Total Posts:8|Showing Posts:1-8
Jump to topic:

Politics and Science Denial

Axon85
Posts: 137
Add as Friend
Challenge to a Debate
Send a Message
8/2/2016 9:37:59 PM
Posted: 4 months ago
I initially posted this in the politics forum with a genuine interest in the responses of those with strong political affiliations. Unfortunately, the thread did not garner much interest. However, this post is really about human psychology as it applies to politics and the acquisition of beliefs, so perhaps it will enjoy a better fit in the science thread. Anyhow, the original post is below:

Conservatives have often been branded as science deniers based on their rejection of certain scientific discoveries. The discoveries in question are no secret: evolution, cosmology (especially as it relates to the age of the universe), and more recently - human caused climate change. That conservatives have an increased propensity to deny said theories is attested to not only by anecdotal evidence but also by surveys, polls, etc. My aim here is not to exonerate conservatives nor to mitigate the charges leveled against them. Rather, I would like to reframe the issue from a non-partisan standpoint and begin by arguing that liberals, the self-proclaimed agents of science and reason, are just as guilty.

For example, in the 1970s when E.O. Wilson began publishing and lecturing on sociobiology (what we today might call "evolutionary psychology") he was met with bellicose opposition from mostly liberals who viewed the implications of sociobiology as deeply disconcerting. Notice the similarities between the conservative's denial of Darwinian evolution and the liberal's denial of sociobiology. In both cases, the theory is interpreted (rightly or wrongly) as being subversive towards some set of cherished beliefs, and then not only rejected but also vilified and demonized. Or, to consider another example: just like people who deny their children medical intervention for religious reasons tend to be on the far right, those on the left are more likely to criticize and reject western medicine in favor of "alternative treatments" & "natural remedies" that have little to no scientific support. Both behaviors can result and have resulted in tangible harm. Finally, I have friends in the social sciences who lament the fact that certain questions, theories and avenues of research have been deemed off-limits (by liberals) on account of being offensive or politically incorrect.

I would conclude by arguing that science denial is not merely a characteristic of the right, rather it is a characteristic of people on both ends on the political spectrum who prioritize values, ideological commitment and group loyalty over a genuine desire to uncover the true workings of nature.

Thoughts? Critiques?
RuvDraba
Posts: 6,033
Add as Friend
Challenge to a Debate
Send a Message
8/3/2016 7:48:22 AM
Posted: 4 months ago
At 8/2/2016 9:37:59 PM, Axon85 wrote:
I initially posted this in the politics forum with a genuine interest in the responses of those with strong political affiliations. Unfortunately, the thread did not garner much interest. However, this post is really about human psychology as it applies to politics and the acquisition of beliefs, so perhaps it will enjoy a better fit in the science thread. Anyhow, the original post is below:

Conservatives have often been branded as science deniers based on their rejection of certain scientific discoveries. [Yet] in the 1970s when E.O. Wilson began publishing and lecturing on sociobiology (what we today might call "evolutionary psychology") he was met with bellicose opposition from mostly liberals who viewed the implications of sociobiology as deeply disconcerting.

I would conclude by arguing that science denial is not merely a characteristic of the right, rather it is a characteristic of people on both ends on the political spectrum who prioritize values, ideological commitment and group loyalty over a genuine desire to uncover the true workings of nature.

Thoughts? Critiques?

Axon, thank you for an interesting question! I'm sorry that it didn't see a response in Politics (which I don't myself read, since I consider it substantially less sane than the Religion forum.) But it's very thoughtful, and I hope it sees more traction here.

Let me begin by saying that there seems to be a chasm in modern society between knowledge-as-prediction and doctrine-as-sensemaking. Science focuses on the former, whereas moral and political ideologies tend to focus on the latter. Thus, moral and political ideologies sometimes seize on untested scientific conjectures as self-evident truths when they're not (this happened early on in the misinterpretative embrace of evolution by 19th century progressives), but they can also reject as false highly predictive scientific models simply because they make no sense in a cherished doctrine (ironically, this happened in the late 20th century with the resurgent rejection of evolution by conservative fundamentalists, long after the scientific fundamentals had been established beyond contest.)

