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A Revolt Against Expertise: Pseudoscience, Right-Wing Populism, and Post-Truth Politics

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Abstract

While concern about public irrationality and antiscientific movements is not new, the increasing power of right-wing populist movements that promote distrust of expertise and of scientific institutions gives such concerns a new context. Experience with classic pseudosciences such as creationism, and the long-running efforts by defenders of science to oppose such pseudosciences, may also help us understand today’s post-truth populism. The politics of creationism and science education in the United States and in Turkey does not, however, suggest easy answers. Moreover, there are important features of politics in liberal democracies that drive a populist backlash, which makes it counterproductive for defenders of science to call for deference to all forms of expertise claimed by professionals. There is a danger that the rhetoric of reason that is used to defend science will become part of a more general apologetics for an unsustainable status quo.
T. Edis ()!
Truman State University, United States
e-mail: edis@truman.edu
Disputatio. Philosophical Research Bulletin
Vol. 9, No. 13, Jun. 2020, pp. 00-00
ISSN: 2254-0601 | www.disputatio.eu
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A Revolt Against Expertise:
Pseudoscience, Right-Wing Populism, and
Post-Truth Politics
TANER EDIS
ABSTRACT
While concern about public irrationality and antiscientific movements is not
new, the increasing power of right-wing populist movements that promote
distrust of expertise and of scientific institutions gives such concerns a new
context. Experience with classic pseudosciences such as creationism, and the
long-running efforts by defenders of science to oppose such pseudosciences,
may also help us understand today’s post-truth populism. The politics of
creationism and science education in the United States and in Turkey does not,
however, suggest easy answers. Moreover, there are important features of
politics in liberal democracies that drive a populist backlash, which makes it
counterproductive for defenders of science to call for deference to all forms of
expertise claimed by professionals. There is a danger that the rhetoric of
reason that is used to defend science will become part of a more general
apologetics for an unsustainable status quo.
WORK TYPE
Article
ARTICLE HISTORY
Received:
29May2019
Accepted:
31October2019
Published Online:
24November2019
ARTICLE LANGUAGE
English
KEYWORDS
Irrationalism
Pseudoscience
Right-wing Populism
Religious Nationalism
Expertise
© Studia Humanitatis Universidad de Salamanca 2020
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A Revolt Against Expertise:
Pseudoscience, Right-Wing Populism, and
Post-Truth Politics
TANER EDIS
§1. Rising tides of irrationality
CTING ON THE PERCEPTION THAT AMERICAN PUBLIC discourse was
becoming diverted by irrational, pseudoscientific, and even
antiscientific convictions, a group of academics and public intellectuals
felt a need to take a stand. They organized a conference, issued statements, and
received attention from the press, particularly The New York Times. Paul Kurtz, the
philosopher who took on a leadership role, denounced “the current rejection of
reason and objectivity,” going on to observe that early in the twentieth century,
“cults of unreason” tied to fascist and totalitarian forms of political power had
done immense damage. The present was showing some ominous signs as well:
“Today, Western democratic societies are being swept by other forms of
irrationalism, often blatantly antiscientific and pseudoscientific in character”
(Frazier 1996).
The year was 1976. Kurtz and his associates, fellow skeptics such as James
Randi and Martin Gardner, founded CSICOP, the Committee for the Scientific
Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. Concern about astrology was an
important impetus leading to CSICOP, and the early years of its criticism of public
irrationality also addressed matters such as Velikovskian fantasies, creationism,
biorhythms, pyramid power, classic lights-in-the-sky UFOs, and media-star
psychics such as Uri Geller. Sometimes pseudoscience would become apparent
even in established academic circles, such as psychoanalysis. And occasionally,
physical scientists would go wrong. They might prematurely announce mistaken
discoveries such as N-rays in the first decade of the twentieth century, or, later on,
cold fusion. They might naively think that they could test psychics without
consulting conjurers on how to guard against fraud. But by and large,
A
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pseudoscientific notions lived on the fringes of mainstream institutions, as
species that found niches in a mass media ecology of ideas. Coming after Vietnam
War-era critiques of science as an adjunct of militarism and big business, and a
flourishing of interest in unconventional religious beliefs, CSICOP found a place
for itself as a voice of established science.
Some of CSICOP’s original concerns may seem quaint today: it has been a
while since biorhythms or pyramid power has attracted much attention.
Nonetheless, questions about pseudoscience continue to have academic interest.
