking commenters to refrain from straying into politics is sufficient).
There are good practical reasons for banning ideology from the SEF. During the early days of the Internet I have followed a number of discussion boards and on-line forums. With depressing regularity, they all foundered when the discussion turned from issues to politics, and then to increasingly bitter ad hominem attacks.
More generally, there are equally good practical reasons to keep ideology out of science as much as possible. Empirically, once ideology sneaks in, the quality of resulting science quickly deteriorates.
But we also want our science to be relevant. In fact, we scientists owe it to the society that ultimately supports us. It doesn’t mean that every scientific project needs to justify itself by promising to produce an immediate benefit to the society. Readers of this blog know that I think such an attitude is counterproductive (and, not to put too fine a point on it, stupid).
But ultimately – in the long run – science should be a force for good. Most scientists, a few ivory tower inmates excepted, agree on it.
This question has lately been much on my mind, because I am currently writing a critique of a scholarly book that boldly mixes up ideology and science (with predictable results). In general, history is a discipline that is particularly prone to be misused and abused for ideological purposes.
Incidentally, this is why the Soviet Union produced so few famous historians and social scientists, and so many fine mathematicians and chess players. Fortunately for the latter, dialectical materialism says nothing about how to prove theorems, or how to move figures on the chessboard.
If you know your history well enough, you can always find multiple historical examples to support any theory that you like – and a different set to support its logical opposite. This doesn’t mean that history is hopeless; it just means that we have to be careful about how we test our theories about the past. In particular, no cherry-picking is allowed. You must include all cases within a certain, objectively specified sampling set. Also, you have to worry about biases that may affect your data, including political agendas of chroniclers (and their bosses) and physical processes that may make some artifacts more persistent in the archaeological record than others. It’s technical, requires a lot of thought and work, but quite doable.
All of this is fairly obvious (which does not stop politicians and their academic shills from continuing to routinely abuse history). But consider another example. Suppose a small, but proud country teaches its youth about its glorious national past, its celebrated victories over external enemies, and the important contributions it made to the world’s cultural heritage. In reality, the surrounding empires never bothered conquering it, because it was too poor and had no strategic value; none of its writers are read outside the country, and none of its scientists ever got a Nobel Prize.
Would you insist that they bring their school curriculum in line with our best and objective historical scholarship? I am not sure I would. After all, nations need their ‘mythomoteurs’ (using the felicitous term of Anthony D. Smith and John Armstrong). Who knows, if you were to destroy their pride in their glorious past, it might degrade the ability of people inhabiting the country to cooperate within national institutions; it could increase cynicism and corruption, and ultimately lower their quality of life.
In other words, history curriculum in schools is not about science. It has much to do with social glue, but it is orthogonal to cliodynamics.
Of course, the sense of national pride and self-importance can get out of hand, as happened with Georgia in 2008. By attacking South Ossetia and Russian peace-keepers therein, the Georgians triggered the war with Russia, which led to a speedy and humiliating defeat, and a painful blow to national pride.
Not-so-small and proud nations are also prone to nationalistic hubris, with disastrous consequences for the surrounding countries and, often, for themselves. The example of the Nazi Germany is, of course, paradigmatic, but one can think of many others.
I am not sure if I can come up with any earth-shattering conclusions. Still, I believe that keeping science as ideology free as possible is a good idea. It’s very important not to mix ‘what is’ with ‘what should be.’ If we want to change the world for the better, we first need to be clear-headed about why societies work the way they are. Good science can yield politically incorrect and, sometimes, difficult to swallow results. But if we shy away from such unpalatable conclusions, we simply sweep the deep causes of social ills under the rug. That’s not the most effective way of changing our societies for the better.
So, in order to be the most efficient about achieving ‘what should be,’ we first need to ignore it in the pursuit of ‘what is.’ Only after we have figured out how societies function and evolve we can start designing ways of nudging them in the right direction.
What it also means is that any explicit (or even strongly implicit) ideological or partisan comments will continue to be ruthlessly expurgated!