The War on Science
In his survey of the academic backdrop to today’s rampant unreason, Professor Sidky suggests a causative link between the rise of what he calls postmodernism and the unreason he sees around us (“The War on Science, Anti-Intellectualism, and ‘Alternative Ways of Knowing’ in 21st-Century America,” March/April 2018). Goofy thinking is rampant, and perhaps English professors, historians, anthropologists, and philosophers do exert some tenuous influence on the general public, but to suggest that academics who question our socially constructed cultural verities have caused the public to reject science and reason is a misreading of how culture works. In fact, tempests in our academic teapots far more often reflect cultural shifts than cause them.
Some of the academic work Sidky cites is indeed silly, even entertainingly so, and I thank him for the smiles. Nonetheless, Sidky grants the legitimacy of much of that work while simultaneously saying it encourages or contributes to the irrationality that permeates society.
It’s a stretch to suggest, as Sidky does, that academics who question our assumptions have destroyed the philosophic underpinnings of science and reason when other very powerful forces in our culture clearly don’t like people thinking too much. Religion would certainly have to top that list, but it’s not the only culprit. Most forget our entire lives are embedded in an economic system that tolerates reason only as long as it is the servant of short-term profit.
Scott Pruitt, evangelical Christian and current head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), recently offered a fine example of how religion and capitalism join forces to strangle reason: “The idea of ‘dominion‘ is about mastery: Human beings have their right to take what they want from the earth, in terms of natural resources, without regards to how it might affect other species” (quoted on Vox.com).
Are science and reason vastly undervalued in 2018 America? With leaders such as Pruitt, who could reasonably deny it? Has postmodern academia, with all its constructing and deconstructing, made some small contribution to the present state of affairs? Maybe a tad.
But as long as we accept the preposterous claims of religion and refuse to examine the assumptions and effects of the economic system we’re all beholden to, we won’t need the permission of professors to act more than a little nuts.
It’s not just a war on science and knowledge; it’s a war on reality. Four hundred years ago, everyone agreed that Earth is the center of the universe and that humans are the reason for its existence. Now, thanks to science, we know that we are an accident of evolution, a species of ape inhabiting a tiny speck in an unimaginably huge and indifferent universe. Did God really create a trillion galaxies just to make us? This is quite a demotion and a big blow to our collective ego, and many people simply reject it in favor of their preferred myths. Having rejected this reality, many people feel free to reject other aspects of reality, such as global climate change and evolution. Like Trump’s, our first impulse is to protect our ego and our exceptionalism, whether that relates to us personally, to our species, our nation, our race, or our religion. This is basic human nature, and I doubt whether a majority will ever fully embrace reality as revealed by scientific inquiry.
The author blames primarily leftist postmodern philosophy for anti-intellectualism and antiscience. Follow the money, Professor Sidky. For example, the real culprits for climate change denial are Big Oil and Big Coal. Some academics greatly inflate academic influence on society, but in fact their influence is very small (they mostly just talk to one another) and is dwarfed by the big money interests.
Sidky intimates that the antiscience movement in academia started in the 1970s. It started earlier, although without a name. My undergraduate career, UC Berkeley (1947–1951), started with physics and ended with English literature, with some thinking that I might end up a professor. But disillusion came with a senior-year seminar on D.H. Lawrence. Lawrence wrote mostly what he considered realistic novels but also several outright short fantasies, The Rocking Horse Winner being the best known due to its film version.
But I noticed that Lawrence’s realistic novels were often based on what I considered fictional science. For example, at a dinner party the hostess wants to make a speech. Lawrence writes that she mentally orders, by her will, that everyone else cease talking to which they comply. In another example, a rich young Englishman of 1912 commits suicide because, you see, he was rich and young. I pointed out that there was no known process of thought transference by purely mental means and that there was not a wave of suicides in the British upper classes prior to The Great War.
Having, since childhood, listened to discussions of the creation of historical fiction by one who was a master of it, I felt that realistic fiction had to be based on a factual background that did not affront scientific reality. The argument of my term paper received a C, simply because I failed to accept the scientific fictions in which Lawrence, and other supposed modernists, believed. That experience closed off my interest in the academic side of literature, considerably before Sidky suggests postmodernism started.