There are many dubious beliefs rejected by mainstream science, whose
proponents claim scientific support while denouncing the closed-mindedness of
scientific institutions. Fake science, fringe science, or pseudoscience have always
been difficult terms; they often mean little more than failing a test of “family
resemblance” with defining examples such as physics or biology (Pigliucci and
Boudry 2013). And yet, philosophers of science wondering how to separate
science from non-science have to look at various dubious beliefs as test cases.
Physicists may be curious about paranormal claims that might probe the limits of
physics. Psychologists exploring the fallibility of testimony and studying human
propensities to believe in supernatural agency find a rich source of data. And
social scientists curious about how ideas spread through modern media find no
end of raw material. After CSICOP’s (since 2006, CSI) foundation, American
skepticism has found a non-academic following as well. Especially where
alternative medicine is concerned, science-based criticism has an important role
in consumer protection. There is a small movement of skeptics outside the
academy, extending to an international network of skeptical organizations. The
Skeptical Inquirer, CSI’s periodical, appeals to a public beyond specialists. Kurtz’s
original concerns about widespread irrationality, with overtones of fascism,
however, have seemed overblown.
Moreover, it is questionable whether there ever was a rising tide of irrationality
in the 1970s; episodes of alarm about public irrationality appear to come
periodically, with little justification (Higgitt 2012). Polling tends to indicate that
there are always a number of paranormal or pseudoscientific topics that
command a public following, but also that particular beliefs rise and fall in
popularity (Nisbet 2006). Many of us will believe in some kind of psychic powers,
although table-tipping or channeling are long past their prime. UFO sightings
and abductions will decline, but conspiracy theories will flourish. Iridology will
fade, but celebrities will endorse other forms of health-related foolishness that
will become fashionable for a season. Skeptical academics, it seems, can count on
being well-supplied with test cases. And the work of skeptical consumer advocates
is never done.
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§2. Serious threats
Even if there is usually plenty of science denial to go around, the significance of
the beliefs in play can change. After all, in 2016, “post-truth” was named “word of
the year” by the Oxford Dictionaries (Johnson 2016) because disregard for truth
as understood by scientific and journalistic institutions had become politically
important. Today, disregard of science does not just mean opposition to
vaccinations, which is harmful enough, but climate change denial by large
corporations and election-winning political parties. Conspiracy theorists are not
just convinced that the American government is hiding evidence of space aliens;
conspiracy theories have started to seriously affect political discourse. In the
United States, many Republicans worry about a Deep State that schemes to block
president Trump; many Democrats think the Trump presidency is a Russian plot.
In Muslim countries, conspiracy theories about the CIA, Jews, or Freemasons are
never far from the popular political imagination. And so it goes across the globe.
The internet lowers the cost of dissemination for crank notions, and the echo
chambers and information bubbles promoted by social media give pseudoscience
an ideal environment to flourish. We even have political actors who flood social
media with disinformation, not to convince readers but to induce cynicism about
attaining any reliable truth (Tüfekçi 2017).
In the 1970s, then, science denial might have meant something frivolous
pyramid power or biorhythms. The darkest example of the rejection of expert
opinion would have been corporate-sponsored misinformation that obscured the
health consequences of tobacco use. In the 2020s, science denial leads to paralysis
in the face of existential threats, from global warming to biodiversity collapse.
Our overall political environment might be a particular cause for concern.
After all, right-wing populism is on the rise across the globe: Trump in the US,
growing nationalist parties in Western Europe, illiberal nationalists such as Orbán
and Putin in Eastern Europe, religious nationalists such as Turkey’s Erdoan who
have enjoyed power in the Islamic world, Modi and Hindu nationalism in India,
Bolsonaro in Brazil, and so on. There is no coherent ideology shared by such
disparate figures. Still, there are some common themes. They emphasize an in-
group identity and treat some out-groups as a threat. They often idealize a
patriarchal social order. Many are linked to mafia-style business practices. But
most notably, right-wing populists are closely associated with our post-truth
moment, from the pseudoscientific and pseudohistorical narratives that they
often promote to support their nationalism to the conspiracy-minded fashion in
which they often characterize their opposition.
