The Paranoid Style in American Science

Slate has a very interesting three-part article by Daniel Engber: The Paranoid Style in American Science. Engber begins with a discussion of agnostic and sometime intelligent design proponent David Berlinski’s new book critiquing the “New Atheists”; Berlinski, explains Engber, is a archetypical embodiment of a recent trend in American culture of turning the scientific virtue of skepticism against science itself. Engber argues that the same approach, exploiting the limits the scientific knowledge and the evidentiary shortcomings that often accompany even the most complete scientific consensuses, is part of an unhealthy trend, what the defenders of science on Wikipedia call “pseudoskepticism”.

Pseudoskeptics — many of them with clear political, commercial or ideological agendas — sow doubt about human-caused climate change and suspected carcinogens, focus on the unproven safety of nonorganic food and GMO crops, and of course, point to gaps in evolutionary explanations to make room for religious ideas.

As Engber concludes, “Immoderate doubt is paranoia.” He sees the trend of immoderate doubt as a parallel to what historian Richard Hofstadter famously called “the paranoid style in American politics” in his 1964 essay by that title. (Famously, at least, among Americanist graduate students.)

I agree with Engber’s final conclusion, that “Immoderate doubt is paranoia.” However, I don’t think the trend of increasing skepticism about scientific matters indicates the rise of a “paranoid style”, where society as a whole is moving toward immoderate doubt. Rather, it seems that people in general (and scientists themselves no less than nonscientists) are increasingly skeptical because they have a better understanding of the way science works and the social limitations of science on the large scale of modern research.

If the distribution skepticism in society is some sort of bell curve (not an unreasonable assumption), then the center of the distribution is moving closer to a point of healthy moderate skepticism, away from an overly credulous point (when it comes to science, among other things) where it has been in the past. The result of this is a dramatic increase in the number of people at the “immoderate doubt” end of the distribution, but the reduction of the other extreme more than makes up for it.

As an argument to retreat from the cliffs of untempered skepticism, Engber points to Simon and Schaffer’s Leviathan and the Air Pump to the effect that despite the Royal Society’s motto of Nullius in verba (on no man’s word), “the first society members were just as dedicated to the notion that organized science engenders trust, and that it requires the acceptance of some degree of doubt.” But Simon and Schaffer famously conclude that “Hobbes was right”, that “Knowledge, as much as the state, is the product of human actions.” (Famously, at least, among history of science graduate students.) As that matter of fact about the way knowledge is generated increasingly becomes ingrained in American culture, it’s only natural that the political and scientific discourse will increasingly overlap. We can’t take the politics out of science, so the only way to overcome the problem of “paranoid style” science is to fix American politics.

163 thoughts on “The Paranoid Style in American Science”

  1. A healthy skepticism is essential to the scientific enterprise.

    It occurs to me that part of the challenge of teaching science is discovering how to imbue young would-be scientists with the level of healthy skepticism that best serves the enterprise of getting to the ground truth on the basis of reliable evidence and sound reasoning.

    The alternative is the emergence of cults where the cultish beliefs (and derivative practices concordant with those beliefs) are little more than ungrounded flights of fancy.

    That’s fine if one is planning a career in science fiction or fantasy fiction.

    But it’s not a good idea for a culture that relies on well-grounded science, reported to the public by well-grounded journalism.

  2. Moulton, thanks for your comments.

    Part of the problem, which is at the core of this “paranoid science” argument, is that there are remnants of, as you put, cultish beliefs in the way that science works.

    That is, at some point most of the factual grounding of science has to rely directly or indirectly on social convention. This is the point Engber makes in bringing up Shapin and Schaffer. In the time of Boyle and Hobbes, S&S argue, Boyle and his colleagues established the “literary technology” that set the ground rules for what kinds of reports about science and experimental “matters of fact” could be relied upon. Natural philosophers, as gentlemen, could be relied upon to faithful and authoritatively recount the events of an experiment, so that the results could be taken as fact even by those without access to the reported phenomena.

    In that sense, the line between cultish beliefs (where authority is vested in the word of a leader to whom knowledge has been revealed) and grounded scientific knowledge (where authority is vested in scientists to whom direct experimental knowledge has been revealed) is pretty muddled.

    The same thing applies to journalism, of course. Whether it’s science, religion, journalism, or any other realm of knowledge that reaches beyond personal experience, it comes down to the political question of whose word can/should be trusted.

    A culture where all such knowledge is challenged and doubted (within the limits of common sense) is a good thing, even if it partly undermines the cultural authority of science in the short term.

  3. It’s important for the consumers of such transmitted findings to be able to ask of their sources, “What is your evidence and reasoning?” and be provided with a coherent and forthright account.

  4. Right. And part of the problem with issues like evolution and global warming is that the evidence and reasoning are too complex to be both widely understandable to non-experts and decisively more convincing than the arguments of skeptics at the same time.

    (Valiant attempts at such accounts are the great virtue of Wikipedia, in my view, even when they fall short for the most contentious issues.)

  5. It’s hard enough to construct a coherent account of a scientific theory for a traditional print encyclopedia.

    Given the absence of a functional procedure for resolving editorial conflicts on Wikipedia (especially when scientific theories are not universally accepted), the challenge may well be insurmountable on Wikipedia.

  6. And yet, Wikipedia often succeeds in ways that are more convincing (because of the continual input of interested parties) even if they less coherent than traditional sources.

    For evolution and global warming, for example, I think Wikipedia’s coverage is more convincing to skeptics than any number of professionally produced pieces that have the same aim, precisely because the results are multivalent in ways that sources direct from authorities are not. It’s easier to dismiss arguments from authorities you feel are illegitimate than to dismiss arguments that acknowledge conflicting positions including your own.

    On Wikipedia, it works surprisingly often, given the lack of epistemologically or politically robust mechanisms for resolving disputes. Enough people are amenable to reason, argument and evidence that the system works most of the time.

  7. Since this blog post is about David Berlinksi, perhaps it would be illuminating to examine a pair of related editorial conflicts involving Berlinski, to illustrate my concern…

    There was an article entitled Icons of Evolution that referenced a video in which Berlinski appeared, but the bibliographic reference had the wrong description, including a wrong description of what was in the video.

    I obtained the actual video and watched it several times. At first I thought there must be two radically different videos of the same name, as the one I had bore little relationship to the one described on Wikipedia.

    I pointed out all the errors on the talk page, but the adversarial editors dismissed my observations as unreliable or unsourced, even though my source was the actual video.

    A similar error found its way into Berlinski’s BLP, and again the editors resisted correcting the errors and omissions, preferring to rely on an amateurish review of a video (including an erratic and unjournalistic excerpt) rather than examine the video itself to obtain an accurately quoted excerpt.

    These are the kinds of editorial improvements that, to my mind, would improve the accuracy, excellence, and ethics of the treatment of these admittedly controversial subjects. These were fairly minor revisions, but note how much opposition I ran into from a particularly intransigent editor. Unless this kind of uncongenial and uncollegial attitude subsides, it’s not productive for someone like me to make the effort to improve articles in Wikipedia.

    And from what I’ve learned since my unhappy experience last August, this sort of exasperating editorial conflict is far from uncommon.

  8. The errors generally reflected an unprofessional degree of accuracy, excellence, and ethics in online media, either by omitting primary bibliographic references altogether, or referring to them via poorly written amateur reviews that were little more than hatchet jobs.

    I judged them as biased against Berlinski, but mainly they were just erratic and unprofessionally described.

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