Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Friday, May 14, 2010

A persecuted minority?

These are tough times, it seems, to be a scientist. One of the two major political parties in the United States requires its candidates to publicly proclaim that the theory of evolution is false, that "this world and everything in it is a masterpiece created by the hands of God," and that "every single word" of the Bible is true." The Attorney General of Virginia is suing a former professor at the state university for fraud because he believes that humans are causing global climate change. The Republicans also claim we can achieve energy independence and reduce the price of fuel by offshore drilling. Er, no we can't.

Sadly, while conservatives in general are particularly hostile to reason, they aren't the only ones. Robert Kennedy Jr., who pretends to be a liberal and was actually seriously considered by Barack Obama to be administrator of the EPA, is a crank who believes that all the world's physicians, biomedical researchers and public health authorities are part of a massive conspiracy to poison children. The whole "vaccines are a conspiracy by greedy scientists" thing is not particularly a hallucination of left or right, but it's mostly touted by celebrities with a liberal sheen.

I could go on and on but you know all this. Charlie Pierce has put it very well:

The rise of Idiot America is essentially a war on expertise. It's not so much antimodernism or the distrust of intellectual elites that Richard Hofstadter deftly teased out of the national DNA forty years ago. Both of those things are part of it. However, the rise of Idiot America today represents—for profit mainly, but also, and more cynically, for political advantage and in the pursuit of power—the breakdown of a consensus that the pursuit of knowledge is a good. It also represents the ascendancy of the notion that the people whom we should trust the least are the people who best know what they're talking about.

It seems impossible to crack the granite walls of smug, self-regarding ignorance with facts and reason. To my mind, the basic problem is what Robert T. Carroll calls communal reinforcement. For most people, belief is not a matter of evidence and logic; it's a matter of tribal loyalty. If you try to reason with them, and show them why their beliefs are mistaken, it's taken as an assault and an insult to their friends and their virtue.

Like many people on the side of reason these days I'm starting to wonder why I bother. Truth is all I've got. If that's worthless, I'm helpless. Oh well, gotta keep on doing it.

Update: BTW, I probably should have mentioned that one reason I got all het up to write this post was this. Do check it out.

Oh yeah, it turns out Orac is having some of the same angst today.


kathy a. said...

great link in your update!

a virginia friend passed along another link you might like, concerning the AG of her state:

Cervantes said...

Mad the AG may be, but he is right in the mainstream of the Republican party.

Anonymous said...

The point you make about ‘benevolent paternalism’ in the post about Dr-patn relations (written for an enyclopedia) is relevant here.

Scientists know best! Everybody loves science when it produces new tech gizmos or strange new facts about outer space (or other) that are ‘weird’ or intellectually stimulating. And while ‘ordinary’ people don’t turn directly to Science often, (note 1) because it is served to them cooked, all done (antibiotics, bridges, broadband..) professionals in various fields do so all the time, and they usually trust the information they get. So, scientists and ‘experts’ generally have a lot of cred. More than cred, clout. Back to your point: Just as the patient as become willy-nilly a ‘participant’ in his own health care, so has Joe public become an actor in what one might call ‘general science that affects the lives of ppl’ - such as vaccines, climate science, etc. (I slot evolution / religion in another category.) Simultaneously, he becomes vulnerable to propaganda, special interests, crazes, fads, majority opinion in his milieu (the tribal creature you mentioned.) Of course citizen participation has always been an aim of ‘democracies’ but I fear the process has been much perverted in favor of the PTB (undefined here.)

sidebar: Scientists themselves, hyper knowledgeable and expert in their own fields, are just as subject to irrational beliefs as everyone else. Also, as they are most often amongst the elite (or serving it directly) they do accept piles of narratives, opinions, facts, principles, for which they have absolutely no evidence at all. So a little humility might be welcome...

1. In the past year, I looked up and used some very simple stuff about ice. had a quarrel about a varnish, tried to get my head around that, and did an experiment with 2 varnishes (served cooked.) the other direct encounter I had with ‘science’ was...of the Doctor’s. For many, the only time they see, confront or have to deal with Science is in the medical field when they are ‘sick’.