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The War on Science, Anti-Intellectualism, and ‘Alternative Ways of Knowing’ in 21st-Century America

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H. Sidky

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 42.2, March / April 2018

At the start of the twenty-first century, over 40 percent of Americans did not know that the Earth orbits the sun in a year-long cycle (Otto 2016, 224). Another 52 percent did not know that dinosaurs died before the appearance of humans, and 45 percent were unaware that the world is older than 10,000 years. It is unnecessary to mention the equally alarming numbers of people who believe in ghosts, space aliens, paranormal monsters, devil possession, angels, demons, miracles, and so forth (Smith 2010, 22–23).

This mostly scientifically illiterate public seems to lack the necessary skills to distinguish between contending claims to knowledge or differentiate between fact and opinion. We now live in a scary and confusing “post-truth” era of disinformation, “fake news,” “counterknowledge,” “weaponized lies,” conspiracy theories, magical thinking, and irrationalism (see Andersen 2017; Levitin 2016).

Bogus and irrational ideas (beliefs that have been falsified or are unfalsifiable) are thriving and seem to be widely received and accepted. However, tolerating irrationalism and scientific illiteracy poses many dangers. It is dangerous to individual well-being. Numerous people have died because of their trust in sham alternative medical cures, and many others have lost their life savings by believing in psychics and miracle workers (see Bridgstock 2009, 1–3; Coyne 2015, 229–239; Gilovich 1993, 5–6; Hines 2003, 38–41; Schick and Vaughn 2014, 12–13). More than that, acquiescence to irrationalism threatens the well-being of our society (see Mooney and Kirshenbaum 2009; Sharlet 2010). As philosophers Theodor Schick and Lewis Vaughn (2014, 13) have put it:

A democratic society depends on the ability of its members to make rational choices. But rational choices must be based on rational beliefs. If we can’t tell the difference between reasonable and unreasonable claims, we become susceptible to the claims of charlatans, scoundrels, and mountebanks.

Purveyors of supernaturalism, anti-intellectual dogmas, medieval credulities, and “alternative forms of knowledge” that are daily an affront to our intelligence and sensibilities are swarming with bluster and hubris that science is now defunct and offer their own “truths” and “ways of knowing” as better substitutes. However, before we submit to the assertions of religious ideologues, miracle workers, and quacks and make their “truths” the basis of our worldview, we need to ask the following question: Are the assertions that science is defunct based on compelling evidence? To answer this question, let’s look at the circumstances that brought us here.

Explanations for the rise of anti-intellectualism and antiscience perspectives in this country would no doubt include many complex interconnected factors, such as globalization, demographic shifts, changes in the socioeconomic infrastructure, disparities in wealth and power, the disenchantment of the world by science and technology, and so forth. However, as the science writer Shawn Otto discusses in his recent book The War on Science: Who Is Waging It, Why It Matters, What We Can Do About It (2016), the decades-long systematic academic assault on science and rationalism stands above many other factors. Paul Gross and Norman Levitt’s Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science (1994) also provides an insightful account of the academic war on science. More specifically, philosopher and historian of science Noretta Koertge (1998) explores the direct influence this assault on science has had on scientific literacy in various fields of study in the United States. Embarrassingly, cultural anthropology, the discipline to which I belong, was instrumental in this untoward enterprise (see Otto 2016, 175–176).

From the late 1960s cultural anthropologists—in concert with their counterparts in departments of English, education, journalism, political science, cultural studies, science studies, and humanities—collectively engaged in a seemingly well-intentioned intellectual enterprise to “speak truth to power.” Their objective was to promote epistemological egalitarianism open to diverse viewpoints and create a more tolerant, multicultural society free of all the evils of modernity. They argued that modernity’s hegemonic power and authoritarianism had to be exposed, and these savants claimed to possess the intellectual tools to accomplish this task. In their discourse, science and scientific truths (deceptively misconstrued as “absolute truths”) were cast as the embodiment of that hegemonic power and its evils, such as racism, sexism, imperialism, colonialism, militarism, oppression, slavery, white supremacy, the atomic bomb, and the destruction of the biosphere.