So where are we at with sociobiology and an allied field, evolutionary psychology? Are they unpopular science? Pseudoscience? Something else?

I think they're something else. They may well become established scientific theory, but I don't believe either are yet mature enough to be considered scientific knowledge. Lacking testable mechanisms and a suite of specific, significant, independently falsifiable predictions, they're at the early stages of science: hopeful conjectures in search of a sound empirical paradigm of ontology, methodology and verification. They might over time become sound empirical models -- or they might get discarded as better models present. (An example of an evolutionary paradigm getting discarded is memetics, which lasted a few decades before being declared unable to predict anything. [https://en.wikipedia.org...] We had a brief thread on this a couple of weeks ago. [http://www.debate.org...])

So for now, I think it's legitimate to criticise them philosophically, because that's precisely what science does to ideas in pre-empirical stages of development. Not all the philosophical criticism will be methodological. Some will be ontological, even moral. I don't think that's harmful, because ontological criticism is necessary in nascent science, and moral criticism informs scientific ethics anyway. Equally, it's legitimate to defend and pursue those ideas up to the point of grounding them in allied scientific fields -- especially genetics and neuroscience. At some point, they'll either ground effectively, or get left behind. Until then, they're entitled to try.

But I would distinguish a contest between doctrines-as-sensemaking (which is occurring in sociobiology and evolutionary psychology), from doctrine-as-sensemaking attacking prediction-as-knowledge (which occurs in religious fundamentalism attacking evolution and cosmogenesis.)

The first is legitimate, for a while at least, though either side might be wrong. Thought grows stronger for that contest, and eventually we can expect empirical inquiry to resolve the issue one way or another anyway.

But the second has lost the plot. A presuppositional doctrine built on debunked ideas predicting nothing has no basis to criticise a detailed, predictive, highly integrated, and thoroughly tested empirical model. It's cynical, dishonest, intellectually damaging and a social disservice whenever it's pursued.

I hope that may be useful.
keithprosser
Posts: 1,908
Add as Friend
Challenge to a Debate
Send a Message
8/3/2016 11:04:38 AM
Posted: 4 months ago
I would conclude by arguing that science denial is not merely a characteristic of the right, rather it is a characteristic of people on both ends on the political spectrum who prioritize values, ideological commitment and group loyalty over a genuine desire to uncover the true workings of nature.

liberals, the self-proclaimed agents of science and reason, are just as guilty.

I'd agree to an extent, with some reservations. Extremists of opposite kinds have more in common with each other than they do with their respective moderates. There certainly are people who allow their ideology to cloud their objectivity, but I wouldn't agree that liberals are 'just as guilty' as the right when it comes to the deliberate and wilfull misrepresentation of facts.

I am not familiar with the controversy over sociobiology, but I don't think it descended to the depths of intellectual dishonesty manifest by, say, Answers in Genesis or varous climate change deniers. To say liberals are 'just as guilty' is like equating axe murder with littering.
wuliheron
Posts: 105
Add as Friend
Challenge to a Debate
Send a Message
8/3/2016 5:17:42 PM
Posted: 4 months ago
Science and religion form a dysfunctional relationship with both totalitarian religious countries and atheist communist ones alike now largely relegated to the third world, while the US with its strong traditions of rugged individualism and separation of the church and state is now the wealthiest country in the world with a military equal to the next six largest combined. Their relationship resembles Three Stooges slapstick and professional wrestling smack with one academic accusing the New Atheists of being a betrayal of the enlightenment for adopting the same aggressive approach as their fundamentalist opposition.

Literally, academics who eschew their humor in favor of pounding away at the excluded middle are increasingly complaining that Three Stooges slapstick and high tech don't mix, while they teach anybody who pays them the most whatever they want to learn.
Axon85
Posts: 137
Add as Friend
Challenge to a Debate
Send a Message
8/4/2016 8:35:37 PM
Posted: 4 months ago
At 8/3/2016 7:48:22 AM, RuvDraba wrote:
At 8/2/2016 9:37:59 PM, Axon85 wrote:
I initially posted this in the politics forum with a genuine interest in the responses of those with strong political affiliations. Unfortunately, the thread did not garner much interest. However, this post is really about human psychology as it applies to politics and the acquisition of beliefs, so perhaps it will enjoy a better fit in the science thread. Anyhow, the original post is below:

Conservatives have often been branded as science deniers based on their rejection of certain scientific discoveries. [Yet] in the 1970s when E.O. Wilson began publishing and lecturing on sociobiology (what we today might call "evolutionary psychology") he was met with bellicose opposition from mostly liberals who viewed the implications of sociobiology as deeply disconcerting.

