Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The "left" hates rationality too

Growing up around religious people means that I got to know a bunch of folks who took inordinate pride in believing the unbelievable.  It doesn't matter much that most of these beliefs are easy to refute—these people want you to believe anyway and can get quite graphic in their descriptions of the eternal damnations for those who cannot or will not believe the unbelievable.

My refuge from this stream of bullshit and guilt was science.  What I loved most about science is that no one actually made you believe anything and even better, had proven methods for finding a right answer—and ways of then finding an even righter answer.  It was enough so I could ignore those well-meaning folks who would tell me that if did not actually believe in Noah's flood, I was going to go to Hell!  Not surprisingly, I get pretty protective about science and empiricism.  It got me through a rocky childhood.

Unfortunately, science is harder than it looks.  Most people don't have the time, inclination, skills, or resources to view their world scientifically so they look for explanations that are short and descriptive.  I have many educated and "progressive" friends who have rejected scientific rationality as thoroughly any of the religious extremists of my childhood.

I have a difficult time hiding my disappointment.  I was so sure that if I could escape the Jesus-wants-you-to-be-an-idiot crowd, I would be safe from the crazy people.  I was so wrong. (sigh)

DECEMBER 11, 2012
A Systematic Attack on Rationality

Anti-Science: Left and Right Together?


The suggestion that left and right thinking may be converging on matters scientific will, no doubt, be offensive to some on the left. After all, the right chooses myth over evolution, and oil profits over climate science. We would never do that.

Nevertheless, I’ve begun to notice a whole lot of anti-science among progressive and left intellectuals. Smart people all, some of them dear friends of mine. Then I read a column in the November Scientific American on magical thinking in American politics. It rubbed my sore spot.

This scary trend seems to be growing.

I went to my friends’ home for a lovely Thanksgiving dinner. One of several grad students there was talking about “Western Science.” I butted in with “science doesn’t come in regional flavors.” I am not known for tact. To prove that lack of tact, I then added an example: Newtonian physics is universal. He granted that, but then said something to the effect that Relativity shows the Western-ness of science. (My mind wandered during this fuzz, but I doubt I missed much.)

Einstein’s brilliant theory, tested for nearly 100 years, is evidence of cultural imperialism?

This Western science notion originated with post-modernism, which has become a sort of Book of Genesis for an intellectual anti-science mindset. Like Genesis, it’s a faith used to trump scientific fact.

Just a couple days earlier, I learned that atheism is now under suspicion. I saw two essays on this. I didn’t have the stomach, even for research purposes, to plow all the way through, but I did sample them.

One article noted that Richard Dawkins, one of the “new atheists” under fire, apparently wrote that all religion is bunk. The writer charged that Dawkins has not studied all African religions, and some may be quite wholesome, so Dawkins’ atheism is imperialist.

Gimme a break. Or at least a beer.

I had reason the other day to mention Barbara Ehrenreich’s denunciation of columnist Jane Brody, a promoter of anti-science who incongruously writes for the NYT’s Science Times. In particular Barbara’s rebuttal (spelled out in her wonderful book Bright Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America) on Brody’s “power of positive thinking” mantra. My friend said Ehrenreich is wrong, and Brody’s half-full glass of fluff will lead you to live long and healthy.

I’m going half-empty on that fluff.

I flash back to July, when I was in the Bay Area, the most progressive metro area in the US. (That’s a low bar, I know, but it’s what we’ve got.) You can’t swing a Feng Shui Compass without bumping a shop selling some wacky notions and potions. Pricey ones, too. There, in precincts where peace signs sprout and boycotting Walmart is de rigueur, you find a vortex of anti-science entrepreneurship.

That correlation gives me the willies.

While there, a friend told me of someone who is unfortunately a “magnet for negative energy.” Now there’s a force Einstein never found. Another good friend is convinced that all seven billion people on earth can live on a diet consisting heavily of beef, if only we switch over to grass-fed cows. A science teacher could give a homework assignment to disprove this (how many acres does a cow need… how many acres of rain forest remain to be cut down for cattle…it’s not hard.)

Especially in the department of diet and health, a number of folks have traded science for magic They’re gonna live forever with the right supplement or fad diet. “Natural” becomes a spiritual term. But aren’t mercury, radon, and syphilis natural? I recommend the informative book Fast Food Nation, especially the chapter on the natural flavor industry in New Jersey.

If they just look up “homeopathic” or “macrobiotic” or their current fad in a short Wikipedia essay, they will see that these wack-doodle concepts lack any scientific basis.

Apparently when you have faith, you don’t look it up.

If you do look it up, you can rely on the fact that the web is a spectacular echo-chamber for reinforcing any crackpot idea. Scientific expertise is easily missed in a blizzard of new age hucksterism

Some progressives are even joining the right to reject vaccinations, which are the greatest achievement of social medicine. They don’t want their children subjected to Western science (which has done a whale of a job world-wide on polio, small pox, measles, diphtheria, and whooping cough, at minimal cost). Or maybe they’re just free-riders, with an anti-science cover story.

A friend told me the drive by the UN and various NGOs to eradicate polio in Central Africa deserves any resistance it gets.

If their kids get polio, we can send wholistic tree bark.

Come to think of it, a friend recommended just that to me when I was diagnosed with cancer. Sat right in my living room and told me that herbal medicines could cure me. And this was for a cancer which was quite treatable – hold the herbs, please.

You may think that these anecdotes show that many progressives have some quirky notions, but so what? That’s not like the right, which has mounted a systematic and rather successful attack on science.

The Past and Future of American Anti-Science

True. But maybe that’s because the right is much more powerful. If the left were more potent, it might not be socialists up front. Perhaps instead of equal time for creationism in school, science teachers would have to give equal time to shamans. Or equal time for post-modernism in physics class. For sure the FDA would still be prohibited from regulating the dangerous output from GNC, which incidentally now has over 6,000 stores in the USA, almost as many as Burger King.

The Right’s anti-science relies in large part on old ideas which are outliving their shelf life. Americans are becoming less religious all the time, but the new anti-science is not bound by the Bible. It’s a moving target, and on the ascent.

How can we combat the anti-science of the right when we’re tainted by a similar, if milder, affliction? In a fight, don’t tie one hand behind your back.

Stand up for science. Please… Stosh could use a few allies. more

Stosh Pulaski is a labor organizer and life-long optimist in Detroit. Occasionally, he gets a little cynical, and then he writes. He can be reached at:

1 comment:

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