I made myself swear that I would not argue with any of my fellow Science bloggers for one full week after my arrival here, no matter what. Fortunately, my first week wound up yesterday, and with the arrival of Greg Laden’s essay on the political and intellectual dangers of relocalization, I’ve got good fodder for my first donnybrook ;-).

Actually, I agree with Laden’s concern about relocalization of political power on a number of points – my issue is more with how he frames the discussion, as one in which local policies are inevitably more subject to, well, stupidity. That said, I agree with him on a number of points, particularly this one:

“There is a strong feeling in US civics as well as among those interested in education that the more local the decision is made, the better the decision will be. This is probably true in many areas. I remember years back when my father was involved in fights over regulation and public housing, and he showed me a project in Arizona and a project he was doing in New York … each adapted to local conditions of climate, urban setting, etc. to optimize the use of resources for heating and cooling, and each project disallowed by Federal Housing Authority regulations written by people who apparently lived in Virginia and had no clue as to how to build a building in a cold climate or a hot climate. Local conditions were not accounted for by those regulations, but local conditions mattered a lot.

On the other hand, is it really the case that there is a local way to teach evolution? Well, yes…. I have a colleague who is totally into everybody teaching evolution by using, in part, studies of diversity of ants in the school yard. Which is great and I love that program. But I know of schools that have no dirt in the yard, and if they do, it is considered unsafe to dig in. I know of schools in habitats where the real diversity is not in ants but in some other organism. So evolution + looking for stuff outside + diversity = good pedagogy, but not necessarily with ants. So, a combination of nationally or internationally conceived and executed programs and local adaptation works.

There are people who argue that the decision of whether evolution is a valid set of theories or should be taught along side creationism, etc, should be a local one. Why? The “logical” reason to think this is that the more local the decision the better it is. Which, I am trying to point out here, is a fallacy. The “real” reason people try to push that idea is that it is politically easier to intimidate, cajole, convince, and trick people into doing what you want them to do if you get secretly organized first, then appear on the scene unexpectedly in a small group or polity, then push for what you want and get it in place before anyone at a larger geographical scale knows what you are up to. And this approach exploits the widespread (but incorrect) belief that “local control” is better.”

For the record, I advocate a degree of relocalization of politics, food and energy that goes rather beyond the opinion offered in US civics classes, and this is a serious and legitimate criticism. It is in some ways, more possible to bully a dumb idea – or a good one – through a local government. I believe that in the net, a greater degree of relocalization would be better, but I don’t claim that means that we will always make better relocalized decisions. I also believe in the idea of a national government as a useful corrective. I also do not want to see the school districts of any state teaching creationism alongside legitimate science. And I agree this is a real danger – localism contains the genuine possibility of deeply regressive social policies being enacted, and this is troubling.

It is also true, however, that localism offers precisely the opposite opportunities. We have only to look at the large number of cities and towns in the US that have joined Transition, or made global warming commitments that vastly exceed the nothing that the national government has done to see evidence that localism can lead to better choices. We have only to look at the states that have enacted gay marriage to see that local cultures can be progressive as well. There will be readers, of course, who hearing me say this, will say that the very fact that Massachusetts could enact gay marriage is an excellent argument *against* localization.

Of course, Laden admits this when he speaks of building codes – his argument is not a black and white one, but it points to the larger question of how seriously we should take relocalization – and what price we might be willing to pay to permit localities to do things that make sense – even if the corollary is that sometimes they do things that make no sense at all, or are actively destructive and stupid. The question becomes, where to intervene? What weight to give localism vs. nationalism – or is this even the right way to frame the question?

We all agree, I suspect, that there have to be limits on relocalization, or, as Tom Lehrer once put it “We’ll try and stay serene and calm…when Alabama gets the bomb.” Even the most ardent relocalization advocates certainly do not advocate the relocalization of everything (although it is probably a good idea to remember that involuntary relocalization of resources no one would ever want to see relocalized, such as nuclear weapons, does happen, as we can see from the breakup of the Soviet Union.)

The question becomes how one draws the lines – and how one views the argument. Laden goes on to wave a few unnecessary red flags that I know will annoy some of my readers, and to essentially, worry a bit about the problem of democracy:

“I see a version of local empowerment and the demand that each individual’s opinion … a kind of democratization of point of view … in denialist movements. When Pat Buchanan insisted to Andrea Mitchel the other day on MSNBC that “We don’t happen to accept this evidence … global warming is not proven to us” he meant, by “us,” not some group of climate scientists but rather members of a political movement that claims popularism (even though it is owned by the financial elite) known as the Republican Party. He was referring to the Teabaggers. I think if you asked the average Teabagger, “Is your opinion on global warming as valid as some MIT professor of climate studies?” the Teabagger would say “Yes it is, dammit!” and if you asked why you would hear a populist strum and draw of one kind or another. But the Teabagger would be wrong.

