Anti-intellectualism

Perhaps I am becoming more sensitive to it, but I have noticed a significant uptick of anti-intellectual sentiment in the last several years. As I research more about the history of the cultural perception of science and academia at large, I think that my suspicions are vindicated. I’m certainly not alone, with calls for a New Enlightenment from numerous groups and individuals (myself included). Climate change denial, anti-vaccine, anti-medicine, anti-academia movements are frighteningly commonplace. One need only survey Facebook for the the most frequent posters in order to find someone who subscribes to most (if not all) of the cultish belief systems I have listed here.

My interest in this topic is primarily fear-motivated, and secondarily justice-motivated. I am afraid for myself and for the future of humanity if these movements continue to grow in influence and power, as I think a world that is governed by these emotionalistic, short-sighted ideas would quickly be sent careening towards catastrophe. I’ve written before about my concerns with the idea of scientism, primarily from the perspective of a leftist philosopher, but today I want to defend a lot of the ideas that scientism takes for granted.

Scientism, at least in its modern form, is primarily reactionary. I think this is indisputable, as a lot of the weight it now pulls is due to atheists, agnostics, and other religious skeptics’ (often justified) feelings of discrimination and reduction to second-class citizens. That’s one of the reasons that scientism frequently comes up with absurd, indefensible claims about reality and the limits (or limitlessness, as the case may be) of the scientific method. I find myself in an unfortunate middle ground that recognizes the faults in modern science, but I must struggle to not be lumped in with anti-intellectualism. Science is a method based in empiricism, and is both philosophically and practically defensible as the best solution to discovering the nature of the material universe. Science’s ultimate goal is to uncover truth, and it has an incomparably excellent record in doing so.

I refuse to rehash arguments against the anti-intellectual positions at which I have aimed, as I think the nature of those positions is largely emotional. At bottom, the people who believe these things will not be convinced by scientific or philosophical reasoning because they seem to not recognize such forms of truth-seeking as trustworthy. Some accuse academics of being dishonest or corrupt, while others accuse them of being elitist. These accusations are usually met with some anecdotal argument about a doctor they saw or heard about or a professor they had that was pompous. Granted, this is my own experience, and perhaps in referencing these anecdotal data I am making the same mistake. Given the data on my side and science’s track record, however, I think that I can be forgiven for dismissing anecdotal evidence with my own. More to the point, web searches for data proving some corruption in the sciences is universally met with papers by politically-linked institutions who themselves have been proven to be corrupt through the profit motive (Heartland, ALEC, etc.).

I’m more interested in why these anti-intellectual movements have gained so much traction, and I think I have an answer. Traditionally, science and capitalism have worked hand-in-hand to each other’s advantage – the scientist or engineer produced new technology, and the capitalist purchased that technology and built new things to sell for profit. However, science finds itself increasingly at odds with capitalism, particularly in the area of climate change. The old alliance crumbles, and capitalists funnel money into scientists and engineers who will doctor data for them to make even bigger profit. The logic of capitalism, though, is so ingrained in our minds that instead of accusing the capitalists of corrupting the truth, we accuse the scientists of corruption. We revert to stone-age ideas that God will save us from our own environmental errors, that alchemy is better than modern medicine, or that personal experience is more valuable than scientific data. Rather than recognize that it is pure greed driving this corruption, we develop some new layer of faith that excuses some types of greed while blackballing others.

It boggles one’s mind to consider how easy it is to subscribe to these beliefs. How awesome would it be if the cure for cancer was some magic tonic you can make yourself at home? How great would it be if the climate wasn’t warming, and that climate scientists are near-universally corrupt? Wouldn’t it be fabulous if my thoughts on quantum mechanics as a non-theoretical physicist were just as valid as Brian Green’s? The cherry on top is that in addition to this sudden self-empowerment I’ve been given is that the motive of greed is still good! These are purely illogical, fallacious, unhealthy thoughts to have. The idea that various corporations and institutions have succeeded in making them commonplace is beyond worrying, and it indeed makes me wonder if there is a good (in both the moral and practical sense) way to counter these base appeals to human nature.

