The Age of Denial and the Marketplace of Ideas

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.

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5 Responses to The Age of Denial and the Marketplace of Ideas

  1. onkelbob says:

    •Scientists became too arrogant and self-important to interact with the lowly public, and it has cost them.

    Is this serious? Is there some gated community of scientists living apart from the “real” world? All the scientists I know are working 18 hours a day writing grants trying to keep their labs running, not because they are arrogant and self-important, but because they believe what they are doing contributes to the public good.
    I will agree that many scientists lack the finer graces of social interaction and have difficulty explaining complex subjects in terms that the average idiot (which unfortunately is the average intelligence level) understands. But that doesn’t make them arrogant, it frustrates and confounds them.

  2. Paul Orwin says:

    One result of declining scientific literacy and declining quality of general science journalism (not science journalists like Ed Yong and Carl Zimmer, but what you might see on the evening news) is that people no longer see the distinction between science and medicine. The stated hypothesis above “•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.” is largely derived from this poor communication and confusion. Yes, medical professionals (doctors, dieticians, etc) are frequently telling us different things about what foods to eat, how much to exercise, etc. And sometimes they reverse course in their recommendations, but I would bet you a thick juicy steak, a fat cigar and a glass of whisky that the researchers who identified the risk factors were much more judicious in their interpretations (note this isn’t always the case, especially in medical journals where impact plays such a big role). But the headline “4 cups of coffee might cause/cure cancer” or “don’t eat red meat or you will DIE” is what everyone remembers. But these aren’t science, they are advocacy.

    For my money, though, I think the old quote from Upton Sinclair captures most of what is going on “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!” People believe comforting lies much more easily than uncomfortable truths.

  3. Jammer says:

    “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”

    Philo of Alexandria, Origen of Alexandria, and St. Augustine of Hippo all rejected a literal
    interpretation of Genesis. So first century Jewish thinkers and the most important third and fourth century Church Fathers understood this, but Jerry Falwell and Republican congress members and presidential candidates don’t.

    As someone’s who went through Catholic grammar school and high school I am amazed that politicians confuse metaphysics with science. The nuns never made that mistake. But like the old Madison Ave adage says, “sell the sizzle not the steak.”

    Yes, marketing matters.

  4. Mike Huben says:

    “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.”

    But you are not assessing the validity of the “marketplace” idea, merely disliking it. There’s a huge scientific literature about the way people come to accept ideas, with roots back to antiquity. And nowhere does that literature show that people judge ideas on their validity except when harmful results are in their faces. The expertise need to judge the enormous welter of ideas based on their validity would be nearly impossible: instead we mostly rely on social cues which can easily be spoofed.

    The reality is that we believe in most things because we are told about them, not because of any more stringent test for validity. And there is a competition to be the first to instill those ideas.

  5. diegovela says:

    “Modern empiricism has been conditioned in large part by two dogmas. One is a belief in some fundamental cleavage between truths which are analytic, or grounded in meanings independently of matters of fact and truths which are synthetic, or grounded in fact. The other dogma is reductionism: the belief that each meaningful statement is equivalent to some logical construct upon terms which refer to immediate experience. BOTH DOGMAS, I SHALL ARGUE, ARE ILL FOUNDED. ONE EFFECT OF ABANDONING THEM IS, AS WE SHALL SEE, A BLURRING OF THE SUPPOSED BOUNDARY BETWEEN SPECULATIVE METAPHYSICS AND NATURAL SCIENCE. Another effect is a shift toward pragmatism.”

    Q: Derrida?
    A: Quine.

    Facing Up: Science and Its Cultural Adversaries
    Stephen Weinberg
    Some Chapters:
    12. Sokal’s Hoax
    13. Science and Sokal’s Hoax: An Exchange
    14. Before the Big Bang
    15. Zionism and Its Adversaries
    16. The Red Camaro
    17. The Non-Revolution of Thomas Kuhn
    You really should read chapter 15.

    Earnest Zionist Peter Beinart
    “I’m not asking Israel to be Utopian. I’m not asking it to allow Palestinians who were forced out (or fled) in 1948 to return to their homes. I’M NOT EVEN ASKING IT TO ALLOW FULL, EQUAL CITIZENSHIP TO ARAB ISRAELIS, SINCE THAT WOULD REQUIRE ISRAEL NO LONGER BEING A JEWISH STATE. I’M ACTUALLY PRETTY WILLING TO COMPROMISE MY LIBERALISM FOR ISRAEL’S SECURITY AND FOR ITS STATUS AS A JEWISH STATE. What I am asking is that Israel not do things that foreclose the possibility of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, because if it is does that it will become–and I’m quoting Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak here–an “apartheid state.”
    theatlantic.com/national/archive/2010/05/goldblog-vs-peter-beinart-part-ii/56934/

    If a Nobel prize winning physicist can’t tell fact from fiction, why should anyone else?
    Sagan was a putz.
    You’re a biologist so you know Lewontin.
    Google the NYRB: “Billions and Billions of Demons”

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