Jonathan Lowe) You describe three areas in which science is under attack. How are they related philosophically, and is the intent short term profits at long term expense?
Shawn Otto) All three areas are motivated by protection of their vested interests, and they do this by attacking the objectivity of science. Science creates knowledge, knowledge is power, and that power is political because it either confirms or challenges someone’s power base. In the war on science, attacks are coming from the postmodernist academic left, the fundamentalist religious right, and industry whose business models are threatened by new advances in health or environmental science. Postmodernists argue that science is just one of many ways of knowing, and that there is no such thing as objectivity. What gives one authority to speak on a subject is one’s membership in a political identity group, eg, one’s race, creed, sexual orientation, gender, political party, etc. Instead of objectivity, authenticity is viewed as having more authority. But science was developed to strip what we actually know away from all those subjective biases. If it rains and we both stick a ruler in a bucket, we’re going to get the same objective result no matter out identity subgroup. Yet this false idea has been taught in journalism and education schools for forty years and has eroded the public’s capacity to think about what is real. Journalists are especially guilty of this when they take the view that the only thing they can do is be fair and balanced. They will present in one half of the story a scientist relaying all the objective knowledge created by scientists over thousands of experiments, and in the other half, to be “balanced,” they will present someone with an opposing opinion. This false equivalence of facts and opinions elevates extreme voices on our public dialog. And, it opens the way to authoritarianism, because if there is no objective standard on which we all agree, how do we settle arguments of contested facts, such as those made by Donald Trump? The only means left is by the person with the biggest stick or the loudest megaphone funded by the biggest wallet. Around the same time postmodernism was taking root in academia, fundamentalist religion found its power base threatened by advances in the bio sciences, particularly around human origins, especially reproduction and sexuality. So we began to see a very sophisticated development of alternative theories to compete with, attack, and cast doubt on or outright deny science around evolution, birth control, when pregnancy begins, sexuality, gender, sexual orientation, stem cells, abortion, HPV vaccination, sex education, and in-vitro fertilization. They took advantage of the foundation laid down by the postmodernists to argue that science was something you either believed in or not, rather than a matter of know-how. This view was also adopted by industries who sought to forestall or prevent science-based regulations that affected their business model. So we see industries opposed to pesticide regulation, tobacco regulation, CO2 regulation, farming regulation, pharmaceutical regulation, sugar regulation, and mining/extractive industries regulation all mounting sophisticated public relations campaigns taking advantage of postmodernist ideas to create public uncertainty about the science, and then argue that since we are uncertain it’s premature to do anything.
(Shawn Otto is also author of the novel SINS OF OUR FATHERS, read by Jim Meskimen.)