This intellectual movement was known variously as social constructivism, deconstructionism, post-structuralism, and postmodernism. Here I shall use the label postmodernism (Sokal 2008, 269).The paragons of this movement consisted of a handful of French philosophers, including Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard, and Bruno Latour (see Sidky 2004, 394–412). Although their works differed in various respects, they shared general features, such as a disdain for the rationalist tradition of the Enlightenment, a disregard for empirical data and logic, the idea of “the cultural construction of knowledge,” and subjective and intuitive approaches to knowledge. Moreover, although pontificating about science became their forte, none of these scholars were trained as professional scientists.

Irrationalist philosophers in the United States, such as Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend, also contributed to the postmodern antiscience program. In his highly acclaimed book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1970), Kuhn asserted that scientific truths depend upon agreement among scientists operating under a guiding intellectual umbrella, or paradigm, built around a core of ideas based on irrational cultural and sociopolitical factors. A paradigm persists for a while until mounting anomalies it cannot address result in a “scientific revolution” and the establishment of a new paradigm built upon new conventions linked to a different set of sociopolitical factors. According to Kuhn, the solution to questions are relative to a paradigm rather than empirical evidence. For this reason, paradigms are incommensurable, and there is no real growth of scientific knowledge. If true, this would mean that our knowledge of the world and universe today has not increased beyond the state of knowledge four hundred years ago, a view that verges on the ludicrous and is a misrepresentation of the history of science. Solutions under previous paradigms do not become “un-solutions” after paradigm shifts (Kuznar 2008, 57; Stove 2001). Hence scientists still use Newton’s law of gravity to calculate the orbits of spacecraft (Stenger 2008, 114–115). As the philosopher David Stove (2001, 21–50) points out in his devastating critique, Kuhn’s irrationalist view of science appears plausible because he relies on evocation, ambiguity, false equivalencies, and clever inconsistencies. There are only a few instances of Kuhnian type revolutions in the history of science. For this reason, the Nobel laureate physicist Steven Weinberg (1998) refers to Kuhn’s ideas as “the revolution that didn’t happen.”

Paul Feyerabend, the author of Against Method (1975), similarly advocated the idea of the cultural construction of knowledge, asserting that scientific research protocols and methodology are merely ornamentations that legitimize truths established through irrational means subject to sociopolitical and historical factors. Starting from a reasonable observation that “all methodologies have limitations,” Feyerabend (1975, 296) reached the erroneous conclusion, and a true non sequitur, that in the pursuit of knowledge “anything goes” both in the context of discovery and in the context of justification (Sokal 2008, 199). Therefore, there are no epistemological distinctions between science and religion or mythology. This is a gross misrepresentation of the scientific enterprise (Gross and Levitt 1994, 47).

Despite such epistemological problems, postmodernists were able to launch an all-encompassing disinformation campaign to delegitimize science and rationality. The distressing effects of this campaign were painfully brought to light for many after the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The assault on science centered on the idea of epistemological relativism. This entails the premise that conditions of knowledge are such that the truth and falsity of assertions are context-dependent, situated, and always relative to cultural and social backgrounds, political position, class, gender, ethnicity, race, and religion. Thus, the idea that scientific knowledge depends upon objective empirical evidence is false. Excluding the empirical dimension of the scientific enterprise, these writers misrepresented science as merely a “story” or narrative like any other that relies on rhetorical ornamentation and language games to persuade people of its legitimacy and authority. Epistemological relativism dictates that no representations of reality or story can be privileged because there are multiple and equally valid realities and truths. Moreover, because all truths are relative, postmodernists asserted, whose truth prevails is a coefficient of power and coercion (Foucault 1984, 75). The West is dominant and hegemonic, and hence its “truths” (i.e., science) are privileged.