If the truth is too perfect, it probably isn’t truth. If something you do might affect someone else negatively, don’t do it. If something flies in the face of reason, that means it’s unreasonable. If someone stands to make money off convincing you of something, you might take that something with a heaping lump of salt.

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Anti-intellectualism

Skepticism about Skepticism

A term that I think is generally covered up among the skeptic community is “scientism.” It’s a legitimate thing, and I think it’s a problem that it has risen, without philosophical backing, to be so common among skeptics. Briefly, scientism is the idea that the scientific method can be applied to the process of discovering truth in all matters. To summarize the argument against scientism, there is no basis on which to claim that science is somehow universally reasonable as a methodology. In other words, just because science has been useful for a significant number of questions up until this point does not imply that science is useful as a gauge of truth in all pursuits.

Religious folks or those otherwise skeptical about skepticism, as it were, often accuse the modern skeptical movement (often those in the “New Atheist” camp) of scientism, and the skeptics have done precious little to defend themselves against that claim. In fact, it seems a large number of them (e.g. Lawrence Krauss, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris) are quite happy to admit and, if I may use the term, flaunt their scientism. I cannot say how much of it is actual evidence, logic-based belief and how much of it is an emotional tie. However, my suspicion is that scientism is largely an emotional issue, or at the very least a blatant misunderstanding of metaphysics.

Many skeptics, those earlier mentioned especially, are immediate turned away when I mention the concept of metaphysics. As I said, these folks have a predisposition to believing that all things must be explained by science. If such is the case, then if something is inexplicable by science (such as much of the pursuit of metaphysics), they are happy to brush it aside as poppycock. I’m not going to necessarily say they are wrong here. If someone came up to me and started to explain to me that they are truly, honestly an Aristotelean, I would laugh, perhaps quite rudely. There are some ideas about metaphysics which blatantly do undermine or contradict science, and I will agree with the skeptics that such claims can be reasonably dismissed. However, to throw away the entire pursuit of metaphysics based only on the idea that if something is not based on science, then it is worthless (or at least nothing better than a wild guess) is entirely unfounded on reason.

If I may interject, this is where brilliant men and women like Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss (my favorite punching bags) are all too entirely destructive. A person listening to them or reading their philosophical works (e.g. The God Delusion) in a critical, knowledgable fashion can recognize most of their arguments as fundamentally baseless. The concept of God is, at least to a sophisticated philosopher or theologian, not a scientific claim, as Richard Dawkins purports. It is not reasonable to believe that science – a field heretofore confined to the material universe – must be the field that discovers what happens outside the material universe (before the big bang, for instance), as Lawrence Krauss purports. These are just a few examples of how scientism is actually dangerous to the pursuit of truth.

My studies and my thinking lead me to be an empiricist. I believe in science, and I believe in reason as a foundational principle in how we can discover truth. If we have evidence, that evidence should be used in a reasonable fashion to construct a truth narrative that is consistent with the rest of our truth narratives. While I do not have the space to defend these principles, I think that as the foundations of Western philosophy and science in the modern era, these are principles on which most of us can agree. In order for us to make a blanket statement that science is the sole criterion for truth, we need an incredible, mind-shattering amount of evidence. In other words, in order to establish the process of science as the sole methodology for determining truth, we must prove (a) that everything can be explained scientifically and (b) that other methods of seeking truth are always unreliable. As a philosophically generous person and a pragmatist, I might accept scientism if we can prove a significant majority of cases that fit these criteria. Of course, we do not even have that.

Science is a highly useful tool for understanding truth, but it has not yet knocked reason off its pedestal. Science and reason are cohorts in the quest to figure out how this reality in which we exist works, but one cannot exist without the other. The application of philosophy and rationality is as closely tied with our knowledge of that reality as is science. We cannot have truth without both.

Skepticism about Skepticism