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September 10th, 2014

"Well, in our country," said Alice, still panting a little, "you'd generally get to somewhere else — if you ran very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing."
"A slow sort of country!" said the Queen. "Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run twice as fast as that!"
"I'd rather not try, please!" said Alice. "I'm quite content to stay here — only I am so hot and thirsty!"

-- Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

"When we just saw that man, I think it was [biologist P.Z. Myers], talking about how great scientists were, I was thinking to myself the last time any of my relatives saw scientists telling them what to do they were telling them to go to the showers to get gassed … that was horrifying beyond words, and that’s where science – in my opinion, this is just an opinion – that’s where science leads you."
-- Ben Stein, Trinity Broadcasting System interview, 2008


What do spam emails, AIDS denial, conspiracy theories, fear of GM foods, rejection of global warming, antivaccination crusades, and the public school district of Tucson, Arizona banning Shakespeare's The Tempest have in common?


A typical spam message in my inbox


The answer is anti-intellectualism. Anti-intellectualism--the rejection of scientific study and reason as tools for understanding the physical world, and the derision of people who are perceived as educated or "intellectual"--has deep roots in the soil of American civil discourse. John Cotton, theological leader of the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay, wrote in 1642, "the more learned and witty you bee, the more fit to act for Satan will you bee"--a sentiment many Evangelical Protestants identify with today. (Tammy Faye Bakker, wife of the disgraced former televangelist Jim Bakker, once remarked "it's possible to educate yourself right out of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.")

It seems weird that such a virulent streak of anti-intellectualism should be present in the world's only remaining superpower, a position the US achieved largely on the merits of its technological and scientific innovation. Our economic, military, and political position in the world were secured almost entirely by our ability to discover, invent, and innovate...and yet there is a broad swath of American society that despises the intellectualism that makes that innovation possible in the first place.

Liberals in the US tend to deride conservatives as ignorant, anti-intellectual hillbillies. It's arguably easy to see why; the conservative political party in the US is actively, openly hostile to science and intellectualism. The Republican Party of Texas has written into the party platform a passage opposing the teaching of critical thinking in public school. Liberals scoff at conservatives who deny the science of climate change, teach that the world and everything in it is six thousand years old, and seek to ban the teaching of evolutionary science...all while claiming that GMO foods are dangerous and vaccines cause autism. Anti-intellectualism is an equal-opportunity phenomenon that cuts across the entire American political landscape. The differences in liberal and conservative rejection of science are merely matters of detail.

So why is it such a pervasive part of American cultural dialog? There are a lot of reasons. Anti-intellectualism is built into the foundation of US culture; the Puritans, whose influence casts a very long shadow over the whole of US society, were famously suspicious of any sort of intellectual pursuit. They came to the New World seeking religious freedom, by which they meant the freedom to execute anyone they didn't like, a practice their European contemporaries were insufficiently appreciative of; and the list of people they didn't like included any unfortunate person suspected of learning or knowledge. That suspicion lingers; we've never succeeded in purging ourselves of it entirely.

Those of a cynical nature like to suggest that anti-intellectualism is politically convenient It's easier, so the narrative goes, to control a poorly educated populace, especially when that populace lacks even basic reasoning skills. If you've ever watched an evening of Fox News, it's a difficult argument to rebut. One does not need to be all that cynical to suggest a party plank rejecting critical thinking skills is a very convenient thing to a political party that enshrines young-earth Creationism, for instance.

But the historical narrative and the argument from political convenience seem insufficient to explain the breathtaking aggressiveness of anti-intellectualism in the US today, particularly among political progressives and liberals, who are often smugly self-congratulatory about how successfully they have escaped the clutches of tradition and dogma.

I think there's another factor, and that's the Red Queen problem.

In evolutionary, biology, the Red Queen hypothesis suggests that organisms in competition with each other must continue to evolve and adapt merely to maintain the status quo. When cheetahs prey on gazelles, the fastest cheetahs will be most successful at catching prey; the fastest gazelles will be most successful at escaping cheetahs. So natural selection favors faster and faster gazelles and cheetahs as each adapts to the other. Parasites evolve and become more efficient at parasitizing their hosts, which develop more efficient defenses against the parasites. I would like to propose that the same hypothesis can help explain anti-intellectualism, at least in part.

As we head into the twenty-first century, the sum total of human knowledge is increasing exponentially. When I was in college in the late 1980s and early 1990s, my neurobiology professors taught me things--adult human brains don't grow new neurons, we're all born with all the brain cells we'll ever have--that we now know not to be true. And that means anyone who wants to be educated needs to keep learning new things all the time, just to stay in one place.

Those who reject science like to say that science is flawed because it changes all the time. How can we trust science, they say, when it keeps changing? In fact, what's flawed is such critics' estimation of how complicated the natural world is, and how much there is to know about it. Science keeps changing because we keep shining lights into previously dark areas of understanding.

But it's really hard to keep up. A person who wants to stay abreast of the state of the art of human understanding has to run faster and faster and faster merely to stay in one place. It's fatiguing, not just because it means constantly learning new things, but because it means constantly examining things you believed you already knew, re-assessing how new discoveries fit into your mental framework of how the world works.

For those without the time, inclination, tools, and habits to keep up with the state of human understanding, scientists look like priests. We must merely accept what they say, because we don't have the tools to fact-check them. Their pronouncements seem arbitrary, and worse, inconsistent; why did they say we never grow new brain cells yesterday, only to say the exact opposite today? If two different scientists say two different things, who do you trust?

If you don't race to keep up with the Red Queen, that's what it is--trust. You must simply trust what someone else says, because trying to wrap your head around what's going on is so goddamn fatiguing. And it's easier to trust people who say the same thing every time than to trust people who say something different today than what they said yesterday. (Or who, worse, yet, tell you "I don't know" when you ask a question. "I don't know" is a deeply unsatisfying answer. If a Bronze Age tribesman asks two people "What is the sun?" and one of them gives a fanciful story about a fire-god and a dragon, and the other says "I don't know," the answer about the fire-god and the dragon is far more satisfying, even in complete absence of any evidence that fire-gods or dragons actually exist at all.)

Science is comfortable with the notion that models and frameworks change, and science is comfortable with "I don't know" as an answer. Human beings, rather less so. We don't want to run and run to keep up with the Red Queen. We also don't want to hear "I don't know" as an answer.

So science, then, becomes a kind of trust game, not that much different from the priesthood. We accept the pronouncements of priests and scientists alike when they tell us things they want to hear, and reject them when they don't. Political conservatives don't want to hear that our industrial activity is changing the global climate; liberals don't want to hear that there's nothing wrong with GMO food. Both sides of the political aisle find common ground in one place: running after the Red Queen is just plain too much work.