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One of the most obvious traits of right-wing populism is opposition to a
“liberal elite” that derives its power from its education and professional status. It
furthers its revolt against expertise by deploying right-wing media to undermine
a shared sense of factual truths. And in turn, professionals such as elite journalists
respond by denouncing “the death of truth”; some even join the conspiratorial
thinking by attributing vast influence to Russian social media manipulation
(Kakutani 2018). In any case, populists mobilize resentments against experts such
as annoyance with bureaucracies and rules, presenting an alternative to the
centrist antipolitics of the past few decades and attracting considerable electoral
support.
In such circumstances, organizations such as CSI, and any of us who are
concerned about pseudoscientific and antiscientific beliefs, may find a renewed
sense of mission (Thompson and Smulewicz-Zucker 2018). Far from just silliness
such as pyramid power, post-truth politics presents a worthy dragon to slay. After
all, a revolt against expertise that comes as environmental catastrophe looms is a
serious threat to civilization. Furthermore, right-wing populism might be an
especially useful dragon. Science still has an elite, white, male reputation.
Fighting the right could mean joining forces with feminists, anti-racists, and
others demanding social equality, underscoring the universal nature of science.
§3. A matter of authority
When skeptics and scientists make a case for deferring to scientific views, they
often refer to ideals concerning democratic participation. Drawing on liberal
democratic political philosophy, they highlight the need for an informed
electorate. Citizens of a liberal democracy enter the political arena with
conflicting interests. Negotiating between these interests, however, depends on a
set of facts that all can agree upon. Without this common ground, reasoning
together becomes impossible. Therefore, an environment where conspiratorial
thinking has eroded trust, and where facts are completely filtered through
partisan commitments, undermines democratic deliberation.
Science, and indeed all our academic disciplines, are supposed to supply
these common facts. While fallible, expert consensus as determined through
politically independent institutions such as universities and peer-reviewed
academic journals represents our best collective effort at determining the
relevant facts. If, for example, there are public concerns about the health effects
of eating genetically modified organisms, consulting scientists is an important
part of the process. If GMOs are pronounced safe, this does not completely end
the political negotiation; for example, the science about food safety may have
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very little to say about whether GMO technologies give too much power to large-
scale agribusiness. Nonetheless, what amounts to superstition about “unnatural”
foods should not drive policy decisions (Blancke et al. 2015).
Such views about the cognitive authority of scientific expertise can be further
developed. Organized resistance to science in favor of paranormal and
supernatural convictions often appears in a context of conservative religiosity,
and liberal political philosophy has long addressed the difficult problems
associated with combining public reasoning with non-negotiable faith-based
practices. Usually, secular liberals argue that scientific expertise must enjoy a
privileged position. Jürgen Habermas, for example, thinks that liberal
democracies should be more welcoming toward religious believers, making
better use of the moral and community-forming resources commanded by
religion. However, he also states that “religious citizens must develop an epistemic
stance toward the internal logic of secular knowledge and toward the
institutionalized monopoly on knowledge of modern scientific experts,” learning
to defer to science (Habermas 2008, p. 137). According to most liberal thinkers,
explicitly antiscientific or pseudoscientific beliefs should have even less public
standing in a modern technological civilization.
Framing the discussion in terms of reliable facts, however, can miss how
movements that promote distrust in science often put emphasis on cognitive
authority. After all, a defense of established expertise is also a conservative act,
shoring up the power of existing institutions and recognized authorities.
Especially today, when claims of expertise are often embedded in a technocratic
or administrative context, people who do not trust the existing bureaucratic
structures will not always consider assertions of scientific authority legitimate.
Moreover, technocratic authority is typically associated with the interests of a
professional and managerial class. Presenting science as a reliable institutional
authority, then, invites right-wing populist distrust of liberal elites. Skeptics based
in scientific and academic institutions are therefore not always well-positioned to
defuse populist mistrust of science.
Since populism fosters a conspiratorial mindset in which “who benefits?” is
often the most salient consideration, it is not sufficient to praise science as an
idealized intellectual enterprise. Actual expertise and real institutions have to be
defended. And that raises difficult questions. Applied biological research, such
as that on GMOs, is funded through industry. The physical sciences attract both
public and private funding because they promise military and commercial
applications. Even in an academic context, it can be tempting to emphasize such
constraints over the reasons scientists put forth to support their favored
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explanations leading to the infamous “Science Wars” (Ashman and Baringer
2001) where academics outside of natural science rejected scientific claims to
advance knowledge and produced examples such as sociologists sympathetic to
intelligent design creationism (Fuller 2008). It would concede too much to
conspiratorial thinking to suspect that institutional features always corrupt
scientific claims physicists succeed in delivering bigger bombs because they get
the physics at least approximately right. Nonetheless, while defending science as
an intellectual structure and science as an institution is not the same, it is hard to
draw a sharp line between the two. Constructive institutional criticism of science
is made even more difficult in today’s political environment that blurs the
distinction between institutions and intellectual enterprises as effectively as the
academic Science Wars.
