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"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.


( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 10th, 2014 08:55 pm (UTC)
Decentralized knowing: a great problem to have
I'm thrilled to be living in an age when the sum of all human knowledge is greater than the capacity of a human brain, and when human knowledge is changing at a rate greater than the bandwidth of a human brain.

We outsourced remembering-stuff to dead trees a long time ago. It's not unreasonable to outsource knowing-the-latest to other humans.

(And here I thought the Red Queen Problem was going to refer to a scientist with a time machine and a textbook translated into ancient Greek.)

Edited at 2014-09-10 08:56 pm (UTC)
Sep. 11th, 2014 01:01 am (UTC)
On top of everything you've noted, there might be another problem here: the lack of programming that adequately explains the process of science as self-correcting over time. As you point out, yes, learn some science in one era and it is obsolete once new evidence is introduced. Keeping up is a bitch, true dat.

But many science shows focus on the new findings without delving into the many upsets along the way. And as far as I know, there is no show yet that promotes scientific skepticism—one of the tags you've flag this entry of yours, after all—a component of scientific evaluation.

Then again, how could such a show get on the air? Hear me out.

When one watches many commercials, one often watches a mini-drama aimed to deliver not the most accurate data in a short amount of time, but the most effective sales pitch. Sales pitches favor social cues to woo the viewer into purchases. Show attractive men and women using the product, for example, and sales increase; people insert themselves into the role of the attractive actors they see or desire such attractive people. "Eat here and look at the friends that will accompany you!", or "Drink this and look at the babes you will magnetically attract!" Cues are often negative: "Clean with this product or your children will die of diseases represented by this icky animation!"

What happens when someone watches a show specifically on skepticism constantly interrupted by such mini-dramas? That person will be more able to deconstruct the assumptions and fallacies inherent in the advertising.

No advertiser could allow such a thing to happen. Sales would suffer.

Hence, skepticism, the very thing, along with intellectual curiosity, that drives science, gets no place on commercially-funded mass media, really the only kind we have in the US. (PBS and public radio fans, show me something without one single product or company ad in a day's worth of programming and I'll adjust my opinion.)

Side Note: While you've made an interesting post here, to be sure, I really, really, really wish you would not conflate all "liberals" as with those that equate GMOs with Danger Foods.
Sep. 11th, 2014 07:48 pm (UTC)
I'm not actually suggesting that all liberals oppose GMOs but rather that (nearly) all opponents to GMOs are politically liberal. Unfortunately, in some places (including Portland), opposition to GMOs on really dubious grounds is becoming a liberal identity marker, kind of like opposition to nuclear power was in the 80s.
Sep. 11th, 2014 09:50 pm (UTC)
That is really confusing to me. Farmers tend to be a conservative lot. The objections I hold to GMO have nothing to do with the supposed dangers as food and everything to do with how farmers should be treated, which is Not Monsanto's Way.

Being an outlier sucks, sometimes.
Sep. 12th, 2014 05:20 am (UTC)
Farmers, by and large, tend not to be opposed to GMOs, at least in my experience. Quite the opposite--GMOs often make their lives easier and more profitable. Fewer pest problems plus greater yields generally equals a win, regardless of things like higher seed costs.
Sep. 12th, 2014 11:50 pm (UTC)
Regular industrial farmers, sure. Organic? Bound for a European market? One test in one of their fields of GMO content and it is worthless.

That's a big issue I have with the GMOs, the contamination. One dude in Canada all but lost his farm to Monsanto harassment (they claimed he replanted his content, which he had; but he never planted their content in the first place). The Supreme Court of Canada threw out the suit, but also noted that the farmer was, technically, quite guilty; they pointed out in the decision that the laws simply didn't cover the concept of living patents that could be enforced as Monsanto was attempting—and succeeding—to do.

A major problem for him was that his business was growing organic rape seeds for the seed market, specializing in crossing to produce more robust seeds for future crops. Some Monsanto seed either fell off a truck or blew in from another farmer's field, contaminated his crop, and forced him to sue Monsanto, only to blow money on the suit and be counter-sued and lose in the Supreme Court.

When someone can patent a life form, but take no responsibility for what happens when that life form escapes into the wild, and further denies that anyone is harmed (economically, here) when that happens, the practice of farming has changed. I don't think it is for the better.

Business people should not be forced to build anti-pollen walls around their fields—which don't exist anyway—to prevent economic harm; the one growing the potentially harmful crop should do that, but they are given the pass.

Sorry to ramble. It's a burr in my personal saddle, that's all.
Sep. 11th, 2014 01:26 am (UTC)
'the good old days'
Part of that not wanting to 'keep up with the red queen is expressed as hankering for 'the good old days'.
Sep. 11th, 2014 03:12 am (UTC)
Tammy Faye Bakker [...] once remarked "it's possible to educate yourself right out of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ."

I absolute agree with her! The difference is that she saw that as a negative thing.
Sep. 11th, 2014 09:50 pm (UTC)
My thought exactly. At least there is one bon mot from Tammy that I don't mind quoting.
Sep. 11th, 2014 09:04 pm (UTC)
Anti-Intellectualism as a Red Queen Problem
So science, then, becomes a kind of trust game, not that much different from the priesthood.

As Science (tm) is portrayed to the general public, it's basically Expert Opinion (tm) -- which is functionally what a priesthood is too. If your Expert keeps saying "I don't know" maybe they're not as much of an expert as you hoped. If they're often disagreeing with other Experts, who are you to believe anyway?!

Thanks for the comparison to the Red Queen Problem -- it crystallises something that I'd tried in the past to explain to friends -- ie, that for most people it's "Expert Opinion" all the way down, no matter what "Experts" they are listening to.

While I agree with sylvar that having the sum of all human knowledge be greater than a single human brain is a great problem to have... it's still a problem. Decentralised knowing almost inherently means deferring to other's greater knowledge (at least in some areas), which means Expert Opinions. And who wouldn't want an expert that projects confidence in all their answers, right?


PS: Yes for some an expert projecting confidence in all their answers is a warning sign.

Sep. 12th, 2014 07:57 pm (UTC)
Thanks for some of the history. I didn't realize how far back it went. :(
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )