We are informed in the Chronicle Review that
We have entered an age of willful ignorance
To see how we treat the concept of truth these days, one might think we just don’t care anymore. Politicians pronounce that global warming is a hoax. An alarming number of middle-class parents have stopped giving their children routine vaccinations, on the basis of discredited research. Meanwhile many commentators in the media — and even some in our universities — have all but abandoned their responsibility to set the record straight. (It doesn’t help when scientists occasionally have to retract their own work.)
No indeed, it doesn’t help.
The mounting scandals in science make it difficult to regard many disciplines as sources of legitimate information, as opposed to propaganda centres for disseminating claims that reward their proponents but no one else. See “If peer review is working, why all the retractions?”
Anyone who has been paying attention to the fault lines of academic debate for the past 20 years already knows that the “science wars” were fought by natural scientists (and their defenders in the philosophy of science) on the one side and literary critics and cultural-studies folks on the other. The latter argued that even in the natural realm, truth is relative, and there is no such thing as objectivity. The skirmishes blew up in the well-known “Sokal affair” in 1996, in which a prominent physicist created a scientifically absurd postmodernist paper and was able to get it published in a leading cultural-studies journal. The ridicule that followed may have seemed to settle the matter once and for all.
But then a funny thing happened: While many natural scientists declared the battle won and headed back to their labs, some left-wing postmodernist criticisms of truth began to be picked up by right-wing ideologues who were looking for respectable cover for their denial of climate change, evolution, and other scientifically accepted conclusions. Alan Sokal said he had hoped to shake up academic progressives, but suddenly one found hard-right conservatives sounding like Continental intellectuals. And that caused discombobulation on the left.
The trouble is, many natural scientists don’t believe in evidence-based thinking any more.
Can the author of this article, Boston U research fellow Lee McIntyre, really be ignorant of extensive data manipulation on climate change or the increasing unsatisfactoriness of Darwinism (which is what most evolution proponents really mean by “evolution”)?
Or the war on falsifiability waged by proponents of the multiverse in cosmology? The war on Occam’s Razor? The nonsense propounded as science under the guise of evolutionary psychology doesn’t even need to be a Sokal hoax.
Put it this way: He is certainly not helping his case by arrogantly assuming that lay people are guided only by foolish attitudes. Maybe he chooses to dismiss good reasons to doubt the claims vended to us in the pop science media. It is a free world and that is his choice.
Science lost touch with itself when it lost touch with respect for evidence, and increasingly, the world knows.
Indeed, if I wanted to damage science funding, I would strongly urge more and more philosophers of science to heap ridicule on lay people for doubting the dubious.
If I want to help retain or regain respect for science, I will continue to draw attention to the problems.
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