Is science and reason declining? Is ignorance spreading at the cost of the enlightenment? Is this drift of acceptable-political-dialogue to the right, killing science? Is conservatism destroying rational, evidence-based thinking? In short, are we losing our grip on reality? If so, what are the consequences? Donald E Prothero’s 2013 book “Reality Check – How Science Deniers Threaten Our Future” [ISBN 978-0-253-01029-2 Indiana University Press] launches a broadside at those the CalTech lecturer believes threaten science. Prothero is a Geobiologist who has written several books on science including works on fossils, dinosaurs and evolution. His work is littered with quotes by Carl Sagan and the influence is clear. But the manner of the work is certainly that of Richard Dawkins. It comes out fighting and concedes absolutely nothing to the new breed of science deniers with whom he engages battle. It is hard not to agree with him but does he really get to the heart of the matter? What causes rational people to reject science and what will be the cost?
The Prothero book is not always what it seems. The first ten chapters are more-or-less an all-out assault on the enemies of reason. It is all here: climate change denial, creationism, acid rain, the hole in the ozone layer, AIDS/HIV denial, homeopathy, astrology, anti-vaccination campaigners and, err, chiropractice. This is a parochial book presenting a US-based world-view but Prothero is very quick to point out where these problems are largely a problem in the USA and nowhere else (ie, Creationism) and he shows where the rest of the world is doing so much better than America. This is to his credit. Clearly he is well travelled and has read a few foreign newspapers. However your first impression reading this outside the USA is “so-what?” Although there has been a global impact from US climate denial much of what you read here is more an illustration of the old American Empire in decline with China taking up the slack. So we need not necessarily fear an overall global decline in reason. But for any nation slipping to the political right, where the elite seek to copy all things American, this is a real threat to the long term sustainability. Will the USA be dangerous in its death throes?
Then there is the second part of this book which changes its tone somewhat. Although it is easier to define the clear black and white issues such as on climate, vaccination or evolution the author presses on into somewhat more murky areas of dispute. To his credit he wades into Peal Oil, economic growth and over-population before rounding the book off with a long lament to American science in which he demands the reader understand that this “rejection of reality” is a “threat”. However for all his dedication to science and reason there are a small number of peculiar examples in the text that somewhat undermine Prothero’s case.
We were only four pages in when the author compared science denialism to Holocaust Denial. Prothero thinks he is in clear water with this – his killer argument. However even a cursory glance at this reasoning shows it to be ironically-faulty. He specifically lumps in scientific reality with historical reality. Although he happily tells us the difference between the truth and facts he makes pretty blithe assumptions about the truth based upon social norms. It is normal to believe the traditionally post-1967 narrative about the Shoah – specifically in the United States where it performs a powerful function. But it is far easier to falsify and misinform with history than with science. With science you can perform an experiment and replicate results, hence it is self-correcting. Not so with history which is so distorted that most of us are happy with the myths we create for ourselves. Hence the Holocaust, or any historical maxim, is a dreadful example to include. Or maybe it is the perfect example – but Prothero does not expand it to make it so. I doubt he is being ironic.
To illustrate this form of objectivity let us chose an easier example, lets say – Santa Clause. Children love the myth of Santa Clause. It serves a valuable modern cultural function. It does no harm. Every year at Christmas you can read the “true story of Santa”, learn his real name, his history, his story, etc, etc. But nobody cares. The legend is far more valuable just as it is. Likewise with St George or hundreds of other historical figures or events that litter our culture. We care not for the reality for the myth is far more powerful. Every “truth” we accept about these myths are treated like “facts” – and Prothero is as trapped in this prison of these social norms and received wisdoms as is any Creationist. Is he as objective as he thinks he is?
For example he writes of the “hundreds” of “witnesses” to the Holocaust. We will all accept that without question. Yet I searched in vain for a single citation on this fact. None. Who needs it? He sees no need to because, as we all “know” this is a commonly accepted “fact”. Like Santa. Of course few of us would even attempt to look up the author’s citations – which is why Prothero can get away with it. This is how myths perpetuate. We are lazy. My point here is that Prothero cannot afford to be so lazy, he should display more scientific curiosity. He should question everything.