To expose the exact nature of power relations, postmodern thinkers believed, one had to look at the linguistic context of truth claims because nothing exists apart from the discourse that constitutes them. In other words, apprehension of a reality outside the linguistic webs that entangle us is not possible, which is an assertion that goes against anthropological evidence, science, common sense, and everyday epistemology. We survive and act successfully in the world during our day-to-day interactions by assuming that reality “out there” exists (Abel 1976, 33). Despite many factors that bias our perceptions in various ways, our senses do not systematically deceive us all the time. That is why we do not intentionally bump into walls, walk off cliffs, or step into traffic. Hence, we are not hopeless prisoners of language. We navigate the world using the same principles encapsulated in the scientific method by continuously making decisions about our perceptions according to the rules of inductive/deductive hypothesis testing and refutation (Fox 1997, 341). Science does this more systematically and with greater rigor. As the philosopher Karl Popper (1972) put it, science is enlightened common sense. Science is a human enterprise that generates approximate understandings in human terms of “something” (call it “reality,” the empirical world, or whatever) that seems to exist apart from our perceptual and cognitive apparatus rather than being generated by it (see Lett 1986; 1997). Postmodernists left that “something” out of their epistemological equation. For them, everything was about language and linguistic webs that form perceptual prisons from which there is no escape. However, these writers believed that they possessed the skills to reveal the occult codes of power by looking at seemingly inconsequential aspects of language, such as “tropes,” rhetorical strategies, and figurative devices that are invisible to conventional analysts and even the authors of those texts.

Ironically, given that this enterprise was about epistemological egalitarianism and human dignity, those who did not accept postmodern premises were labeled racists, sexists, right-wing oppressors, colonialists, and the instruments of a defunct materialist worldview (the terms of opprobrium were endless). In the halls of American academia, postmodernism acquired a frightening authoritarianism similar to religion, complete with self-styled messiahs, infatuated acolytes, sacred texts, secret mantras, taboo words, and moral injunctions.

The postmodern antiscience perspective had several inherent flaws that both ensured its ultimate failure and sadly rendered its proponents entirely irrelevant as a political force today. First, it confused the authority of science with that of the person conveying scientific knowledge. In science, the ultimate arbiter is the evidence; it is gravity—not the scientist asserting that an apple will plummet to the ground—that is the defining condition of knowledge in the end. Sadly, relativist antiscience writers remain befuddled about this issue (e.g., Herzfeld 2017). It is an epistemological blunder to confuse the assertions of facts (e.g., the words used to describe gravity) with the facts themselves (that apples fall from trees) as aspects of the external world that exist irrespective of how we know or which words we use to write about them. By taking this stance, postmodernists transformed the reasonable position that “facts do not speak for themselves” into the absurd conclusion that “there are no facts,” and that no knowledge of the empirical world is possible, which is a gross non sequitur (Spaulding 1988, 264).

Second, the postmodern perspective was self-contradictory because it claimed that all truths were relative to class, gender, ethnicity, and cultural background but excluded itself from the constraints of culture, history, and context (Sidky 2004, 399). As Schick and Vaughn (2014, 311–312) have put it:

To say that everything is relative is to say that no unrestricted universal generalizations are true (an unrestricted universal generalization is a statement to the effect that something holds for all individuals, societies, or conceptual schemes). But the statement that “No unrestricted universal generalizations are true” is itself an unrestricted universal generalization. So if relativism in any of its forms is true, it’s false.

Third, there were no specified rules for extracting the codes of power and encrypted significations from texts. Careful reading does not accomplish this task. So how does one proceed? Remarkably, the answer was through subjective means, using the postmodern scholars’ personal and often oversimplified moral categories of exploitation versus resistance, with truth conflated with “good” provided by and suited to the analyst’s moralistic sensibilities (Sahlins 1999). This enterprise was not about the discovery of new knowledge because the analyst herself or himself provided the “truth” (Salzman 2001, 136). These writers professed a self-righteous desire to “speak truth to evil” (Scheper-Hughes 1995), but it was their own “truth” arrived at using extraordinary capacities and hermeneutic ingenuities with which they credited themselves and denied everyone else (Sidky 2007, 68). However, their colossal blunder was to assume that the political and moral values they were promoting would be embraced by others in society at large along with their antiscience message.