Other institutions related to science, such as higher education, also are
politically complicated. After all, for many, perhaps the majority of students, a
university education is primarily a quest for credentials that let them join the
professional and managerial class. The more prestigious the institution, the
better the prospects for personal advancement. So very often, universities are
institutions for reproducing elites. As such, they are naturally suspect from a
right-wing populist perspective. Suspicion of elites who shape institutions for
their own benefit naturally shades into distrust of the expertise that universities
are supposed to embody.
Scientists and skeptics do not want to encourage conspiratorial thinking.
Nonetheless, confronting a revolt against expertise also means raising unsettling
questions. How much does defending expertise mean defending the current
shape of our institutions? It is hard to imagine that the status quo introduces no
distortions of knowledge. Fully identifying intellectual enterprises with any set of
institutions seems risky. And intellectual life typically calls for some distance from
power, some ability to criticize, so as to avoid becoming apologists for any status
quo.
§4. The example of creationism
Some historical perspective may help us judge our post-truth moment more
accurately. After all, right-wing populism is not new. Comparisons between
today’s populist right and the European fascism of the 1930s have become a
staple of media commentary, identifying parallels in the aftermath of a financial
crisis, the delegitimization of liberal elites, and a propaganda apparatus that deals
in conspiracy theories and takes control of the media environment. However,
today is also different than the 1930s in important respects. Disregard for truth
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today flourishes in a freewheeling internet environment rather than a climate of
totalitarian censorship. Fascism was most notable for its violent suppression of
left-wing politics and the labor movement. It was characterized by mass
mobilization and enjoyed support from elites fearful of revolutionary change,
neither of which is the case with today’s populism (Traverso 2019). Indeed,
today’s “age of acquiescence” (Fraser 2016) has nearly no left opposition to speak
of, let alone labor unrest or communist organizing. Therefore, a better point of
comparison might not be fascism, but the varieties of religious nationalism that
have been noticeable since the late twentieth century: movements such as the
Religious Right in the United States, the business-friendly moderate Islamism
that has become dominant in many non-Arab Muslim countries, and the Hindu
nationalism that has come to power in India.
Religious nationalism has many of the features that worry skeptics and
scientists: it is a populist revolt against secular expertise, aiming to delegitimize
liberal elites, that draws on and supports religiously-colored pseudosciences.
Religious nationalists have also appealed to ideals of patriarchal authority,
enjoyed strong alliances with parts of their national business communities, and
have become political forces through free elections. The ways that religious
nationalists challenge the scientific community examples such as creationism
among Abrahamic monotheists or quantum mysticism among Hindus are
long-standing, going back many decades. If we take such cases of right-wing
populism as our model, we can also draw on the extensive experience of scientists
and skeptics trying to counter the antiscientific aspects of such movements.
Creationism is a particularly useful example. Largely but not exclusively due
to religious reasons, large numbers of people are uncomfortable with evolution.
They may therefore be drawn to various anti-evolutionary views that claim
evidence for divine creativity rather than blind natural processes. Such
creationism ranges from an emphasis on literal interpretations of sacred texts to
the intelligent design movement that presents a more scientific image. In any
case, varieties of creationism are classic pseudosciences that require denial of vast
areas of natural science, in physics as well as biology. The institutions supporting
creationism are structured so as to defend particular supernatural beliefs rather
than to learn about how the world works (Edis 2018), therefore much of the case
for creationism depends on portraying established scientific expertise as corrupt.
Indeed, creationist beliefs are closely related to conspiracy theories in the ways
they evade scientific criticism (Edis 2019). And creationism is certainly not an
artifact of the social media age. The connection between religious populist
movements and creationism has always been very clear; indeed, when creationists
have tried to broaden their constituency beyond conservative monotheists
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already suspicious about evolution, as with the intelligent design version of
creationism, the attempted broadening has had little success.
