Scientism May or May Not be the New Creationism

In a recent article on the Scientific American website, science writer, (pop)-psychologist, and general “skeptic” Michael Shermer argues that Liberals are “at war” with science. Ignoring the preposterous war cliché that pervades silly writing about any sort of apparent disagreement, Shermer’s argument is supposed be novel and interesting because it is presumed that it is common knowledge that Republicans (Shermer’s argument is American-centric) have a general disregard, if not disdain, for scientific truth, while there is an attitude of superiority amongst Democrats because, contrary to Republicans, they give science its duly deserved reverence.

Don’t be too smug, says Shermer. While not as bad as Republicans, Democrats are in some regards a bunch of science haters:

The left’s war on science begins with the stats cited above: 41 percent of Democrats are young Earth creationists, and 19 percent doubt that Earth is getting warmer. These numbers do not exactly bolster the common belief that liberals are the people of the science book. 

Admittedly, to some the 41 percent of Democrats being young-Earth creationists is a little surprising, considering the way that evolution vs. creationism debates are framed in the United States. In any case, let’s leave this aside for the moment and consider the second statistic that Shermer provides. Citing such a relatively low degree of scepticism amongst Democrats as evidence for a proverbial “war on science” reveals much about Shermer’s totalising view of science, his completely unrealistic expectations of public understanding of science, and I would argue, his wholly inaccurate and generally problematic conception of belief acquisition.

Much of Shermer’s (who did his B.A. and M.A. in psychology) other writing is about the psychology of beliefs . He often argues how various (typically evolutionarily inherited) psychological characteristics explain why humans are predisposed to believing things that aren’t true. His latest book is titled: The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies – How we Construct Beliefs and Reinforce them as Truths. Based on these writings it becomes clear that he subscribes to an asymmetrical view of belief formation. This is an old and familiar problem in psychology and sociology (quite a big hoopla was made of it in the earlier days of Science and Technology Studies), but it more or less amounts to this: beliefs that we hold to be false (“we” meaning epistemologically privileged people like Shermer who know the real truth) are in need of psychological or sociological explanation. For example, Richard Dawkins calls belief in God a ‘delusion,’ and Shermer’s latest book is a similar project of unmasking. Many recent books on climate change, for instance, including one that I am very sympathetic to, aim at such explanations. This is a widespread impulse; beliefs we hold to be false are dismissed as “ideological” or “political.” This is quite often merely a rhetorical strategy employed to dismiss a particular belief that has not been shown to be false, but even when we are content that a belief is patently false, we often feel the urge to further explain how people could believe in patently false things in the first place. On the other hand, beliefs that we hold to be true (in Shermer’s case, the reality of evolution and climate change), require no further explanation. The explanation of their acceptance amongst belief holders is implied in virtue of the fact that these beliefs are actually true (in some caricatural “positivist” sense). Shermer might concede that there is certainly a psychology of scientific practice (i.e. hypothesising, collection of evidence, reasoning, deduction, induction, etc.) that allows scientists to arrive at truths. But based on what he writes in this article, I would expect that Shermer might say that this psychology doesn’t really need interrogating or deep study because we can just assume that somebody arriving at the truth is evidence that they followed well-defined mental procedures that allowed them to arrive at said truth.

Ok, so this is might be unfair to Shermer; I haven’t read everything he’s ever written – just a few articles in which he says silly things that project such positions. However, what’s wrong with this formulation of true beliefs, and which amply demonstrates the issue of symmetricality, is that people will arrive at the same belief for many different reasons, and arguably, virtually none of them arrive at true beliefs because they followed some clearly demarcated rules of rational thought. Quite obviously the majority of the 80% of Democrats who believe in climate change did not arrive at such beliefs because they are familiar with the scientific methods, evidence, and analysis that climate scientists themselves employ to arrive at such conclusion (even if most people with expertise in climate science are Democrats, this could only make up a tiny percentage). Even if one is sympathetic to a much broader notion of rationality – something like rational trust in scientists – it is still doubtful that a majority of Democrats (or anyone for that matter) arrived at their beliefs about climate change on such a basis. The reality is that people’s beliefs about climate change are complex, and many who believe that it is happening do so for just as “ideological” and “political” reasons as people who deny it. Most compelling in this regard is the constant fluctuation in the public’s belief in climate change. Would Shermer have us believe that this demonstrates that people’s rationality randomly fluctuates? In order to analyse beliefs symmetrically, we also have to ask why people believe things that we hold to be true and not simply take such explanations as extraneous or obvious. And again, given Shermer’s propensity for explaining why humans are inherently irrational, it seems that one should expect that scepticism about climate change be widespread. Indeed, such a high number of Democrats believing in climate change should seem peculiar, and would be at least an equally curious phenomena to which to apply a social-psychological explanation as disbelief.

