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This article is from the In-Depth Report Election 2012: Grading Obama and Romney on Science
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Antiscience Beliefs Jeopardize U.S. Democracy

The United States faced down authoritarian governments on the left and right. Now it may be facing an even greater challenge from within

An Antiscience Philosophy

If both Democrats and Republicans have worn the antiscience mantle, why not just wait until the pendulum swings again and denialism loses its political potency? The case for action rests on the realization that for the first time since the beginning of the Enlightenment era in the mid-17th century, the very idea of science as a way to establish a common book of knowledge about the world is being broadly called into question by heavily financed public relations campaigns.

Ironically, the intellectual tools currently being used by the political right to such harmful effect originated on the academic left. In the 1960s and 1970s a philosophical movement called postmodernism developed among humanities professors displeased at being deposed by science, which they regarded as right-leaning. Postmodernism adopted ideas from cultural anthropology and relativity theory to argue that truth is relative and subject to the assumptions and prejudices of the observer. Science is just one of many ways of knowing, they argued, neither more nor less valid than others, like those of Aborigines, Native Americans or women. Furthermore, they defined science as the way of knowing among Western white men and a tool of cultural oppression. This argument resonated with many feminists and civil-rights activists and became widely adopted, leading to the “political correctness” justifiably hated by Rush Limbaugh and the “mental masturbation” lampooned by Woody Allen.

Acceptance of this relativistic worldview undermines democracy and leads not to tolerance but to authoritarianism. John Locke, one of Jefferson's “trinity of three greatest men,” showed why almost three centuries ago. Locke watched the arguing factions of Protestantism, each claiming to be the one true religion, and asked: How do we know something to be true? What is the basis of knowledge? In 1689 he defined what knowledge is and how it is grounded in observations of the physical world in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Any claim that fails this test is “but faith, or opinion, but not knowledge.” It was this idea—that the world is knowable and that objective, empirical knowledge is the most equitable basis for public policy—that stood as Jefferson's foundational argument for democracy.

By falsely equating knowledge with opinion, postmodernists and antiscience conservatives alike collapse our thinking back to a pre-Enlightenment era, leaving no common basis for public policy. Public discourse is reduced to endless warring opinions, none seen as more valid than another. Policy is determined by the loudest voices, reducing us to a world in which might makes right—the classic definition of authoritarianism.

Postmodernism infiltrated a generation of American education programs, as Allan Bloom first pointed out in The Closing of the American Mind. It also infected journalism, where the phrase “there is no such thing as objectivity” is often repeated like a mantra.

Reporters who agree with this statement will not dig to get to the truth and will tend to simply present “both sides” of contentious issues, especially if they cannot judge the validity of scientific evidence. This kind of false balance becomes a problem when one side is based on knowledge and the other is merely an opinion, as often occurs when policy problems intersect with science. If the press corps does not strive to report objective reality, for which scientific evidence is our only reliable guide, the ship of democracy is set adrift from its moorings in the well-informed voter and becomes vulnerable once again to the tyranny that Jefferson feared.

An Existential Crisis

“Facts,” John Adams argued, “are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” When facts become opinions, the collective policymaking process of democracy begins to break down. Gone is the common denominator—knowledge—that can bring opposing sides together. Government becomes reactive, expensive and late at solving problems, and the national dialogue becomes mired in warring opinions.

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