By Robert A. Vella
There is a quiet movement afoot in America and perhaps other western countries which no democratic society could withstand should it propagate much further. It might even pose a more problematic existential threat to modern civilization than the current ones we face – rising populist angst, anthropogenic climate change, and war. This movement is rooted deep within our human psyche. It feeds off our dissatisfaction and distrust of authority. It is fertilized by our fragile and insatiable egos. It is often cultivated by disingenuous interests. It is our growing predilection for anti-intellectualism; and, more specifically, our increasing antipathy and animosity towards science.
One might assume I am referring to political conservatism, religious orthodoxy, and other doctrinaire ideologies which assert their own precepts as paramount. One might also assume I’m referring to pragmatic reactionary movements typified by the technophobic attitudes of Neo-Luddism. But, those assumptions would be wrong. I am referring to anti-science sentiments that appear to be proliferating philosophically among more liberal and secular groups – particularly among atheist, existentialist, naturalist, spiritualist, libertarian, anarchist, and other so-called “free thinking” mindsets.
Despite the great diversity and dissimilarity of these groups, which contrasts sharply with the uniformity and conformity of conservatism and religion, they all share the common traits of extreme individuality and a resentment of authority. When combined with other factors, such as a poor education or egocentrism, then all objective frames of reference tend to be arbitrarily rejected including the most successful one we’ve ever developed – science.
Undoubtedly, the impetus behind this movement can be significantly attributed to the general erosion of public trust in our social institutions since the turn of the millennium. Science and technology, being primarily employed by big government and large corporations, has been assigned guilt by association. However, there are other reasons as well.
From Antiscience Beliefs Jeopardize U.S. Democracy – The United States faced down authoritarian governments on the left and right. Now it may be facing an even greater challenge from within. By Shawn Lawrence Otto on November 1, 2012:
If both Democrats and Republicans have worn the antiscience mantle, why not just wait until the pendulum swings again and denialism loses its political potency? The case for action rests on the realization that for the first time since the beginning of the Enlightenment era in the mid-17th century, the very idea of science as a way to establish a common book of knowledge about the world is being broadly called into question by heavily financed public relations campaigns.
Ironically, the intellectual tools currently being used by the political right to such harmful effect originated on the academic left. In the 1960s and 1970s a philosophical movement called postmodernism developed among humanities professors displeased at being deposed by science, which they regarded as right-leaning. Postmodernism adopted ideas from cultural anthropology and relativity theory to argue that truth is relative and subject to the assumptions and prejudices of the observer. Science is just one of many ways of knowing, they argued, neither more nor less valid than others, like those of Aborigines, Native Americans or women. Furthermore, they defined science as the way of knowing among Western white men and a tool of cultural oppression. This argument resonated with many feminists and civil-rights activists and became widely adopted, leading to the “political correctness” justifiably hated by Rush Limbaugh and the “mental masturbation” lampooned by Woody Allen.
Acceptance of this relativistic worldview undermines democracy and leads not to tolerance but to authoritarianism. John Locke, one of Jefferson’s “trinity of three greatest men,” showed why almost three centuries ago. Locke watched the arguing factions of Protestantism, each claiming to be the one true religion, and asked: How do we know something to be true? What is the basis of knowledge? In 1689 he defined what knowledge is and how it is grounded in observations of the physical world in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Any claim that fails this test is “but faith, or opinion, but not knowledge.” It was this idea—that the world is knowable and that objective, empirical knowledge is the most equitable basis for public policy—that stood as Jefferson’s foundational argument for democracy.
By falsely equating knowledge with opinion, postmodernists and antiscience conservatives alike collapse our thinking back to a pre-Enlightenment era, leaving no common basis for public policy. Public discourse is reduced to endless warring opinions, none seen as more valid than another. Policy is determined by the loudest voices, reducing us to a world in which might makes right—the classic definition of authoritarianism.
Postmodernism infiltrated a generation of American education programs, as Allan Bloom first pointed out in The Closing of the American Mind. It also infected journalism, where the phrase “there is no such thing as objectivity” is often repeated like a mantra.