Lemon Grove, California
I learned from the article by Prof. Sidky how left-wing academic postmodern relativism has attacked science over the past forty years and how the right wing has enthusiastically adopted its principles. In academia and the news media, we mostly hear about the fables and foibles of conservatives. I’ve kept track of antiscience on both sides as I’ve seen them misinterpret and ignore scientific results. Some of these false beliefs have been codified into laws, such as U.S. laws against stem-cell research and European laws against GMO foods.
Walla Walla, Washington
While I agree that postmodern and deconstructionist ideas bear a lot of blame for the current shriveling of general trust in science, I wonder whether the stagnation of scientific progress doesn’t provide the intellectual space for such obscurantism to thrive. From the beginning of the seventeenth century through the middle of the twentieth, scientific theories advanced decade after decade. From Kepler’s planetary laws to Turing and Shannon, each generation produced profound new theories and mathematical tools. In the past century, the incompatibilities between the laws of small- and large-scale physics remain unresolved. We work out the implications of earlier theories and say “gee whiz!” but have advanced no significant new theories. When neither science nor superstition advances, it is easier to equate them.
H. Sidky replies:
First, I thank the many readers who have taken time to write responses to “The War on Science.” Dialogue on this topic is essential as the assault on science and reason continues unabated and has even gained strength under the current abysmal political circumstances. In his letter, Ken Winkes suggests that I have presented a misreading of how culture works. I think he has misconstrued the article because I start out stating specifically that the rise of anti-intellectualism and antiscience perspectives involve many complex interconnected factors, such as globalization, demographic shifts, changes in the socioeconomic infrastructure, and disparities in wealth and power. My objective in this article has been to highlight the culpability of American academia in this sad affair rather than look at the broader picture. Neither have I left out the “very powerful forces in our culture,” a point also indicated by John Grant. I have clearly noted the unholy antiscience alliance between fundamentalist churches and profit-hungry agrochemical industries. I disagree with Winkes’s statement that we are talking about a “tempest in a teapot” and that academia is a reflection rather than a force in shaping minds. There is certainly an interplay between broader cultural forces and academic disciplines, but to suggest that college students leave antiscience classes indifferent is naive and unrealistic.
John Powell’s point that this is “a war on reality” is on the mark. The very definition of irrationalism, which is how I characterize the rightwing religious/antiscience perspectives (paranormalism, oxymoronic creation science, and bogus alternative ways of knowing), is belief despite the absence of evidence, or a denial of reality. John Forester is absolutely correct that the roots of antiscience go back earlier than the rise of postmodernism. I focused on the latter alone. But in reality, antiscience sentiments go even further with the reactions to Copernicus, Galileo, Hume, and Darwin. L.G. Wade has astutely called attention to the frightening fact that antiscience beliefs are being legally codified. I am unsure of Don Martin’s suggestion that the “stagnation of scientific progress” has created intellectual space for obscurantism to thrive. I do not think science is stagnating. Just think about the massive science-based changes that have taken place since World War II.
The real problem is that the scientific community has failed to pay sufficient attention to the ravings of what Thomas Paine described as the “blasphemers of science.” Those scientists who have paid attention have opted for mutual coexistence, a view expressed in Stephen Jay Gould’s unfortunate idea of “nonoverlapping magisteria.” It is such an approach that has created intellectual space for supernaturalism, paranormalism, and irrationalism rather than the stagnation of science. Antiscience narratives are not a joke, amusing, “silly,” or “entertaining,” as Winkes seems to think, and unless rational thinking folks take this problem seriously and adopt a no-holds-barred stance in this war, we are all in trouble.
Correction: The opening phrase in H. Sidky’s “The War on Science …” in our March/April 2018 issue should have read, “At the start of the twenty-first century” (not twentieth century). Many readers, nicely attuned to what century we are living in, noticed and kindly informed us we were off by a hundred years. —Editors.
