Tag Archives: Antiscience

Academia, Science, and Anti-Science

Dr. Patrick Thaddeus Jackson’s anti-scientific critique of rational choice theory made me think more of Academia, and its relationship to Science.

Academia and Science are not the same thing. Indeed, for a long time most U.S. government science funding was channeled thru the Department of Agriculture. Many of the great scientific advancements in the United States were likewise made outside the typical academic environment, such as Bell Labs, General Electric, the Manhattan Project, and the Apollo Program. While academia were involved in these places to varying extent, none of them ran on the basis of academic freedom.

How Academia works is not the only way of how Science works. Science already has too many enemies to be dragged down into the political muck with Academics who themselves attack science in addition to creating political enemies. Academia is already under too much attack — such as from teachers union attempting to harvest profits from the public school system – to stay healthy under the anti-Scientific strain.

The proper role of non-Scientific academics is teaching, service, and research that builds useful things. The digital humanities are an amazing and lucrative example of such useful, non-Scientific work in Academia. Jason Heppler of Stanford University runs an awesome blog on such things, Likewise, the cool Geographic Travels blogs emphasizes the utility of spatial and cultural geography. There’s plenty of room for such activity in Academia, too.

But that space is threatened by the anti-scientists — especially elite anti-scientists — who simultaneously attack Science and also generate political enemies. Dr. Jackson’s post titled “The Society of Individuals,” for instance, is an attack on Rational Choice research programs while also attacking politically relevant philosophers for being sexist and morally repugnant.

Science in the Academy is too precious for those who attack Science and the foundations of the Academy. It is a tragedy such parasitic rhetoric is found in the system. It is a waste of resources all around.

A further tragedy is that when non-scientific academics engage in tangential political debates, the (natural) political reaction can be ineffective, counterproductive, and chaotic. Dr. Jackson’s piece is surely an example of the sort of research that Senator Coburn hoped to put a stop to by taking away National Science Foundation support for political science.” But the NSF supports actual scientific work, so the consequences of the defunding are to weaken the Academy, weaken Science, but previously strengthen the voices of those anti-scientific talking heads who might otherwise be drowned out by scientific Academics.

Over at gnxp, Razib Khan has surged that anti-science cultural anthropology “be extirpated from the academy.” More generally, anti-scientists of all types should be too. But there’s no easy or obvious way to do this without risking the Academic Freedom that anti-scientists use to attack science

In conclusion, anti-science should be extirpated from the academy. But I have no idea of how this should be done.

Four Types of Anti-Science

There are scientists, but this post is not about them.

(If you want my career advise for folks who like science, please read the following posts instead: “How Academia Works,” “When It Sucks to Be Young, “Science, Paradigms, and the Old Boys Network,” and How to Escape the Humanities Ghetto.”)

There are people who oppose science in ideological grounds, either out of a specific distaste for science, or else because scientific research or findings leads (or is seen to lead) to objectionable conclusions, or else because they do not know what science is and attack it as part of their other activities.. This post is about them.

Let’s consider two dimensions of anti-scientists, by the nature of their strength.

  • The size dimension accounts for the number of their confederates int their attempt to retard or stop scientific progress.
  • The seriousness dimension accounts for the intellectual rigor and elite infiltration that they and their confederates have gained.


We can describe each corner of this taxonomy:

  • Popular X Elite: The elite and the public are united against scientific investigation. This is the case in most non-medical human biodiversity research, because of the ideological and historical connotations of such research in the eyes of many. Thus, Human Biomonoculturalists are examples of popular, elite anti-scientists.
  • Popular X Downtrodden: Large, widespread public animosity towards science, but without elite support. In the United States and many Muslim countries, attitudes toward evolutionary biology fall into this category. So Creationists are examples of a popular, downtrodden anti-scientists.
  • Small X Downtrodden: A politically unpopular and generally disenfranchised group is opposed to science, but has not yet gained any form of transaction. So Flat Earthers are examples of small, downtrodden anti-scientists.
  • Small X Elite: A small, highly trained cadre of experts, with elite credentials, attempts to overturn scientific funding. In this post I’ll describe Collectivist Ideologues as examples of small, elite anti-scientists.