In any case, this post isn’t about climate change, and my point certainly is not to argue that people believe in climate change for the wrong or suspect or dismissible reasons (although some probably do). It’s simply to say that Shermer is wrong to imply that people who believe in climate change are scientifically rational, while the 20% of Democrats that are sceptical about it somehow demonstrates a pervasive anti-science ideology. Now let’s return to the creationism bit. The statistic about creationism is quite clearly meant to be the most surprising and distressing part of Shermer’s article. The rest of the things that are supposed to alarm us are underwhelming and, frankly, questionable. Shermer writes,

On energy issues, for example […] progressive liberals tend to be antinuclear because of the waste-disposal problem, anti–fossil fuels because of global warming, antihydroelectric because dams disrupt river ecosystems, and anti–wind power because of avian fatalities. […] Try having a conversation with a liberal progressive about GMOs—genetically modified organisms—in which the words “Monsanto” and “profit” are not dropped like syllogistic bombs.

The point Shermer seems to be making here is that progressive liberals (and liberal progressives!) can be totalising in their environmental outlooks and inconsistent in their visions for energy solutions. But perhaps unrealistically expecting that solar energy (apparently solar evades liberal scorn) and a reduction in energy consumption can adequately address energy issues has nothing to do one’s faith in scientific knowledge. Indeed, it is revealing that none of these examples are technical scientific issues. They have to do with broader visions of how we should organize our society and resources. They concern ethical questions. They involve, if you will, “extra-scientific” issues. But Shermer’s attitude is that the authority of science trumps all these concerns. However, it is absurd to imply that science gives us unequivocal answers to energy problems, and arrogant to dismiss apprehension about issues like the ethics of the corporatization of agricultural and the patenting of life as irrelevant as long as scientific research demonstrates that there are no human health risks involved with GMOs (which in itself depends on differing conceptions of risk and differing expectations of scientific proof). But Shermer reassures us with comment-board wisdom: “The fact is that we’ve been genetically modifying organisms for 10,000 years through breeding and selection.”

Comparing some kind of belief to creationism is a common trope amongst science-crusaders (I know this term is also a clichéd pejorative, but I find it apt here). Professional polemicist James Taranto in a recent cantankerous defence of evolutionary psychology (in response to this piece by Dan Slater) called “feminism the new creationism” (here’s a good response to the preposterousness of this statement, Taranto’s overall argument, and some of the broader issues with evolutionary psychology). Taranto obviously doesn’t really know what he’s talking about – he isn’t an expert on these matters and is clearly unacquainted with any relevant literature.  Like Taranto, Shermer also attacks those that are sceptical about certain doctrines of evolutionary psychology – he goes so far as labelling them “cognitive creationists.” The creationism comparison is obviously meant as a dismissive slight. It is entirely rhetorical and tantamount to intellectual bullying. It is meant to shame people who are sceptical of scientific claims into acquiescence. The fact that, like Taranto, Shermer uses it to defend such a dubiously far-reaching and reductionist version of evolutionary psychology says much about the problematic conception of science that he propounds.