21 Reasons Noah’s Worldwide Flood Never Happened
Lorence Collins’s article on “Twenty-One Reasons Noah’s Worldwide Flood Never Happened” (March/April 2018) reiterates the clear evidence that young-Earth creationists do not have a leg to stand on with regard to a catastrophic Noachian flood. It is unfortunate that he did not give a more reliable reference to the stimulating hypothesis regarding a prehistoric flooding of the Black Sea basin as the source of the Noachian story. A good link to this is provided by Googling “Black Sea Deluge Hypothesis,” which leads to a well-referenced Wikipedia article on the subject. Perhaps Collins’s 2009 reference, cited in his article, covers this, but that URL is no longer on the web and thus the importance of the hypothesis cannot be explored.
Dr. A.R. (Pete) Palmer
Lorence Collins replies to Palmer:
I am aware of this possibility, and Charles Munroe suggests the Black Sea Deluge as the source of the flood myth. His article is on my website as “The Flood of Noah” at http://www.csun.edu/~vcgeo005/Nr39TheFlood.pdf.
While I don’t disagree with any of Collins’s reasons that Noah’s worldwide flood never happened, some of them depend on the assumption that the estimated ages of formations are geological (not biblical) and for others that creationists have cherry-picked the data and reinterpreted it.
To me, the most convincing single piece of evidence that the Canyon is old comes from the volcanics on the west end of the Canyon, the Uinkaret Plateau. There are lava dams 2,000 feet high that were laid down in an already existing canyon. Yet they have been eroded back to about river level. They must have been formed after Noah’s flood, yet we all know God promised us he would never do that again—the rainbow story.
It would be impossible to erode most of 2,000 feet of basalt in a mere 4,360 years (almost six inches per year!). I don’t see how this can be explained with a one-flood scenario, short of a miracle, which science can’t abide. If we resort to a miracle, then why not just claim the whole Canyon was a result of a miracle? Further, at six inches a year, Lava Falls would be completely gone by now, in the time since Powell’s trip in 1868, yet it hasn’t changed noticeably.
The wind-blown sand of the Coconino Sandstone, with its grain size, frosting, cross-bedding, and lizard tracks, probably comes in a close second, but the creationists explain it away as wind-blown sand carried in by a flood surge (and ignore the animal tracks).
Creationists seem to not understand erosion, either. Fluvial erosion occurs primarily by water carrying sediment that grinds away at the bottom. Doubling the depth and/or flow rate of the water does not allow for half the time. The added water, high above the bottom, does little to erode.
Collins replies to Odell:
Yes, I have known about the lava flows that occur in the bottom of the Colorado River that dammed up the river several times. Andy is correct that these very resistant basaltic rocks could not have been eroded out in the 4,350 years since the supposed Noah’s Flood. I just did not include this information as a reason in the Twenty-One Reasons article because I thought I had enough reasons, and I knew that the young-Earth creationists (YEC) would not accept such a reason because they argue that U/Pb radiometric dating cannot be trusted because they say that the decay rate of U was different in biblical times. Of course, that is ridiculous, but it is hard to argue against miracles. Most of my other reasons did not have this issue as a problem.
Andy Odell is also correct that creationists seem not to understand erosion. YEC seem to think that a great volume of water is what carved the Grand Canyon. That is not true. The great volume is transported above the bottom of the canyon and has no effect on erosion. It is even not true that the sand grains carried in flood waters does the erosion, particularly when the quartz sand grains have the same hardness as the quartz in the Zoroaster Granite in the bottom of the canyon. What does the major part of the erosion of the canyon is the so-called bedload of boulders that are rolled and tumbled along the bedrock and forcibly ram against the rock that does most of the erosion. Present-day boulders have little effect on erosion because the volume of present day floods is not that large. The amount of erosion goes up, I think, with the sixth power of the velocity of the water flow. It was during the end of the Ice Age when large volumes of water were generated by rains and melting of ice in mountain glaciers that had the major effect on eroding the bottom of the canyon. But even then, it was slow and not at rates required to do the erosion in less than 4,350 years.
Lorence Collins’s article “Twenty-One Reasons Noah’s Worldwide Flood Never Happened” is very enlightening, especially for the students and lovers of geology. However, the major reason that Noah’s flood never happened is strikingly evident unless some earth scientist can adequately answer the following question: Where did the water come from?