In the United States, creationism has been associated with the Religious
Right: creationists have often echoed themes common to American right-wing
populism that might otherwise seem out of place in an ostensibly scientific
dispute. For example, the Discovery Institute, which is the leading promoter of
intelligent design creationism, can host a polemic against a Deep State
obstructing president Trump alongside its usual complaints about underhanded
“Darwinists” (Powell 2019). The more grassroots-oriented young-earth
creationists are often devoted to an overall political and cultural project of re-
establishing divine authority over human institutions, in an echo of the informal
Protestant establishment of the nineteenth century (Sehat 2011). And as part of
this project, it is not just the natural sciences that appear as obstacles. Creationist
leaders often state that evolution has evil consequences it is part of a “long war
against God” (Morris 2000). The erosion of divine authority produces corruption
in many institutions associated with the professional and managerial class, from
social science to regulatory agencies.
For religious conservatives, education is a special realm of concern. Liberals
often hope education will cultivate appreciation for secular expertise. But for
conservatives, besides imparting marketable skills, education is also supposed to
reinforce religious and ethno-nationalist loyalties. Evangelical Protestants have,
in their recent history, often been closely entangled with American business
culture. Therefore, while market competition is supposed to be the appropriate
realm of freedom, especially for men, this competition has to be disciplined by a
moral framework that a permissive liberal approach cannot provide. Religious
conservative conceptions of education emphasize knowledge embedded in a
moral community and approach professional claims to neutral expertise with
suspicion (Edis 2020).
Liberals, including most skeptics and scientists opposed to creationism, are
apt to see this emphasis on authority, loyalty, and traditional social roles as
authoritarian in nature. Religious conservatism, however, is often genuinely
populist, and regularly draws on themes such as common citizens resisting top-
down impositions by an unelected, perhaps even illegitimate stratum of
bureaucrats and self-appointed “politically correct” morality police. To oppose
these liberal elites, religious conservatives act as a legitimate interest group in a
representative democracy. Indeed, they do not just apply political pressure to
existing institutions, but also construct conservative parallel institutions.
American public science education, for example, is constantly involved in legal
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battles to keep creationism out of schools, and public pressure in conservative
localities notoriously leads to a lack of emphasis on evolution in the classroom.
At the same time, more explicit challenges to secular expertise are expressed
through private venues such as Christian academies and institutions such as
Liberty University. Religious populists simultaneously resist secular authority and
try to build up their own, alternative forms of institutional authority.
Populist resistance to evolution understood as an imposition by a culturally
alien, secular elite is not confined to the United States. The most successful
forms of creationism have appeared in Muslim countries (Edis 2007, Hameed
2008). Indeed, one of the most notable examples of creationism not just finding
a popular audience but making inroads into public education comes from
Tur ke y. Re lig io us po pu li sm , w hi ch , i n an a ll ian ce wi th b usi ne ss in te re st s ha s
become a dominant political force in Turkey during the last few decades, has
opposed evolution as part of a conservative culture war.
Islamic varieties of creationism are broadly similar to the more familiar
Christian versions in their opposition to evolution, particularly human evolution.
There are, naturally, many differences as well for example, Muslim creationists
are far less concerned about the age of the Earth than their conservative Christian
counterparts, and flood geology is virtually unknown. There is also considerable
diversity among Muslim countries in the degree which educational
establishments are open to evolution (Edis and BouJaoude 2014). What makes
the Turkish example particularly interesting is the extensive penetration of anti-
evolutionary views into the academic as well as popular media environment.
Turkish conservatives, including the ruling moderate Islamists, usually think
of Turkish politics as a struggle between secular modernizers and a previously
excluded pious periphery. The secularists, rooted in military and bureaucratic
elites who survived the Ottoman Empire and founded the new Turkish Republic
in the 1920s, used to include most of the educated elite. Islamists have seen
themselves a part of a generations-long project of resisting secular authority and
restoring the sacred beliefs of the vast majority to their rightful place in public
life. Scientific ideas that are associated with materialism and secularism, such as
evolution, have naturally become targets. Creationism, along with certain pre-
modern alternative medical practices such as cupping and the use of leeches, has
come to enjoy an aura of cultural authenticity, an edge derived from resisting
westernization. The conspiratorial thinking characteristic of today’s populism
also feeds into Turkish creationism, where, according to some of the most visible
creationists, the theory of evolution is part of an elite-driven Masonic conspiracy
intended to undermine true religion (Solberg 2013, pp. 7593). For religious
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conservatives, submitting to divine authority has been the best way of resisting
the authority of inauthentic secular elites.
