Next time you hear someone repeat the thoughtless cliche that conservatives are “anti-science,” direct them to the YouTube video below, which has been making the rounds the last few days and has had nearly 600,000 views as of this afternoon. Here you will take in a typically politicized student, at South Africa’s University of Cape Town, arguing that “Science as a whole is a product of western modernity, and the whole thing should be scratched off.” The audience laughs with approval at this apparent bold transgression, and when someone interjects, at about the one minute mark, that “It’s not true,” he is shouted down and demanded to make an apologize for having violated their “progressive safe space.” Chairman Mao would have been proud.
And then the nonsense resumes, starting with a denial of the theory of gravity. Steven Novella of the NeuroLogicaBlog summarizes it thus:
She gives as an example that Newton saw an apple fall, made up gravity, wrote down some equations, and now that is scientific truth imposed on the world forever (seriously, I am not exaggerating this one bit).
The other pillar of her position is that in Africa there are practitioners of black magic who can summon a lightening bolt at their enemy. This is not explainable by “Western” science, and yet this is African knowledge, and therefore is an example of Western colonialism suppressing indigenous wisdom.
This provides an occasion to mention Dan Sarewitz’s important essay from several weeks ago in The New Atlantis, “Saving Science,” which is one of the best discussions to date of the problem the presumptions, herd mentality, and politicization of the scientific community today. It is a healthy reminder that most of the “science denial” mongers are really political actors who dislike dissent from the political agenda to which so much “science” is put today.
It’s very much worth reading this long and wide-ranging article, but here’s the opener:
Science, pride of modernity, our one source of objective knowledge, is in deep trouble. Stoked by fifty years of growing public investments, scientists are more productive than ever, pouring out millions of articles in thousands of journals covering an ever-expanding array of fields and phenomena. But much of this supposed knowledge is turning out to be contestable, unreliable, unusable, or flat-out wrong. From metastatic cancer to climate change to growth economics to dietary standards, science that is supposed to yield clarity and solutions is in many instances leading instead to contradiction, controversy, and confusion. Along the way it is also undermining the four-hundred-year-old idea that wise human action can be built on a foundation of independently verifiable truths. Science is trapped in a self-destructive vortex; to escape, it will have to abdicate its protected political status and embrace both its limits and its accountability to the rest of society.
I’ll add this this critique goes double for social science.