Let’s assume that the highest peak in Noah’s time was 12,000 feet. The Bible’s Genesis account twice mentions forty days and forty nights of rain. Quick arithmetic reveals that for forty days of rain to cover a height of 12,000 feet would require 3,350 inches of rain a day! The website for Kentucky’s ark replication, Answers in Genesis, states that the Genesis story has to be true because of dozens of historical flood story myths. Why are there so many flood story myths? Throughout our planet there are hundreds of sites where, hiking in the hills, one can discover sea fossils high above sea level. Before our understanding of plate tectonics, one explanation of the upland sea fossil mystery would be the appearance of a super flood that covered high mountains many years ago.
Palm Desert, California
(See also Lorence Collins’s Follow-Up column in this issue on p. XX, “Response to Ken Ham and YouTube Comments by Andrew Snelling.”)
Are We Skeptics Doing It Right?
Editor Kendrick Frazier is a positive and enthusiastic advocate for scientific skepticism, as he displayed in his Commentary (“In Troubled Times, This Is What We Do,” March/April 2018). I’m afraid it feels wrong to join in the cheerleading. “Let’s go!” isn’t helpful if there is no plan or set of coherent and actionable goals to move toward.
Measurable progress markers in the realm of scientific skepticism seem to be tough to define. I can’t readily identify significant positive effects that today’s skeptical movement (as distinct from atheism) has made in American society. People don’t even know what it means to be a “skeptic.” This merits concern. The skeptical community has been active for decades. What has been accomplished? Are there established goals? I often doubt we are all on the same bus heading in the same direction.
Where is the public outreach and marketing? How about more than a handful of positive voices promoted in the mainstream press? Where are the politically savvy leaders? Where is the modern media production? Where are the education efforts?
Is it a movement if it doesn’t go anywhere? Now is the time to be engaging the highly frustrated public with a compelling narrative for progress. Instead of a fan convention of similar speakers talking to like-minded listeners, a Critical Thinking Summit is sorely needed to craft some strategy aimed to actually do something bold and substantial.
Sharon A. Hill
Hyped Drug Therapies
In the article “Drug Therapy Hype” (March/April 2018), Dr. Spector rightly points out that some pharmaceutical marketing does not accurately reflect the medical benefit evidenced in clinical trials. He is also correct that the initial enthusiasm for angiogenesis inhibitors, such as Avastin, has not translated into broad clinical utility. However, Dr. Spector is misguided when he portrays cancer immunotherapy as unjustified hype. Opdivo is one of six “checkpoint inhibitors“ (CPIs) that collectively have achieved FDA approval in more than twenty cancer settings in less than a decade, including melanoma, breast, lymphoma, kidney, gastric, urothelial, head and neck, ovarian, merkel cell, colorectal, and “MSI-high” tumors.
It is true that the summary data from large immunotherapy trials often show low overall response rates and limited improvements in median overall survival. However, he ignores the subset of patients who have very long-lasting remissions (which is washed out of group statistics), even in the lung cancer trial highlighted (see the Kaplan-Meier curve plateaus in the Checkmate-017 trial). In settings such as melanoma, CPIs have led to such lasting remissions in some metastatic patients that clinicians whisper the “C word.” Unfortunately, it’s not yet possible to predict who will respond and who will not. Thus, industry and academia are devoting tremendous resources to identify predictive biomarkers and complementary approaches to enhance immune-mediated tumor rejection. In my opinion, that’s a big deal.
San Francisco, California
Ambassadors for Science
First off, my colleagues and I would like to thank you for mentioning National Center for Science Education (NCSE)’s Science Booster Club program in your March/April “Ambassadors for Science” article (by Matthew C. Nisbet). While the depiction of our program was positive and reflective of our larger goals, we wonder if the mention might be revised for accuracy prior to online publication.
In our program, we do not train people to “persuasively discuss” topics related to climate science and evolution; we train people to accurately and engagingly convey information on these topics in community contexts. We find that many communities do not have ready access to information on these topics and that there is a tremendous public appetite for information on climate science and evolution.
The engagement of the University of Iowa with this program has been invaluable. Now that I have left Iowa, graduate students at the University of Iowa are the people on the ground doing this work in communities and collecting data on program measures. I and my colleagues at NCSE develop content and training methods, as well as track and analyze program success.