Fourth, the postmodern discourse was characterized by strategic ambiguity. It was full of obscure literary
allusions, baroque rhetorical forms, and contrived scientific-sounding jargon, such as “non-Euclidian space,” “chaos theory” “reversal of cause and effect,” and “endorphin of culture” that sounded erudite but made for incomprehensible texts. Somehow being abstruse was equated with being profound (Carneiro 1995, 14). However, most of their brilliant insights about knowledge and science were pure nonsense. It turned out that even the leading icons of the movement did not understand much of what was said. The New York University physicist Alan Sokal brought this to light by submitting a parody article full of absurdities and blatant non sequiturs to Social Text, one of the prestigious postmodern journals. The paper, with the lovely title “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” was accepted and published in a special issue, called “Science Wars,” devoted to refuting the critics of postmodernism. When Sokal revealed the hoax, the embarrassed postmodern savants reacted with indignation, hostility, and the only weapons they had: special pleading, specious rationalizations, and ad hominin attacks (e.g., Robbins and Ross 2000). The hoax revealed the true obscurantist and nonsensical nature of postmodern discourse. In their book Fashionable Nonsense, Sokal and Bricmont (1998, 207) made the following observation concerning the effects of postmodernism: “The deliberately obscure discourses of postmodernism, and the intellectual dishonesty they engender, poison a part of intellectual life and strengthen the facile anti-intellectualism that is already too widespread in the general public.”

For forty years, the postmodern savants in universities across the country indoctrinated students with their antiscience message (Otto 2016, 198). The substitute they offered was epistemological relativism as the avenue to establish a genuinely just and tolerant society open to diverse viewpoints. At the time, few of these scholars considered the actual implications of their effort to disqualify objective empirical evidence as the basis for evaluating claims to knowledge and public policy. Science-minded scholars, however, were not so oblivious. As Sokal and Bricmont (1998, 209) pointed out: “If all discourses are merely ‘stories’ or ‘narrations,’ and none is more objective or truthful than another, then one must concede that the worst sexist or racist prejudices and the most reactionary socio-economic theories are ‘equally valid.’”

Many of those indoctrinated in postmodern antiscience went on to become conservative political and religious leaders, policymakers, journalists, journal editors, judges, lawyers, and members of city councils and school boards. Sadly, they forgot the lofty ideals of their teachers, except that science is bogus (Otto 2016, 199). Thus, vast cadres of people with little interest in the message of multiculturalism and epistemological egalitarianism coopted the central lesson of postmodernism that truth is what one wants it to be to assert the legitimacy of their authoritarian dogmas, irrationalism, and bunkum. Even some hardcore antiscience philosophers now acknowledge the unpleasant consequences of their imprudent intellectual enterprise. As the noted postmodern “sociologist of science” Bruno Latour (2004, 227) has put it:

... entire Ph.D. programs are still running to make sure that good American kids are learning ... that facts are made up, that there is no such thing as natural, unmediated, unbiased access to truth, that we are always prisoners of language, that we always speak from a particular standpoint, and so on, while dangerous extremists are using the very same argument of social construction to destroy hard-won evidence that could save our lives.

Latour, to his credit, now goes even further in acknowledging the damage the science critique has caused. As noted in the March/April 2018 Skeptical Inquirer, Latour, in a recent interview for Science (de Vrieze 2017), said the science criticisms created the basis for antiscientific thinking and he now wants to help rebuild trust in science.

The effects of all this on today’s media and politics are startling. Gonzo journalism has become widespread, and few in the profession consider speaking truth to power or even objectivity in reporting as part of their responsibilities (Otto 2016, 23, 129, 200). In this intellectual climate, pretentious and utterly unqualified politicians are flagrantly flaunting opinions on issues ranging from vaccines, human reproduction, stem cell research, the origins of the Earth, and human evolution, to the state of the biosphere, that are contrary to overwhelming historical and scientific evidence. In these cultural circumstances, institutions of higher learning have become beleaguered citadels in a vast ocean of irrationality expressed with bravado and pride, a blowback effect partly the creation of postmodern academics themselves. Emboldened xenophobia, scapegoating of ethnic minorities for social ills, and outright racism and bigotry have replaced political correctness, civility, and cultural sensitivity. In the same context, the nonacademic counterparts of postmodernism—pseudoscience, fortunetelling, astrology, and paranormal religions—are flourishing (see Sokal 2008, 263–370).

