Some Thoughts on Science, the Humanities, and Truth

Lee McIntyre’s recent article “The Attack on Truth” begins with a refrain familiar to people who do science studies: Theory has been co-opted by anti-science wingnuts. Nodding to Bruno Latour’s “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?”, climate change deniers, and anti-vaccination activists, McIntyre laments that trends in the humanities have contributed to widespread scientific illiteracy and a sense that scientific facts are just your opinion, man. “It is sad,” he writes, “that the modern attack on truth started in the academy — in the humanities, where the stakes may have initially seemed low in holding that there are multiple ways to read a text or that one cannot understand a book without taking account of the political beliefs of its author.”

The story, in sum, is that when humanities professors started reading Foucault and Derrida, they began to question science’s status as absolute, objective truth and instead thought about the human social construction of scientific knowledge. Poking and prodding at scientific facts, they inadvertently opened up a floodgate. Now a sizable portion of the American public thinks climate change is a myth and humans lived with dinosaurs, and happily wallows in its ignorance while the icecaps melt and California burns.

McIntyre also gestures, however, to another genealogy for contemporary anti-science sentiment:

Of course, some folks were hard at work trying to dispute inconvenient scientific facts long before conservatives began to borrow postmodernist rhetoric. In Merchants of Doubt (Bloomsbury Press, 2010), two historians, Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, have shown how the strategy of denying climate change and evolution can be traced all the way back to big tobacco companies, who recognized early on that even the most well-documented scientific claims (for instance, that smoking causes cancer) could be eroded by skillful government lobbying, bullying the news media, and pursuing a public-relations campaign.

This aside points, I think, to a possibility we need to consider more carefully. That is, maybe we have overestimated the sweep of theory. Maybe it wasn’t ever the humanities that gave conservatives license to reject science. Maybe we weren’t that influential after all. There are older and more powerful forces at work here, not least of which are consumer capitalism and religion. Weren’t we supposed to learn from Mad Men that business has its own tactics for obscuring inconvenient truths and creating alternate realities? Climate change denialism exists because it benefits corporate interests, not because somebody took a theory class in college and now believes truth is relative.

McIntyre’s essay goes on to suggest that the internet contributes to the growing disrespect for truth, a point that anyone who’s spent five minutes on Facebook will find hard to dispute. Each of us cultivates our own little echo chamber on the internet–which is not to say that all echo chambers are equal. The truth that McIntyre pines for, wherever it is, is probably not somewhere in the middle.

I think that internet discourse also shows, though, that the conservative uptake of Theory is in no way earnest. Here is a paraphrase of something I’ve seen a lot on Facebook recently: “If Caitlyn Jenner can identify as a woman, shouldn’t Rachel Dolezal be able to identify as black? Isn’t identity just a social construct?” The framing of this remark as a question is a lie. Were it a sincere question, a simple Google search would yield plenty of results explaining the difference between transgender people and Rachel Dolezal. Not understanding the difference is no failure; the failure is to make no effort to understand, to trumpet your ignorance. The second question, “Isn’t identity just a social construct?”, is also an ironic one. The people who post things like this don’t believe that identity is a social construct–they believe Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal are equally illegitimate, that male is male and white is white. And they don’t understand what “social construct” means for humanities scholars. Hint: it doesn’t mean “not real,” nor does it mean “identity is whatever I want it to be.”

All of this is to say, I don’t think science deniers and other species of conservative have abandoned truth as a value. They believe in truth, but their truth is different from mine and from McIntyre’s. And, I think, their truth is rooted in deep histories of fundamentalist religion and the needs of capitalism. They may use the same terms we do, but they use them ironically.

I don’t know what this means for fighting climate change, anti-transgender hate, and other bad things in the world. But I think the role of theory in legitimating science denialism and other forms of right-wing thought has been exaggerated. There are better ways of understanding their philosophical roots, and the humanities can help us better understand them.

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2 Responses to Some Thoughts on Science, the Humanities, and Truth

  1. Lee McIntyre says:

    This is one of the best commentaries I’ve read on my Chronicle article “The Attack on Truth.” I never meant to imply that the literary critics and science studies folks were the proximate cause of the kind of disrespect and denialism that we now see being perpetrated by so many ideologues on the right. What I do think happened is that they were motivated (by politics, by ideology, etc) to disbelieve certain things and then began to cast around for a convenient language in which to cloak their opinions. This doesn’t mean that some of the over-the-top pronouncements from left-wing academics didn’t do damage, just that these are only one part of a much larger story, which I’ve tried to do justice to in my recent book Respecting Truth: Willful Ignorance in the Internet Age (Routledge, 2015). Thank you for your careful analysis here in a debate that has attracted so much vitriol.

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