After the success of our Iowa pilot in 2016, NCSE launched the program nationally in 2017. In 2017, we worked with over 124,000 people across ten states.
Finally, if you are able, it is very helpful for our program leadership if we are named so that people can contact us. I lead the national program with the assistance of my NCSE colleague Claire Adrian-Tucci. My colleague, Professor Maurine Neiman, is the primary faculty member who has helped build the program in Iowa. Many graduate students, including Kyle McElroy, Joseph Jalinsky, and James Woodell, have led the effort to build this program on the ground.
Thank you for considering these points, and thank you again for the kind mention in your publication.
Emily Schoerning, PhD
Director of Research and Community Organizing
National Center for Science Education
Orders of MAGAtude
Benjamin Radford’s otherwise interesting Skeptical Inquiree column “Just Asking Questions” (March/April 2018) is guilty of a sin that it accuses others of committing: journalist innumeracy. He says that Trump exaggerated his inauguration crowd by “several orders of magnitude.” Several orders of magnitude would be a factor of a thousand, at least. But, from Wikipedia:
Crowd counting experts cited by The New York Times estimated that about 160,000 people were in the National Mall areas in the hour leading up to Trump’s speech. Crowd science professor Keith Still estimated the total attendance at 300,000 to 600,000 people, or one-third the estimated 1.1 million to 1.8 million people that attended Obama’s 2009 inauguration—which set a record for the total number of people in the National Mall at any one given time, and which marked the inauguration of the nation’s first African American president. The Washington Post cited a figure of 600,000.
Falls Church, Virginia
Benjamin Radford responds:
I appreciate the correction from Goldberg and other readers. My column “Just Asking Questions” was less about innumeracy (getting numbers wrong) than investigating whether a nationally reported event (the Black Santa outrage racial incident) happened at all (it hadn’t). I apologize for the error; the correct phrase should have been “Trump exaggerated his inauguration crowd by about an order of magnitude.”
We received the March/April 2018 (Vol. 42 No. 2) of the Skeptical Inquirer here in our library at the beginning of March. It was, therefore, remarkable to read when I happened to see it on the shelves this morning (March 16), an article with the title “Hawking ‘Ghosts’ in Old Louisville.” It shook me to think that although Stephen Hawking died on March 14 his ghost had already been haunting Old Louisville long before. This shows that Joe Nickell, the author of the article must be, to say the least, clairvoyant. The article represents a unique journalistic scoop for your magazine.
On a more serious note, I knew Stephen personally as we were physics students in the same year at Oxford. One of his many positive attributes was a firm rejection of any type of pseudoscience. Another was his acute sense of humor. He would have been highly amused to see the title of the article, appearing when it did.
Emeritus Professor of Astrophysics
Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias
Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain
I was pleased to read Stuart Vyse’s review of The Death of Expertise, particularly the application of Sturgeon’s Law to the internet (January/February 2018). I have been long urging a special case of Sturgeon’s Law: 99 percent of the internet is crap.
But a couple of quibbles.
First, Sturgeon’s Law is “90 percent of everything is crud,” despite the more pungent version normally used. The law can be traced back to at least 1953, when James Gunn, science fiction writer and English professor at Kansas University, says he heard it in a talk by Theodore Sturgeon (http://www.sfcenter.ku.edu/Sturgeons-Law.htm).
Second, the comment by Nichols on Nate Silver’s failure to predict Trump’s election success disserves Silver (whose clear thinking qualifies him for inclusion in the skeptical community). Silver did not fail to predict Trump’s election. Silver’s weighted aggregating of polling data is not prediction but rather assessment of probability, which distinction Silver regularly emphasizes and pundits and journalists constantly ignore. In fact, shortly before the election, after the Cubs had won the World Series after being down three games to one and fivethirtyeight.com’s assessment of Clinton’s probability of winning was a little over 60 percent, Silver said Trump’s chances of winning the election were about the same as the Cubs’s had been of winning the World Series after being down three to one.
Regarding George Hrab’s “David vs. Whatsisname” (Last Laugh, March/April 2018): My interpretation of the David and Goliath story is that scientifically proven facts will knock down false belief systems. Which is obviously a false belief.
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