Thus he goes on to write that Holocaust Deniers are “anti-Semites and neo-Nazis”. It takes some intellectual rigour on behalf of the reader to remember that in reality this is the author’s opinion. Not fact. This portrays the world of Holocaust Denial as bi-polar – the Nazis and everyone else. It is hard to square this line of reasoning with the murky grey world in which many Jews, scholars and historians do disagree with and debate the mainstream views of the Holocaust. There is much genuine inquiry needed but most fear to tread for fear of offense. Take for example the work of Norman G. Finkelstein – a Jew. Both his parents suffered in Nazi Concentration camps yet he wrote “The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering” which revealed the failures in scholarly objectivity when reviewing Holocaust history. He detailed the complaints of the Holocaust survivors that their memories had been defiled and distorted for quite modern political purposes.
Hence to accept that there is one version of history that everyone just knows to be “true” is a fallacious as the beliefs of a narrow few who read their Star Sign in the Astrology column of the Newspaper and just “know” that it is true. In fact I can forgive Prothero this simplistic example because the rest of his book is so very good. I agree with everything he writes but it will bug some of us that he does little to recognise the many falsehoods and fallacies that can be perpetuated by those who just “know the “truth” because they are scientists. He shares their arrogance but he gets away with it. It is a demonstrably false form of authority that we should be equally cautious of. One needs only dig a little into history to see how the science of Eugenics was known to be “true” in America in the 1930s or how a “great Briton” like Winston Churchill is a proven war criminal by the standards of Nuremburg. Yet we bury these inconvenient facts well down the memory hole. And we all do that. Scientists and anti-scientists alike.
Prothero picks another ill-chosen example when he lumps “Marxism” in with religion as being a “non-scientific belief”. Certainly most in the USA will accept this without question and largely be unaware that Marx himself remains a respected classical economist who himself rejected what had been dubbed “Marxism”. We need only look to the work of Professor Steven Keen for a debunking of the modern religion of neo-liberal economics that has so many of our Western Governments in its thrall. Keen demonstrated that one of the economic theorems of Marx remains more true today than similar work by the Chicago School. Yet, no doubt, Prothero would feel uncomfortable stating these inconvenient facts so early in the book. However we should not misunderstand the author on this matter. You need only to turn to the last chapter of this book to understand that he is forceful in his doubts of the modern system of economics. Which makes his poor examples even more curious earlier on. Thus Prothero writes that (in general):
“Scientists are humans and can make mistakes, or be fooled into believing something that is false or misled by their own biases and ideologies into erroneous ideas.”
This should probably be re-printed as a health warning on the front of the book. I wish he was as keen to admit this of himself as he is of others. He makes multiple claims of travelling outside the United States but makes the very curious claim that Europe is a smoker’s paradise. Clearly he has not spent much time in northern Europe. He should try lighting up a cigarette in a public place in France, Germany, the UK or Holland and see how he gets on. He assumes that the USA is so much more advanced than the rest of the world when it comes to such preventative healthcare. Yet it is hard to weigh this up with reality.
Prothero believes in the sanctity of science because science, unlike other belief systems, is “self-correcting”. Well yes, but sometime those corrections can take a very, very long time. Likewise he states that science looks for “facts” not the “truth” yet his own writing so often blurs the line between the two. For Prothero there is only Science & Anti-Science. A simple bi-polar world with few grey areas or doubts. Yet such exaltation makes science sound like a religion – he chooses his words poorly in this respect. It is not long before he accuses Creationists of committing exactly this sin “if you aren’t with us, you’re against us” which is demonstrably false.
So why does the “anti-science” exist? Prothero makes few inroads into this pithy question early in the book. He often gives the impression that it is a mystery, or denial is paid for by big polluters, or awkward contrarians, or conservatives, or religious nuts, etc. For a while I thought he would simply not address this most important matter. Why do people reject science? For isn’t this the post important question? If we don’t know why then we cannot address the problem. Hence all this is simply hot air.
As we move to the back of the book we move into the highly contentious area of the limits to growth, over-population and peak oil. Having read a lot of highly nuanced arguments about these topics over the last few years we take these chapters as being but brief over-views of the topics. There is no really new insight to be gained. Maybe it should be refreshing to see a scientist come up with such an unequivocal work supporting such ideas. However they do remain an area largely dominated by liberal thinkers. So, whereas the earlier parts of the book could certainly be seen as ‘science versus the rest’, this latter section is always going to have a harder time as the arguments are less clear cut. Some who may have agreed with the pure science of the earlier sections may be repelled by the greater subjectivity on display towards the end. The justifications for his arguments become more and more political in nature. Even on the sciencey stuff we were forced to question the seriousness of his claim that natural gas “cannot be used to run automobiles or produce synthetics“. Certainly that is a sweeping statement that requires some clarification!
