Saturday 7 June 2014

Liberal science denial and other tomfoolery

I don't know if this video will stay online for long but it's a really interesting segment from The Daily Show last week:

It's interesting for at least two reasons: First, it ably (and funnily) demonstrates that cynical attitudes towards science are by no means particular to the right (as is often prejudicially assumed, certainly here in the UK). Second, the show's own attitudes towards science are themselves very problematic. For them it basically boils down to 'yeah, but it's a fact so you're an idiot.' Perhaps true but not helpful. What makes a fact a fact? Is it the fact that scientific knowledge is debated in public, peer reviewed (usually well), and is the product of centuries of rigorous and progressive experiment, confirmation, refutation and invention? Perhaps that is in the subtext but barely. The only real message to this is 'yeah, but it's science.' Of course, having said that, the segment also demonstrates that some people simply aren't interested in evidence, whatever ontology it's dressed up in. However, these discussions always seem to happen at a kind of second-order level where two incompatible notions of truth just bash their heads against each other without ever really engaging with each other or even understanding that there is anything to be engaged with. And it can't be otherwise if science-defenders genuinely don't understand what makes science objective other than 'it's science, durr'...

John Oliver said more or less the same thing recently 'you don't need people's opinion on a fact.' Although he produced a slightly more sophisticated (and equally hilarious) take on it when he constructed a 'statistically representative' debate over climate science. The obvious absurdity doesn't detract from the performative effect: that it isn't a 'two sided' debate, as the rest of the media continue to insist that it is; it's a many sided debate with one alliance of viewpoints utterly overwhelming the other. And that's the key point: an alliance of close-knit viewpoints, not just the singular, thunderous voice of Science being spoken univocally in the language of Facts.