I probably should have written “The Age of Denial Results from the Marketplace of Ideas.” Physicist Adam Frank at the NY Times tackles the topic of denialism and science (boldface mine):
Today, however, it is politically effective, and socially acceptable, to deny scientific fact. Narrowly defined, “creationism” was a minor current in American thinking for much of the 20th century. But in the years since I was a student, a well-funded effort has skillfully rebranded that ideology as “creation science” and pushed it into classrooms across the country. Though transparently unscientific, denying evolution has become a litmus test for some conservative politicians, even at the highest levels.
Meanwhile, climate deniers, taking pages from the creationists’ PR playbook, have manufactured doubt about fundamental issues in climate science that were decided scientifically decades ago. And anti-vaccine campaigners brandish a few long-discredited studies to make unproven claims about links between autism and vaccination.
The list goes on. North Carolina has banned state planners from using climate data in their projections of future sea levels. So many Oregon parents have refused vaccination that the state is revising its school entry policies. And all of this is happening in a culture that is less engaged with science and technology as intellectual pursuits than at any point I can remember….
My professors’ generation could respond to silliness like creationism with head-scratching bemusement. My students cannot afford that luxury. Instead they must become fierce champions of science in the marketplace of ideas.
Mark Thoma lists a bunch of reasons why this might be the case (boldface mine):
•The cranks have always been there, but today digital technology makes it easier to gain a platform.
•The stakes are higher, so winning is the only thing.
•Scientists have pushed too far and offered evidence as though it were fact, only to have to reverse themselves later (e.g. types of food that are harmful/helpful) eroding trust.
•Science education is so bad that the typical reporter has no idea how to tell fact from “manufactured doubt,” and the resulting he said, she said journalism leaves the impression that both sides have a valid point.
•Scientists became too arrogant and self-important to interact with the lowly public, and it has cost them.
•The political sphere has become ever more polarized and insular making it much easier for false ideas intended to promote political or economic gain to reverberate within the groups.
•Nothing has really changed, old people always think their age was the golden one.
I would add to the list:
•The opposition to certain fields and findings of science is central to self-identity and part of a larger world view and way of life (e.g., fundamentalist doctrines). It transcends data-driven assessment of single issues. Typically, people will resist changing their minds and only do so after a trauma or betrayal (personal or group) forces them to confront their inconsistencies.
I would argue the widespread acceptance of racism–I mean the flat-out, stone cold kind, not subtle prejudice–for much of the twentieth century has to be one of the dumbest displays of denialism. And it was certainly tied into notions of self-identity (“If you ain’t better than a…, then who are you better than?”). So the oldsters, like Tolstoy’s unhappy families, were stupid in their own ways.
But I want to return to the notion of a marketplace of ideas. I dislike that metaphor because it implies ideas are judged not on their validity, but on how well they are marketed. The implication of this is that once some rich wacko decides to fund a ‘faith-tank’, that entity essentially becomes a Self-Perpetuating Bullshit Machine, and is unstoppable. It’s relatively cheap to ‘put ideas out there.’ More importantly, there’s no way to stop them from doing so, nor do the individual actors pushing these ideas have any incentive to stop.
One more way we have commodified the previously uncommodifiable*.
*Or least to a recently unprecedented extent.