An example of such a small but serious attack on science — of Collectivist Ideologues — is Dr. Patrick Thaddeus Jackson’s recent post, “The Society of Individuals,” which appeared at the popular political science blog Duck of Minerva


The writing in Dr. Jackson’s article is dense, but the argument boils down to the following

1. Rational Choice Theory immorally operationalizes social decisions on the individual, not the society level

So we have two fundamentally different models here: autonomous individuals — prototypical males? — with preferences making strategic calculations, and relationally embedded actors (I’m not going to push the gender point any further here, but I think that many feminists might agree with me about the relative depictions of autonomy-vs.-embeddedness in a patriarchal society) engaged in deliberation and discernment looking for the right course of action. While the former might end up conforming to one or another moral code, only the latter can actually engage in “moral action” per se, because autonomous individuals would be choosing whether or not to act morally while embedded actors would be endeavoring to suss out the moral thing to do and then doing it.

2. The implications of this are morally objectionable twiceover, for being based on individuality and sexism

I still maintain that rational choice theory — and indeed, the broader decision-theoretical world of which rational choice theory constitutes just a particular, heavily-mathematized province — endorses and naturalizes a form of selfishness that is ultimately corrosive of human community and detrimental to the very idea of moral action.

3. Thus, rational choice research programs — and the communication of those programs are “basically corrosive and should be opposed whenever practicable.”

I think that things like Freakonomics [tdaxp excerpt] are basically corrosive and should be opposed whenever practicable. We owe it to the broader society not to simply tell stories that reaffirm the value-commitments and modes of person-hood prized by dominant social actors who want us to equate our happiness with the satisfaction of personal desires

Dr. Jackson’s collectivism idealism states (apparently) that scientists are immoral if they attempt to help control, predict, and improve variation in the world in a way that doesn’t fit with Jackson’s ideals, biases and sentimentalities.

At first glance, Dr. Jackson’s post is odd. It’s too dense and abstract to gain much popular traction. And his description of Rational Choice theory is ridiculous to anyone familiar with it. But such talking heads have wracked havoc in other ares, by attacking science for opposing their sentimentalities and prejudices.

At second glance, Jackson’s post is somewhat more understandable. Political science does not progress like a normal science, and many people who use terms like “Rational Choice” may themselves have no idea how science works. Few anti-scientists are driven by animosity towards humanity. Ignorance of science, and a love of their idealized and wished-for worlds, doubtless plays a larger part.

Anti-science is dangerous. Popular-elite anti-science most of all, but even popular-downtrodden (like the hapless Creationists) and small-elite (like Dr. Jackson’s arguments) should be recognized as the threats to human progress than they are. Human history is a record of one stagnation after another, with brief bursts of progress in between. I hope the anti-Scientists do not stop our current progress, and consign us all to castrated academia composed of ideologues and their pet biases.

Politics, not Science

Little Green Footballs, a far-right-wing blog (which, like all on the extreme right, is indistinguishable from the Left) pushes the normal politics-over-science view that is typical among the anti-scientific establishment:

I’ve commented several times in our discussions about this issue that I understand why the scientists at CRU were resistant to sharing data with people like Steven McIntyre, whose only reason for demanding access to the data is to cherry-pick through it for new out-of-context denialist talking points. And it’s understandable how the constant stream of distortions and lies from their critics could lead to a sort of “bunker mentality,” in which the CRU scientists began to believe it was better for them to withhold the data, to make it harder for the deniers to attack.

Writing this is like saying it is understandable why a scientist would falsify data, or plagiarize, in order to get a point across. Immediately after this paragraph, LGF doubles down in its bizarre view of science. Its bizarre. It shows an absolute ignorance of how science works. Saying “you only want to see my data to criticize me” is bizarre, because that is exactly the point.

It’s understandable, but for political — not scientific — reasons it would be better to just go ahead, share everything openly and transparently, and deal with the inevitable deniers’ distortions — rather than create the impression that they’re trying to hide something.

Sadly, LGF‘s views are typical among the anti-scientific ignorati, whether the topic if human biodiversity, vaccines, or catastrophic anthropogenic global warming theorists.