From America dumbs down – The U.S. is being overrun by a wave of anti-science, anti-intellectual thinking. Has the most powerful nation on Earth lost its mind? By Jonathon Gatehouse on May 15, 2014:
If the rise in uninformed opinion was limited to impenetrable subjects that would be one thing, but the scourge seems to be spreading. Everywhere you look these days, America is in a rush to embrace the stupid. Hell-bent on a path that’s not just irrational, but often self-destructive. Common-sense solutions to pressing problems are eschewed in favour of bumper-sticker simplicities and blind faith.
If ignorance is contagious, it’s high time to put the United States in quarantine.
Americans have long worried that their education system is leaving their children behind. With good reason: national exams consistently reveal how little the kids actually know. In the last set, administered in 2010 (more are scheduled for this spring), most fourth graders were unable to explain why Abraham Lincoln was an important figure, and only half were able to order North America, the U.S., California and Los Angeles by size. Results in civics were similarly dismal. While math and reading scores have improved over the years, economics remains the “best” subject, with 42 per cent of high school seniors deemed “proficient.”
They don’t appear to be getting much smarter as they age. A 2013 survey of 166,000 adults across 20 countries that tested math, reading and technological problem-solving found Americans to be below the international average in every category. (Japan, Finland, Canada, South Korea and Slovakia were among the 11 nations that scored significantly higher.)
The trends are not encouraging. In 1978, 42 per cent of Americans reported that they had read 11 or more books in the past year. In 2014, just 28 per cent can say the same, while 23 per cent proudly admit to not having read even one, up from eight per cent in 1978. Newspaper and magazine circulation continues to decline sharply, as does viewership for cable news. The three big network supper-hour shows drew a combined average audience of 22.6 million in 2013, down from 52 million in 1980. While 82 per cent of Americans now say they seek out news digitally, the quality of the information they’re getting is suspect. Among current affairs websites, Buzzfeed logs almost as many monthly hits as the Washington Post.
From The growing anti-science movement is making people in Silicon Valley nervous. By Matt Rosoff on March 1, 2015:
So why do so many people doubt science?
One reason, according to the article, is that science is taught poorly. We learn it as a set of inarguable facts. The Earth revolves around the sun. Gravity made the apple fall from the tree and hit Newton on the head.
But in fact, science is messy. It starts with a hypothesis, a theory about the way something works. One scientist finds evidence that seems to prove or disprove that idea. Others pile on, testing it, modifying it, and sometimes disproving it.
People see news of these debates and think, “Aha, those scientists don’t really know what they’re talking about.” So they feel free to choose whichever scientific facts they want to believe in and cluster into social groups based on those beliefs.
When people say they do not vaccinate their kids or do not believe in global climate change, they are not declaring that they don’t believe in science. They are declaring their membership in a particular social group of like-minded people. Those bonds within social groups reinforce themselves and are hard to break.
But this shows an incomplete understanding of how science works. Yes, there is always debate. But at some point, scientific theories become widely enough accepted that other scientists consider the problem resolved, and they begin to look for more interesting problems to solve. This is how scientific progress happens.
In other words, some scientific facts really are facts. That messy scientific method — the process of testing ideas by collecting evidence — is how we determine them to be facts.
Still, there is something even more primal and disturbing about this anti-science movement which involves our complicated human nature. When extreme individuality reaches the point of egocentrism, then the subjective self is elevated to preeminence. To such individuals, nothing is as real or important as one’s own thoughts and opinions. At such deified heights, nothing else matters. This mindset can become so overpowering it can lead to mental disorders; and, if empowered in some way, it can result in the tortuous megalomania of a prominent figure like Donald Trump.
In conclusion, I want to convey a practical and rather frightening consequence of anti-science sentiments. Unlike the political right in America which is much more ideologically unified than the political left, this growing wave poised against reason, rationality, and empirical science is now fracturing the only political power aligned against right-wing extremism. Totalitarianism will be the inevitable result.