I would conclude by arguing that science denial is not merely a characteristic of the right, rather it is a characteristic of people on both ends on the political spectrum who prioritize values, ideological commitment and group loyalty over a genuine desire to uncover the true workings of nature.

Thoughts? Critiques?

Axon, thank you for an interesting question! I'm sorry that it didn't see a response in Politics (which I don't myself read, since I consider it substantially less sane than the Religion forum.) But it's very thoughtful, and I hope it sees more traction here.

Let me begin by saying that there seems to be a chasm in modern society between knowledge-as-prediction and doctrine-as-sensemaking. Science focuses on the former, whereas moral and political ideologies tend to focus on the latter. Thus, moral and political ideologies sometimes seize on untested scientific conjectures as self-evident truths when they're not (this happened early on in the misinterpretative embrace of evolution by 19th century progressives), but they can also reject as false highly predictive scientific models simply because they make no sense in a cherished doctrine (ironically, this happened in the late 20th century with the resurgent rejection of evolution by conservative fundamentalists, long after the scientific fundamentals had been established beyond contest.)

So where are we at with sociobiology and an allied field, evolutionary psychology? Are they unpopular science? Pseudoscience? Something else?

I think they're something else. They may well become established scientific theory, but I don't believe either are yet mature enough to be considered scientific knowledge. Lacking testable mechanisms and a suite of specific, significant, independently falsifiable predictions, they're at the early stages of science: hopeful conjectures in search of a sound empirical paradigm of ontology, methodology and verification. They might over time become sound empirical models -- or they might get discarded as better models present. (An example of an evolutionary paradigm getting discarded is memetics, which lasted a few decades before being declared unable to predict anything. [https://en.wikipedia.org...] We had a brief thread on this a couple of weeks ago. [http://www.debate.org...])

So for now, I think it's legitimate to criticise them philosophically, because that's precisely what science does to ideas in pre-empirical stages of development. Not all the philosophical criticism will be methodological. Some will be ontological, even moral. I don't think that's harmful, because ontological criticism is necessary in nascent science, and moral criticism informs scientific ethics anyway. Equally, it's legitimate to defend and pursue those ideas up to the point of grounding them in allied scientific fields -- especially genetics and neuroscience. At some point, they'll either ground effectively, or get left behind. Until then, they're entitled to try.

But I would distinguish a contest between doctrines-as-sensemaking (which is occurring in sociobiology and evolutionary psychology), from doctrine-as-sensemaking attacking prediction-as-knowledge (which occurs in religious fundamentalism attacking evolution and cosmogenesis.)

The first is legitimate, for a while at least, though either side might be wrong. Thought grows stronger for that contest, and eventually we can expect empirical inquiry to resolve the issue one way or another anyway.

But the second has lost the plot. A presuppositional doctrine built on debunked ideas predicting nothing has no basis to criticise a detailed, predictive, highly integrated, and thoroughly tested empirical model. It's cynical, dishonest, intellectually damaging and a social disservice whenever it's pursued.

I hope that may be useful.

Hi RuvDraba,

Evolutionary psychology (EP) is just one example of science denial on the left, although I certainly share your reservations. While my own mind frequently wonders towards evolutionary explanations of human behavior, I understand that, as a science, EP struggles with predictive power and is often punctuated by post hoc speculation and "just so" stories. However, I do accept the basic underlying premise that what we call "the mind" has been chiseled by natural selection as any biological system. Thus, I support EP as a burgeoning scientific discipline (albeit one with significant methodological limitations). Furthermore, I have no problem with constructive philosophical criticism leveled towards any scientific field, nor should we avoid honest inquiries into the societal ramifications and ethical challenges that may accompany new discoveries and scientific endeavors. If this were the nature of the opposition that I referenced in the OP, I certainly would not be justified in calling it "science denial". Rather, what I referenced was a virulent, a priori denial of the very possibility that mind & human nature have been shaped by natural selection. The controversy is that this view challenged the beloved Lockean notion of the mind as tabula rasa. I understand that this view conferred ethical utility in the struggle for equality of historically oppressed minorities; however, utility should not be conflated with veracity. I think most people are accepting of science... until it challenges their cherished beliefs. In most cases, the latter initially wins out and examples can be found across the ideological spectrum. People have a tendency to treat science as the handmaiden of ideology and will seek to quash any rebellions.