There is some science sophistication on display here though. Prothero is not anti-fracking nor is he anti-nuclear. On this he takes a stand yet he falls short of conceding that his views are purely a matter of opinion. He has chosen a view-point. All his wisdom about truth versus facts largely desert him by this point and he simply make a value-judgement. No doubt this is wrapped up in a whole sub-culture of confirmation bias to which we all fall. Yet, still no self recognition from the author. We have to wait until the ultimate chapter on the “rejection of reality” to read a more nuanced view of why anti-science exists:
“Humans filter the world to see what fits their emotional and cultural biases, and easily neglect evidence and information that does not fit (confirmation bias). We are prone to what psychologists now call motivated reasoning – confirmation bias, reduction of cognitive dissonance, shifting the goal-posts, ad hoc rationalisation to salvage falsified beliefs, and other mental tricks cause us to constantly filter the world. Our minds do not objectively weigh all the evidence and listen to reason, but instead act as if we were lawyers seeking evidence to bolster our pre-existing beliefs.”
This is linked to the knew jerk reactions of our primitive chimp brain. The author cites MRI scans of “politically conservative” persons who’s minds are highly active in this primitive animal brain when processing information. In contrast a more liberal person displays thinking in the higher reasoning part of the brain when presented with the same data. Put it simply: liberals think about the evidence, conservatives react emotionally, hence do not think. Thus we have, what Prothero describes as the “smart idiots” – educated people who reject evidence.
“This is really discouraging to those of us battling irrationality.”
..states Prothero. And it seems, (at least in the USA) that this problem is getting worse. The self-motivated reasoning has become so strong in the anti-science community that:
“…all our efforts to doctrinaire conservatives in hopes of changing their minds are in vain, since evidence and reason do not work.”
True, so what are we to do? Prothero states that “some external factor” is needed. But what?
“…the only way to change this is to change the culture..”
What we need is less religion the author suggests. Not sure that is helpful. What is more hopeful is the idea that facts must be demonstrated in a clear an unambiguous way for conservatives to accept them. Droughts, floods, extreme weather, hurricanes, destructive weather – all of these are cited as unfortunately genuine examples that work on conservative minds. What Prothero describes as “scary external demonstrations of reality“.
“However a whole spectrum of society will deny the inconvenient truths of science when facts get in the way of their ideology.”
In the dying embers of the book the author turns towards the future and the trends in science education. Here he laments the long decline in scientific performance in the USA. Ignorance is spreading with the tide of conservative politics. Other societies are on the rise (notably China) whilst other countries have maintained their pro-science cultures into the modern era. There is hope on a global scale as Prothero cites the case of ancient societies that arose on a tidal wave of science and reason only to be crushed by a conservative religious backlash. Empires come and go. The decline of the American Empire is no different. We watch it happen in slow-motion and await the day that it genuinely effects the “super-power” status of the USA.
Currently the American conservative elites are used to spending money and projecting power. Yet they seem to have lost grasp on how that wealth was generated. Here, finally, we return to the powerful myths we write about ourselves in the history books. It may well be that, in order to change our objective assessment of the role of science in our lives then, we have to be honest about who we are and where we came from. Currently we observe North American politics descending into infantile escapism as it drifts further and further away into some fantasy-land of the extreme right. The consequences? Prothero suggests that this is a challenge to democracy itself.
This seems grandiose. His solutions as are even more so. A manned mission to Mars? An American super-CERN? He cites the enormous costs of the US military suggesting that a small amount should be siphoned off back into scientific endeavour. It seems a typically American response. However in a world where there is a long list of worthy causes such as ending gross inequality and replacing fossil fuels the pursuit of science for it own sake is going to end up a pretty long way down anyone’s list.
It really doesn’t matter to our civilisation if this or that culture descends into chaos. What matters is that we choose NOT to follow that example. Here in the United Kingdom in 2016 our biggest fear should be the attempt to emulate the enormous failures and costs of North American society. If we do then the future truly does belong to the Chinese.