There are also the climate change deniers, oxymoronic scientific creationists, intelligent design exponents, and hordes of emboldened and intolerant religious fundamentalists. These ideologues along with their white supremacist allies bent on making America white again have taken over the political arena with a vengeance and are seeking to establish the theocracy of Jesus (see Blaker 2003; Hedges 2006; Sharlet 2010; Stenger 2003, 10). Taking advantage of these circumstances, profit-hungry energy extraction and agrochemical industries, seeking to dodge environmental and safety regulations and undermine policymaking based on scientific evidence, have formed an “unholy alliance” with fundamentalist churches presenting a unified front against science and rationality (Sokal 2008, xv).

Thus, during the second decade of the twenty-first century, it is not the Enlightenment view based on rationality and science but supernaturalism, anti-intellectualism, and obscurantism that compose the most potent forces in the private and national life of the United States. These developments are astonishing in a country historically known for secularism, the separation of church and state, science-driven technological innovations, and the exulted ideal that public policy must look to scientific evidence instead of appealing to emotion, religious dogma, or authority. The latter was the view cherished and espoused by this nation’s founding figures such as Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin.

The postmodern assault on science and its relativism has left us vulnerable to the absurdities of the defenders of supernaturalism, the deception of quacks, and the fanaticism of religious fascists and would-be dictators. History teaches that whenever and wherever irrationalism and relativism have acquired political force, human suffering, violence, oppression, and loss of life have inevitably followed. The example of Nazi Germany will suffice here. Welcome to the postmodern world(?).

Did the postmodern view of knowledge represent “the rearrangement of the very principles of intellectual perspective” (Herzfeld 2001, x, 2, 5, 9, 22), as one infatuated anthropologist put it? No. Was its case against science compelling and based on evidence? No. What the postmodern savants offered was disinformation and an intellectually dishonest enterprise that accomplished nothing aside from bewildering the American public about the role and function of science. Are we justified to abandon science in favor of the alternatives proposed by the purveyors of supernaturalism and other obscurantisms? No.

As Albert Einstein put it, science is one of the most precious things we have. It is valuable not because it guarantees absolute truths free of bias, error, and deception but because it is a unique self-correcting method for reducing bias, mistakes, and fraud to advance our understanding of the social and natural worlds and the universe. Science “is a language that all can use and share in and learn,” as anthropologist Robin Fox (1992, 49) noted, and “the wretched of the earth want science and the benefits of science. To deny them this is another kind of racism.” Among all the ways of knowing ever devised, only science strives to combat our confirmation biases by demanding that practitioners question their premises and to systematically expose their conclusions to the inspection of unsympathetic nonbelievers (Harris 1979, 27). The hallmark of science is the question “What is the evidence?” The hallmark of the alternative perspectives touted by our “home-grown ayatollahs” and obscurantist gurus is “I wish to believe” (Harris 1987, 14). Science remains our only path toward “thinking straight about the world,” which is something urgently needed at this critical historical juncture as irrationalism and fanaticism are “bubbling up around us” (Gilovich 1993, 6; Sagan 1996, 27).



Acknowledgments

I thank Dr. Lawrence Kuznar (Department of Anthropology, Indiana University–Purdue University, Fort Wayne, Indiana) and Dr. Raymond Scupin (Department of Anthropology and Sociology, Lindenwood University, St. Charles, Missouri) for reading this paper and for their many comments and suggestions. I alone assume responsibility for the views expressed in this essay.



References

H. Sidky

H. Sidky, PhD, is professor of anthropology and chief departmental advisor in the Department of Anthropology at Miami University (Ohio). He refers to himself as a scientific anthropologist. He is working on a book on the topic of this essay.