Both the left and right not only claim the moral but also the rational high ground, yet I see only occasional glimpses of these ideals embodied in either side. Perhaps if people reflect on the similarities between opposing factions, learn to spot the flaws of the other in oneself, and realize the role of tribalism and emotion in the acquisition of one's own beliefs, this might partially remedy the toxic sociopolitical climate brewing in the US.

Anyhow, I appreciate your input!
Axon85
Posts: 137
Add as Friend
Challenge to a Debate
Send a Message
8/4/2016 9:04:24 PM
Posted: 4 months ago
At 8/3/2016 11:04:38 AM, keithprosser wrote:
I would conclude by arguing that science denial is not merely a characteristic of the right, rather it is a characteristic of people on both ends on the political spectrum who prioritize values, ideological commitment and group loyalty over a genuine desire to uncover the true workings of nature.

liberals, the self-proclaimed agents of science and reason, are just as guilty.

I'd agree to an extent, with some reservations. Extremists of opposite kinds have more in common with each other than they do with their respective moderates. There certainly are people who allow their ideology to cloud their objectivity, but I wouldn't agree that liberals are 'just as guilty' as the right when it comes to the deliberate and wilfull misrepresentation of facts.

I am not familiar with the controversy over sociobiology, but I don't think it descended to the depths of intellectual dishonesty manifest by, say, Answers in Genesis or varous climate change deniers. To say liberals are 'just as guilty' is like equating axe murder with littering.

Perhaps there some quantitative differences, I do recall a few studies showing that conservatives tend to distrust science to a higher extent than liberals. However, I would argue the cognitive framework surrounding science denial is very similar similar across the isle. It just so happens that our modern scientific worldview is more antithetical to the far right compared to the far left, however, I think both sides deify cherished beliefs into sacred idols that take precedence over scientific discovery.
RuvDraba
Posts: 6,033
Add as Friend
Challenge to a Debate
Send a Message
8/4/2016 9:20:40 PM
Posted: 4 months ago
At 8/4/2016 8:35:37 PM, Axon85 wrote:
At 8/3/2016 7:48:22 AM, RuvDraba wrote:
At 8/2/2016 9:37:59 PM, Axon85 wrote:
Science denial is not merely a characteristic of the right, rather it is a characteristic of people on both ends on the political spectrum who prioritize values, ideological commitment and group loyalty over a genuine desire to uncover the true workings of nature.
I think it's legitimate to criticise [nascent science] philosophically, because that's precisely what science does to ideas in pre-empirical stages of development.
I have no problem with constructive philosophical criticism leveled towards any scientific field, [but] what I referenced was a virulent, a priori denial of the very possibility that mind & human nature have been shaped by natural selection.

But such denial is very constructive, Ax. It exposes doctrinal assumptions, identifies dependencies of reason, reveals moral and ethical questions. Until there's empirical evidence one way or another, that's the most one can do with philosophy anyway: pit doctrine against doctrine. And if subsequent evidence shows a doctrine wrong, then the arguments from earlier doctrinal contests will help reveal precisely where and how the doctrine failed, and what (if anything can) must be done to amend and salvage it.

It's when doctrine refuses to recognise empirical evidence that we have a problem. And that's what's occurring with the antiscience movement of conservative religious fundamentalists. They're not simply contesting untested scientific conjecture; they're outright lying about the quality of evidence, misrepresenting their expertise, and fabricating their own pseudoscientific results.

That's not simply ordinary bias shaking out to produce better ideas; it's a deliberate, calculated, cynical public deception for political gain.