The Turkish revolt against secular expertise has also targeted education, and
has also reinforced parallel institutions together with putting pressure on secular
institutions. In Turkey, there has been a long-standing public religious education
system alongside secular public education. Together with private schools and
student support systems associated with religious brotherhoods, this parallel
system has been strengthened, and previously secular public schools have
become much more entangled with religion. Turkish public education has been
remade in a religious populist image, reflecting the ideological preoccupations
of the ruling Islamists (Eroler 2019; Yıldız, Kormaz, and Doan 2019). Turkish
desecularization has also affected the institutions of science and higher
education. The institutions of the state that are responsible for funding and
supporting science have come under firm conservative control. And especially in
newer, provincial universities subjected to a strong Islamist influence, opposition
to evolution has become academically mainstream. For example, in 2018, Atatürk
University hosted the “Second International Congress on Creation in the Light
of Science,” where academic scientists and theologians from all over Turkey, plus
a few international guests, denounced evolution and defended Muslim
traditional beliefs over two days packed with four parallel sessions (Bilim ve
Yaraş 2018).
Much about the Turkish form of Islamic creationism is very similar to the
American Christian example. But in the Turkish case, right-wing populist
resistance to elite expertise has been much more successful. Turkish right-wingers
have not only built alternative institutions and supported pious intellectuals
affirming popular beliefs, but in a political environment shaped by decades of
conservative rule they have made considerable progress towards becoming the
new mainstream. Right-wing populism has made few inroads into American
educational institutions and intellectual high culture. In contrast, in Turkey and
in some other populous middle-income Muslim countries such as Malaysia and
Indonesia, religious populists have established an alternative, pious form of
modernity (Edis 2016).
§5. Combatting populist pseudoscience
Creationism is a useful example because it highlights how much concerning
pseudoscience in our “post-truth” context is not new. Skeptics and scientists have
been concerned about populist revolts against expertise for many decades.
Moreover, defenders of science can draw on extensive experience fighting
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antiscientific attitudes fueled by right-wing populist political movements. We
might already know something about what works and what does not.
We already know, for example, that when fact claims also become markers of
personal identity and belonging, an academic style of critique is rarely very
effective on its own. Even educated people often react to challenges by forcefully
reaffirming their beliefs and deploying motivated reasoning to defend them
(Kahan 2017). There is much more at stake in a contest between evolution and
divine creation than an explanation of biological patterns; much about
conservative religious versus secular ways of life are implicitly part of the
discussion. Even if we would like scientific evidence such as the fossil record to
be decisive, very often the public debate is not structured to properly weigh such
evidence. And in any case, for almost all non-experts, the contest primarily
concerns whose claims to expertise to accept.
Creationism is but one of many such examples. In India, instead of
creationism we have quantum mysticism and astrology, where such
pseudoscientific ideas are supported by claims of cultural authenticity and links
to Hindu nationalist politics, and even make inroads into scientific institutions
(Nanda 2003, Geraci 2018). The difficulties associated with confronting claims
linked to personal and political identity are similar. In illiberal-democratic
Hungary, the right wing in power promotes a nationalist pseudohistory rather
than pseudoscience. There are powerful reasons to accept narratives that serve
religion or nationalism, which cannot be brushed aside by invoking naïve
concepts of rationality and trust in expertise (Edis and Boudry 2019).
In political environments where fact claims become tokens of almost tribal
identities, many of the instinctive responses of skeptics and scientists do not work
well. Calls for improved science education, for example, are not very useful. Few
political actors oppose improved science and mathematics education, as STEM
fields are seen as good investments in human capital. Neither the Christian Right
nor Islamists oppose applied science; indeed, they tend to be very enthusiastic
about technology. Positive views of technology, however, do not necessarily
support a broad-based education promoting an understanding of basic
conceptual frameworks of modern science such as quantum mechanics or
Darwinian evolution. An emphasis on narrow but marketable technical
competences is much more likely. Indeed, in Turkey, some religious
organizations have been very successful in preparing students to excel in business
and applied science fields, while supporting a vision of science in which an
intelligently designed universe comes to the fore. Evolution is critical for a deeper
understanding of biology, but very few students will be in a position where
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knowledge of evolution will directly translate into a market advantage. Education
policies driven by economic concerns will do little against pseudoscience or
pseudohistory that imposes few obvious costs but visibly supports conservative
religious or nationalist goals (Edis 2016, chapter 3).
