By Paul William Tenny
January 14th, 2012
Chris Mooney’s thought piece on why so many conservatives hate science, I think, gets a couple of very basic things wrong. I don’t believe that conservatives hate science per se, so much as they’ve gradually transitioned over the past few decades from a basic political ideology that finds comfort in tradition and superstition to a sub-culture that embraces the precepts of anti-intellectualism, including the indulgence of fantasy and group-think for moral support.
There are many ways to approach this subject. It’s easy to dismiss people who think differently than you do for lacking common sense, being stupid, or even sub-human – a favorite tactic of Ann Coulter, the kind of dehumanization that the military uses to make it easier to kill people. Not because it’s true and not because you’re making an honest attempt to understand what’s going on, but as an excuse to mock and smear people that you already hate. Other people have made honest attempts to explain behavior through rational constructs.
Julian Sanchez described epistemic closure as a hermetically sealed environment where the legitimacy of information is determined based on where or who it came from. You develop a set of trusted information sources and decide, perhaps subconsciously, because those sources offer you what you want to hear, that anything coming from those sources is automatically legitimate and accurate. Anything from outside sources is automatically wrong. Julian argued that an ideology suffering epistemic closure primarily defines itself by what it rejects and why, and more importantly that “anything that breaks down the tacit equivalence between ‘critic of conservatives’ and ‘wicked liberal smear artist’ undermines the effectiveness of the entire information filter.”
Epistemic closure can offer a complete explanation for the modern American conservative rejection of the scientific consensus on the existence and cause of global warming – and even the rejection of the existence of the consensus itself, which is entirely consistent with epistemic closure. “Whatever conflicts with that reality can be dismissed out of hand because it comes from the liberal media”, Julian wrote, “and is therefore ipso facto not to be trusted.” Academia, the primary source of science in the world, has long been forced outside of the information sources and platforms implicitly trusted by conservative circles. It is not the media, but it is liberal nonetheless. It doesn’t matter how much evidence proves the case, who has the facts, or even what the subject is. It didn’t come from inside, so it’s “ipso facto not to be trusted”.
Julian did take care to note that epistemic closure is not unique to conservatives specifically or to politics generally. But he also argued that that doesn’t mean one demographic can’t suffer closure worse than others. It’s also worth noting that while epistemic closure offers a complete explanation for mass conservative denial of science, it does not explain the denial of evolution which has increasingly transcended political lines (supported by the constant amplification of denial by the supposed liberal media.)
Rather, I think a sub-culture is developing in American society that blesses the ignorance of reality while seeking to equalize opinion with fact, overstating the importance of tolerance for differing opinions while trivializing debate and the quest for truth. I believe the Founders’ attempts to protect religion from interference by the state has played a significant and largely unexplored role. Allowing the population to believe things that clearly aren’t true or accurate in the name of tolerance has crippled the ability of our society to think critically. And I’m not only talking about theism vs atheism. Logic dictates that all things being equal, two religions with conflicting beliefs require that one or both of them be wrong. Yet we treat all of them with the same respect we treat the scientific consensus on thermodynamics or gravity.
It’s not possible or desirable to control what people think, but it’s not wrong – perhaps quite valuable and even necessary – to control how they think. There’s nothing inherently wrong with believing something that’s not true because you want to. The problem is refusing to accept that you’re wrong while pretending it’s true, with everyone else that knows better turning their backs.
I think that modern conservatism, then, can be very comforting to that way of thinking. And that’s why I think there’s this appearance that conservatives “hate” or deny science. Epistemic closure should be a failing that any person is capable of, but it should be relatively rare in a society that values honesty, reason, and substance over lies, fantasy, and rhetoric. It must also then be common in circles where dishonesty is pervasive and fantasy reigns supreme. That’s why so many more conservatives deny things like global warming than any other demographic, political or not, which has been accepted by every major scientific institution in the world including the United States.
Not every conservative in the country has this problem and it’s not limited to conservatives at all. But the near complete capture of American conservatism by epistemic closure goes a long way towards explaining things like the philosophy of denial that has nothing to do with being an different and inferior human being, and everything to do with a lazy culture that accepts and even promotes being wrong as a virtue of independent thinking. It is no such thing.