The ways in which this is embodied among denialists varies. The “Mommy Instinct” empowers individual women, if they are mommies, to know as much as the AMA about what is medically good for their child. Home schoolers know that they understand both the contents and the pedagogy of all of the subjects taught in school better than anyone else. “Fooled me once, fooled me twice” references to Malthusian arm waving on this very blog appeal to a personal sense of having been put upon as a reason why one might be correct about the complexities of climate modeling. And so on.”

There is some truth here, although I think Laden’s case for “denialism” isn’t very well laid out, but ultimately, this is the problem of democracy – the vote of idiots counts as much as yours. More importantly, the idiots (whoever they are conceived as and recalling that everyone is an idiot on some subject in someone’s eyes) will go on thinking that what they know is as good as what you know, even when you “know” it isn’t. There are certainly plenty of times, when as in the case of Laden’s “Guy A and B” there is a clear line between who should make a decision. There are more instances, however, when the lines are much blurrier.

Often, as Laden points out, the people are not right. This is the sucky end of democracy. But is it not possible to see, alongside denialism, which undoubtably exists, also wise and careful local governance which exceeds the care possible at the collective and national level, and expertise about the local? That is, climate skeptics do indeed demand that we take their opinions just as seriously as we take the opinions of climatologists, and that is wrong. On the other hand, for decades, conservationists have been standing against mainstream land management policies, that until recently were almost always backed up by university studies and scientific research that said, “yes, we can tolerate a little bit of arsenic, and no, we don’t need to worry about that because it is bad for bidness…”

The conservationists of the last century were generally denialists, in that the preponderance of the scientific evidence and authority was weighed against them. The organic farmers were and are denialists, in that they claim in the face of a large body of research that claims that some pesticides are just fine even in babies’ bodies and that you can’t grow food that way, that they do matter and you can. The organic foods Moms are denialists – they say it matters what you put in my kids’ body, even though the research isn’t totally clear. The thing is, there are denialists in the right as well as the wrong – and the denialist impulse can be a good and useful one. Think, for example, about the women who resisted pressure to use hormones after menopause, simply because they seemed “unnatural” despite the considerable weight of authority brought upon them, the threats of bone loss… – we can all think of some good examples. The reasoning that underlies certain denialist impulses can be and is used to good purpose as well – and we simply can’t claim that it is only bad when we don’t like the outcome.

Localism may make denialism easier in some ways – it almost certainly does – but that’s a double edged sword, like most swords. Moreover, I’m not sure I would frame the conflict as Laden does – he speaks of this as a conflict between highly educated experts and un-educated “denialists” who want their opinions to be taken just as seriously as people with better information. But what if we frame the question as a conflict between two experts – one an expert on a larger subject, requiring deep study, and the other an expert on a much smaller, more localized subject. Thus, the homeschooling mother doesn’t claim to be an expert on pedagogy – but she is an expert on her kid, and how she learns. Thus, the mother who stands against AMA nutritional recommendations and chooses a different diet for her child claims to be an expert, not in nutrition, but in how her child responds to the food they give him. Thus, the local man who never finished high school claims not to be an expert on what will work as a national agricultural policy, but his 40 years of farming tells him what will grow in his community.

There are some advantages to this viewpoint. First of all, you start from the presumption that people aren’t idiots. I realize this isn’t as much fun as assuming everyone who isn’t like you is a moron, but other people like it better, and listen better. This does not require that you grant credibility to creationism, however – it is an acknowledgement that people may have legitimate expertise on subject subjects from a narrow and local perspective – but because there is no “local” version of evolution, that doesn’t in any sense grant it credibility.

Second, the advantage of accepting the possibility that “denialism” may sometimes be a different kind of expertise about the local is that you can sometimes avoid the problems that authorities sometimes generate. For example, I’m not anti-vaccine, but it is important to remember that “denialists” who felt that hormones were unnatural and risky and shouldn’t be routinely taken by menopausal women used pretty much the same reasoning people use for choosing not to vaccinate – and they were right, in opposition to enormous pressure by doctors. Sometimes the denialists provide a necessary corrective – thus attacking them on that ground is probably a mistake.

This is a pain in the ass, of course, because it takes time. And sometimes that time is wasted on stupidities – this is probably unavoidable – but sometimes it isn’t. It is easier to not go through the reasoning point by point, to not sit down and defend the idea that parents should do X or Y. But easier isn’t always better.

There are times in which expertise about one’s home or child or soil or community or culture *should* take precedence over the expertise of an expert on the general principles of building or pediatric medicine or agriculture or social policy. There are times when they absolutely should not. Laden seems to believe that it is possible to frame this issue as a question of localization, and draw clear lines about when this should be true and when not, and how to integrate national and local – but I’m not sure that’s right. Both come with a high price – and it is not useful to lay out the price of one without clearly understanding the price of the other.