Confronting pseudoscientific claims outside of formal education is also risky,
as it depends on a mass media notorious for amplifying attention-grabbing
claims. Elite media dominated by well-educated journalists are likely to express
trust in expertise that is rooted in the same professional and managerial class:
high-end American media, for example, can be counted on to dismiss
creationism. But in an environment where resource-intensive journalism is
rapidly shrinking and newspapers are losing readership, such support for science
is no longer as effective. Moreover, right-wing populism is also notorious for
delegitimizing media outlets that are not ideologically sympathetic. Instead,
populists produce their own alternative media environment. In Turkey, media
have become highly concentrated in ownership, and the business interests
investing in media have also been close to the Islamists in power. The declining
old-line secular media might support evolution, but they can only preach to a
continually shrinking choir.
Populists might also be stopped by nondemocratic means. In the United
States, anti-evolution views are kept out of public education through the courts,
who have reliably ruled that creationism in science classes would violate church-
state separation. In Turkey, the initial opposition to creationism pointed out that
it was a threat to official secularism. Indeed, Turkish opponents of religious
populism used to hope that either the courts or the military would intervene in
politics to re-establish secularism and rule Islamist tendencies out of bounds. In
the American case, victory in the courts harbors a potential for backlash. After
all, judicial interventions feed the populist narrative of the desires of common
citizens being thwarted by elite machinations. In Turkey, unsuccessful calls for
intervention have only hardened Islamist tendencies to perceive secularist
opposition as antidemocratic and illegitimate. In any case, even if the judiciary
can impose elite legal interpretations for a while, it cannot protect science and
science education in the long term if right-wing populism continues to be
successful.
One possibly more effective way of opposing creationist pressures is to be
more political. Advocates for science can seek allies, particularly among
constituencies who are already inclined to distrust populism. In the United States,
disputes over creation and evolution can be turned into a confrontation between
conservative and liberal religious factions, which is much more promising than a
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contest between faith and skepticism. There is, perhaps, an intellectual price to
pay moderate and liberal religious support for evolution may require
downplaying blind variation and selection, implicitly allowing common descent
due to divine guidance. Nonetheless, defenders of evolution education in the
United States, such as the National Center for Science Education, have been fully
committed to a view of compatibility between supernatural religion and science,
and have highlighted liberal religious support for evolution. Such an approach
has its critics: biologist Jerry Coyne, for example, suggests that directly
confronting monotheistic views that nurture suspicion of evolution would be
better (Coyne 2012). However, there is very little concrete evidence about what
approach could be more effective at a large scale.
Enlisting liberal religion to support science is also somewhat risky because
both in the United States and Turkey, liberal religiosity has been eroding while
conservative, even fundamentalist views have been retaining their strength.
Moreover, defenders of evolution tend to fall into a pattern of telling populists
what experts they should trust, now attempting to instruct the faithful on what
proper religion is supposed to be. Such attempts to impose elite power can
backfire. Indeed, in Turkey, where liberal interpretations of Islam have been
comparatively weak and associated with a discredited official secularism, efforts
by defenders of evolution to argue that true Islam has no problem with evolution
have not worked (Edis 2016).
Defending science is further complicated by certain liberal and progressive
tendencies in today’s politics. After all, the culture wars of right-wing populism
are classic identity politics, even if they emphasize the grievances of a relatively
powerful constituency rather than an oppressed minority. In a fragmented
population where groups contest over different ways of knowing, post-truth
defenses of pseudoscientific notions become easier. Indeed, Muslim apologists
have often deployed postmodern rhetoric while erecting defenses against
science-based criticism (Aydın 2008). Liberal Turkish intellectuals have often
allied with the moderate Islamists in power, ostensibly aiming to democratize
Tur ki sh p oli ti cs a nd pr om ot e f re e mar ke ts .
In fact, we know very little that skeptics and scientists can do to reliably combat
populist pseudoscience. In the United States, polling indicates that there has
been a slight lessening of support for creationism (Swift 2017). Views on
evolution closely track forms of religiosity, so the recent increase in the numbers
of nonreligious Americans probably accounts for a slight drop in creationism. In
Turkey, the recent golden age of creationism has coincided with the political
victories of moderate Islamism. While the public controversy about creation and
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Disputatio 9, no. 13 (2020): pp. 00-00
evolution appears to respond to broader political and demographic changes, it is
hard to say much more. Better science education and communication are,
presumably, always useful in efforts to persuade the public. But the landscape of
our pseudosciences is shaped by political power more than open debate, since
populists challenge the conditions under which public debates take place. A
revolt against expertise cannot be stopped by claiming expertise. It is likely that
even our best efforts only set us up to take advantage of political openings over
which we have little control.
