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.