Now, this post isn’t about evolutionary psychology either, but lest any Taranto’s out there accuse me of blaspheming evolutionary theory, I should add a few caveats about my views on evolutionary psychology. I’m not an evolutionary psychologist, and I am only very, very, cursorily familiar with the field and literature as a whole. But, I recognize it to be a robust and diverse field, and at its best it is a promising site of inquiry. Indeed, many of the those cultural theorists, anthropologists, and sociologists that are apparently dismissive of evolutionary psychology would find certain elements of it appealing, insofar as much of it amounts to “historical psychology” – how human cognition develops over time as a result of sociological stimuli (and how these may or may interact with biological evolution). In any case, I certainly don’t doubt, and I have yet to meet any scholar in humanities or the social sciences (though I’m sure there are some) that completely doubts, as Shermer puts it, “human thought and behavior are at least partially the result of our evolutionary past” (italics mine). However, there are a few reasons why scholars who try to understand the complex ways that social, cultural, and historical milieus shape what comes to be understood as knowledge are a little wary of evolutionary psychology (other than the fact that STS scholars are typically sceptical of anyone who loudly boasts about the scientificity of their claims). A lot of it has to do with deeply entrenched disciplinary perspectives. Simply, we are wary because we try to understand the complex ways that social, cultural, and historical milieus shape what comes to be understood as knowledge; we often find evolutionary psychology perspectives fail to consider these issues in satisfactory ways, while often implying that evolution is a lot more than “at least partially” responsible for human thought and behaviour. There are legitimate and well-demonstrated concerns about evolutionary psychology explanations of perceived gender differences, for example (see the overview of Cordelia Fine’s book in the link cited above). And then there are also the plainly dubious attempts to use evolutionary psychology to explain any psychological phenomena, no matter how scant the evidence, and no matter how many adequate competing explanations exist (like this study that tries to apply evolutionary psychology to suicide bombings). But one of the main reasons for this lack of enthusiasm is precisely the way people like Shermer present evolutionary psychology, especially in public. Of course, it would be unfair to use Shermer as a representative example here, but Shemer is far from alone. Evolutionary psychology is a relatively new field, and its practitioners have engaged in fairly substantial public legitimation exercises, not least of which having a pronounced media presence and publishing popular books extolling evolutionary psychology.  Judging by how viciously a non-expert like Taranto defends evolutionary psychology (and essentially equates it with evolutionary biology), one could estimate that these legitimation campaigns have been enormously successful.

Let me briefly return to the original intended point of Shermer’s article. Democrats, we are to assume, should have more reverence for science than Republicans (which is not actually the case generally speaking, they just differ drastically on specific issues) because (again making a huge assumption) they are less ideological than Republicans. Here Shermer touches on a classic limitation of critical theory. People are very good at pointing out the ideological influences of others, but often completely oblivious to the ideological influences that shape their own beliefs (there is a reason that symmetry was tied so closely to reflexivity in early STS). Democrats aptly call out the ideological underpinnings of Republican doubts about evolution and climate change, but fail to recognise how their own views on scientific issues rest on ideologies about the sanctity of nature, for example.

That Shermer launches this critique against Democrats is ironic, for lack of a more hyperbolic phrase. Like I said, this post isn’t about evolutionary psychology per se, but Shermer’s defense of it reflects his broader vision of science. Shermer demands that we accept the findings of evolutionary psychology because it rests on the all powerful theory of evolution. Not only that, but genetic and evolutionary explanations should take precedence over all other forms of explanation. If you do not bow to genetic primacy, well, you are a creationist! This vision of evolutionary psychology is authoritarian and reductionistic and deterministic in the worst senses. This is analogous to how Shermer presents science more generally. Certainly there is scientific knowledge that we should have enormous faith in. There is science that has been robustly, thoroughly, and repeatedly corroborated, and which rests on well-established theoretical and mathematical principles. But Shermer rhetorically evokes images of these particular bits of knowledge in order to convince us that we should be equally confident in his knowledge claims, despite the fact that they far from meet the same standards. Furthermore, he dismisses all concerns that are antithetical to his narrow perspective, all in the name of science.

The only thing I would imagine could be more distasteful to Shermer than creationism is intelligent design, since the former is simply an article of faith, while the latter misleadingly attempts to mask its ideological basis and legitimate its principles by calling them science. Now, I would never compare Shermer’s beliefs to creationism in order to dismiss them, because that would be shameless. But comparing them to intelligent design…

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