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Jamelle Bouie on ‘anti-science beliefs’

February 4, 2015

Jamelle Bouie thoughtfully critiques partisans’ tendency to drape their beliefs in science (emphasis added):

 In the quest for partisan advantage, everyone scrambles to clothe his or her beliefs in the guise of objectivity. The reality, however, is that our beliefs are nothing of the sort. We construct them outside the scope of scientific observation, with ideas that come to us through custom, experience, and education, and for which science gives little confirmation or support. “We see what we want to see,” writes John Dewey in Human Nature and Conduct, “We dwell upon favoring circumstances till they become weighted with reinforcing considerations.” In that environment, honest deliberation, he says, “needs every possible help it can get against the twisting, exaggerating, and slighting tendency of passion and habit.”

Instead of trying to attack each other for our fealty to science—or lack thereof—let’s acknowledge the deep subjectivity of our views but try to use the tools and methods of science to help us inform and strengthen them; to challenge them, to sharpen them, and to try to root them in our shared reality.

We can’t express this sentiment enough, and I appreciate Bouie’s stating it. But I am a bit confused how he reconciles these paragraphs with the rest of his essay. His attempt to be fair and bi-partisan comes off as a bit incoherent: Both the left and right have anti-science beliefs. Republicans’ anti-science beliefs, however, are political whereas Democrats are not. But since no one is objective anyway we shouldn’t focus on science and just acknowledge our deep subjectivity. Huh?

If Bouie’s goal is for us stop attacking each other for fealty to science and get philosophical about our subjectivity, he shouldn’t have spent so much time cataloging the differences between liberal and conservative ‘anti-science beliefs.’ If his goal is to show that Republicans are more anti-science than Democrats, he should have focused on that.

But because he couldn’t seem to make up his mind, Bouie perpetuates what even he identifies as the main problem in these conversations: they are “annoyingly, frustratingly imprecise.” Though I’ve read his essay a few times now, I’m still not sure what he means by ‘anti-science beliefs.’ I’m also not sure whether I should care about them, or if it matters that some of these beliefs are political while others aren’t. Bouie ends up engaging in a type of discourse that, according to his conclusion, he doesn’t believe in.

I’ve increasingly come around to position of my friend David Bruggeman–it would be best to eliminate ‘anti-science’ from our vocabulary. This term is deployed to draw lines and brand your opponents, not enlighten or advance an argument. It’s so meaningless that sometimes practicing scientists are deemed anti-science. So we say all creationists are anti-science even if they have a science PhD.

In the end–and despite my criticism–I’m happy that even a partisan warrior like Bouie acknowledges how problematic the concept is and how it can corrode public discourse. I hope the next time he goes a step further and calls out his fellow liberals for their sloppy reasoning. But that’s probably too much to ask for.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 5, 2015 7:43 pm

    I’ll just post here what I left for Praj on the Tweetybox.

    I’d recommend reading Jack Stilgoe on anti-science https://jackstilgoe.wordpress.com/2012/02/21/anti-anti-science/ as well as Roger Pielke, Jr. http://thebreakthrough.org/index.php/voices/roger-pielke-jr/against-anti-science

  2. Victor permalink
    February 14, 2015 12:21 pm

    Thanks for the links.

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