When it comes to creationism, as Laden correctly points out, you don’t have to take the local opinion all that seriously. Even if they know how science is understood locally, we all know that the laws of science are not local, and they don’t vary. While someone who lives locally may have wise and useful suggestions as to how to present material on evolution to respond to existing knowledge/prejudice, there is no local way to teach science. More importantly, there is a clear good in a scientifically literate society. But if not localizing is (at present, anyway) the way to get a more scientifically literate one, it is possible that localizing might be the way to get a more historically literate one.

If Laden is over 30 and grew up in the United States, he, like me, almost certainly grew up with history textbooks that had to pass the “Texas Test” – since they are published and distributed nationally, almost every textbook released in the US had to be acceptable to the American South and to Texan reviewers. Because of this, historical textbooks had well-documented errors, problems of emphasis and outright lies in them, because publishers couldn’t risk offending people in Texas and the South by publishing a version of the story of the Civil War that annoyed people who still refer to it as “the war of northern agression.”

This was not a result of localization, but one of national standards, of precisely the controls that Laden wants to see enacted in science. The creation of a “lowest common denominator” American history textbook meant that children whose great-great grandparents had marched off to war over slavery were told that the civil war wasn’t mostly about slavery. They were told that it was about “state’s rights” – which is true as long as you mostly recognize that it was about, to the extent that you can choose any dominant conflict, state’s rights… to hold slaves and about which western states would become slave states. They were given a radically softened view of slavery in the US, in which masters and mistresses loved and cared for their slaves, and a view of reconstruction in which African-Americans were helpless and ignorant and unable to participate in civil society, a burden on white southerners already victimized by northern policies.

Laden is right that most opposition to teaching evolution has happened on the local level, and because something is local does not make it better – but our own history suggests that national standards aren’t a cure-all. It is disturbingly possible to imagine a course of American history in which the species of American conservative protestantism that focuses on creationism enters the mainstream sufficiently to enact an equivalent Texas Test for creationism – at which point those of us who oppose the teaching of creationism would be begging to relocalize, and at least spare states without a preponderence of conservative protestants this nonsense. In anything but rule by the best and brightest (which realistically does not happen and should not), we are subject to risk of stupid outcome. The advantage of national standards is that they prevent the worst excesses. The disadvantage is that generally, they result in a flattening and dumbening of the overall analysis, and a homogenization that can cause equally bad results. Again, I don’t claim that Laden doesn’t recognize this, but he seems to think that there is a greater danger of bad results in localized situations. And for evolution that may be true. I’m not sure it is in general.

I’m not convinced that this is an argument that can be accurately or fully addressed by dealing with the question of localization or with denialism. And I am not clear whether the net good of policy changes by localizing communities would be greater or lesser than not relocalizing them – I suspect this is one of those things that you can’t know until you try – and maybe not even then, since the comparisons involved are not even. For example, how do you weight a child in Alabama taught creationism as science against a child in Vermont growing up with legal protections for her lesbian Moms?

I advocate for localization on wholly different grounds – because of the energy policy and environmental implications. In doing so, I have to admit that local democracy isn’t always a good thing by my lights – the problem with every idiot getting a vote is that every idiot gets a vote – and everyone is an idiot in some people’s eyes. I am for local democracy in general, because I think that there is something to be said for allowing people who are truly expert in local conditions to have a say, and for avoiding the flattening effect of national standards. That means greater extremes in the whole – extremes of good things, and also bad ones.

And it also means that we do have to know when to wield the federal government as a tool – but also recognize that just as local government is not an unadulterated good, so will federal intervention be. I’m for the Clean Air Act and against NAIS. I’m for Brown v. Board of Education and against Bush v. Gore – and yet both of these are enacted on roughly the same principles – that federal controls are needed to limit local variation. I don’t think that either federal control or local control will always be good, or obviate the need for constant intervention and vigilance, for communities far away pointing out how appalling the policy over there is, and for voters of conscience saying “no, this time we should/should not intervene” – that is, I’m not sure you can address this through the framing lens of localism.

What real relocalization will do is not make us smarter, or better, or less inclined towards progress or regress in social policy or education – it will reduce our use of resources. That’s all – it won’t cure us of all our ills, or bring about utopia or make us better people. It might make us have to face up to the people we are hurting when we do harm. It might make us more able to address some wrongs. But it won’t protect us from the tyranny of the majority, when the majority includes an ample number of fools. As Laden points out, empowering the individual doesn’t mean ensmartening them. Fortunately, political power doesn’t actually make you any dumber either.