Book review – Anti-Science and the Assault on Democracy: Defending Reason in a Free Society

Long-term readers of this blog will be aware that the proliferation of pseudoscience and anti-scientific sentiments disturb me deeply. As someone with a scientific training, my concerns are foremost academic. But as the contributors to this edited collection wish to show, these anti-intellectual trends also impact democracy. This is perhaps nowhere more pronounced than in the USA and Anti-Science and the Assault on Democracy is therefore appropriately US-centric. It is also rather academic and scholarly in tone, more so than other works aimed at a general audience.

Anti-Science and the Assault on Democracy

Anti-Science and the Assault on Democracy: Defending Reason in a Free Society“, edited by Michael J. Thompson and Gregory R. Smulewicz-Zucker, published by Prometheus Books in November 2018 (hardback, 303 pages)

Alan Sokal kicks off with the question of what science is and why we should care. His conclusion and argumentation leading up to it are clear: science is but one incarnation of a more general rationalist worldview, one that champions clear thinking and respect for evidence. And this kind of worldview is as important in science as it is in collective decision-making. Michael J. Thompson, one of the editors, makes much the same point in the next chapter, but with an important addition: we should not conflate technology with science. In our modern world, especially technology has become fused to capitalism, with its focus on control, profit, and efficiency. Many people don’t like this and extend their dislike to science itself. Thompson argues this is throwing out the baby with the bathwater. The hallmarks of scientific thinking are just as important for a healthy democracy. Barbara Forrest’s essay examines how the founding fathers of the USA – specifically Jefferson, Franklin, Adams and Madison – were scientifically literate figures that supported science and thought it important for a democratic society. She then focuses on how the religious right is now using democracy to undermine and subvert support for science.

Gregory Smulewicz-Zucker, the other editor, contributes an enlightening chapter on both the attacks from the political left and right on science. He does an excellent job, in my opinion, in introducing postmodern theory and three of its important figureheads (Michael Foucault, Paul Feyerabend, and Ernesto Laclau). One of the things postmodernism holds is that objective truth does not exist because all truth is permeated by power, e.g. political agendas and special interests. Their lamentable conclusion has been that objectivity does not exist: your truth is just as valid as my truth. Although America’s political right might vomit on this kind of academic elitism, laced as it is with jargon, it has clearly and very successfully adopted it in practice. One only has to think of the stock phrases “fake news” and “alternative facts” that have arisen during Trump’s presidency to see how true this is. Margaret C. Jacob’s chapter similarly examines postmodern French philosopher Bruno Latour and the damage his thinking has caused, specifically in the context of climate change denial.

“America’s political right has clearly and very successfully adopted [postmodernism] in practice. One only has to think of the stock phrases “fake news” and “alternative facts” […]”

Several other authors argue that science and democracy are not necessarily comfortable bedfellows. Philip Kitcher questions whether democratic societies can tackle climate change with the urgency it requires. The ever-excellent Michael Ruse takes a spirited look at the problem of pseudoscience in democratic societies. Clearly, we cannot go about prohibiting it (including Ruse’s bugbear of the anti-vaccination movement). And how would you do that in practice anyway? But, he argues, tolerance is no excuse for acceptance or indifference. He urges for continued opposition and vigilance, such as his own opposition to the teaching of creationism in US public schools (a definitive history is The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design). Finally, Diana M. Judd’s essay argues that science works better with a republic than with a democracy, and re-examines the work of Enlightenment philosopher Francis Bacon (1561-1626). Not an essay that was necessarily easy reading.

I found about two-thirds of the essays in this collection interesting and (reasonably) accessible. Especially those where contributors harkened back to the Greek origins of democracy, looking at what philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato thought of it. They were, perhaps surprisingly, not its biggest cheerleaders. I also have my doubts at times, and hope to give some more substance to these feelings by (hopefully soon) reading Can Democracy Work? A Short History of a Radical Idea, from Ancient Athens to Our World and Against Democracy.

“Michael Ruse argues that tolerance of pseudoscience in a democratic society is no excuse for acceptance or indifference”

There were a few chapters, though, that I found very hard work. Smulewicz-Zucker accuses much post-modernist writing of being jargon-laden talk with little reach beyond graduate programs in the humanities. The same can be said of some of the chapters here. Contrast his chapter on postmodernism with Landon Frim and Harrison Fluss’s essay on accelerationism. Both aim to introduce a political and social theory and the important people in its history. But where the former did a good job introducing it for a layman like myself, the latter was far harder to grasp, simply echoing the jargon rather than explaining it. Similarly, Lee Smolin’s essay, which argues that science (especially physics and mathematics) seeks to banish time from its idealised descriptions and models of the world, is a piece of philosophical fireworks, but its applicability to democracy was lost on me. (I believe his point is that this attempt at banishing time seems to bleed over into our thinking on economics and politics, much to their detriment?)

Overall I found Anti-Science and the Assault on Democracy a bit of a mixed bag. Most chapters, as I mentioned, are reasonably good, some really good. But I see two things preventing it from reaching a wider readership. First, this book seems mostly aimed at a humanities and philosophy crowd who will likely get the most out of it. It was far more academic in tone and level, and far less geared towards a general audience than I thought it would be. Second, I felt the book lacked a clearly outlined structure. A plethora of voices and ideas are included (which is great), some of which are very high-brow (as mentioned above) or very specific (such as an appraisal of the continued relevance of America’s premier philosopher of democracy, John Dewey). What might have made this book more accessible would have been more input from the editors. Either by having an opening and closing chapter to the book examining the relevance of all the contributions to the book’s central thesis, or even such a commentary with each section. The thirteen chapters are organised in four sections, so clearly the editors had some structure in mind. I think my reading of this book would have benefited from this. As it stands, I soldiered through this book, took several interesting ideas away from it, but likely also missed out on a number of things.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

Anti-Science and the Assault on Democracy hardback or ebook

Other recommended books mentioned in this review:

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