§6. Fighting the Right?
Skeptics and scientists do not enjoy any significant political power. Still, we can
try to understand right-wing populism better, in order to gain insight into a
political tendency that nurtures pseudoscientific ideas and antiscientific
attitudes. For this understanding, our first instinct will be to consult the experts:
social scientists who have been studying today’s right-wing movements.
Skeptical analyses of pseudoscience have most often drawn from perspectives
derived from natural science, the philosophy of science, and psychology. Skeptics
have not been as comfortable with thinking about social context. Much of the
literature concerning right-wing populism appears driven by a perception that
populism is a threat to liberal democratic and inclusive values; when we
encounter jargon about right-wingers attacking a “racialized Other” (Vieten &
Poynting 2016), we may suspect we have encountered the academic left, which
many skeptics distrust as a legacy of the Science Wars. Nonetheless, right-wing
populism attempts to undermine all kinds of expertise, including social science
and the humanities, so it might be useful to set academic infighting aside.
At present, there does not appear to be a strong agreement about how to
explain right-wing populism. Analyses of empirical data inspire disputes about
“demand-side” versus “supply-side” explanations emphasizing different social and
political actors (Mudde 2010), and while historical comparisons to fascist
movements are suggestive, it is not always clear how what we have learned may
apply to today’s different circumstances. Perhaps there is a deeper logic to
populism in terms of “the dialectic of neoliberal reason” (Lebow 2019) or some
other framework, but the variety of plausible proposals in play is reminiscent of
the way even artifacts in experimental data summon up a multitude of theoretical
explanations from physicists. In other words, defenders of science cannot rely on
any expert consensus yet.
Even without a deeper consensus, however, there are some broad explanatory
themes that repeatedly appear in the literature. First, there is some agreement
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that the neoliberal political and economic practices that have become dominant
globally have set the stage for a populist reaction. Second, it is also clear that the
availability of information and ease of communication in the internet era also
plays a role.
Since the time of Reagan and Thatcher, neoliberalism the constriction of
public space and the injection of markets and competition into all aspects of life
(Brown 2015) has come to describe our circumstances. In contrast with the
preceding, more social democratic era, the professional and managerial class has
allied with owners and investors (Duménil and Lévy 2011), adopting a
technocratic politics where expertise has been deployed to manage states and
economies increasingly removed from democratic constraints. These
developments have coincided with the growth and more recent explosion of
right-wing populism expressing anger at self-dealing elites and the expertise that
validates their social position. Since historically, democratic participation has
advanced due to the demands of non-elite actors (Usmani 2018), in a time when
inequality is exploding and modern forms of working-class solidarity such as
unions are becoming insignificant, movements that challenge the status quo have
become more attractive. Right-wing populism has an advantage in organization,
support from factions already close to power, and an ability to invoke forms of
solidarity such as religion and nationalism that are not available to more left-wing
attempts at populism. It is well-established that insecurity correlates with
conservative religiosity (Norris and Inglehart 2011). Similarly, it is plausible that
the economic and cultural insecurity faced by populations under neoliberal
regimes contributes to an authoritarian backlash against liberal social values
(Norris and Inglehart 2019). In any case, we have conditions that are not
conducive to trusting expertise or critically evaluating pseudoscientific claims.
Still, all this does not add up to much more than an observation that
neoliberalism creates space for right-wing populism. It does not fully explain why
frustration with technocrats and social liberalization gets channeled in the
particular directions we see. Moreover, populist politicians regularly adopt
neoliberal policies. For example, in Bolsonaro’s Brazil, we see climate change
denial, significant creationism together with a powerful Protestant evangelical
movement (Silva and Prado 2010), glorification of military rule and an
intensified economic and political neoliberalism. The Islamists in power in
Turkey have been notable for their close connections to the Turkish business
community, opposition to workers’ organizations, and orthodox neoliberalism
(Balkan, Balkan, and Öncü 2013). The Religious Right in the United States has
always been a hyper-capitalist movement (Kruse 2015). Right-wing populism
reacts against the social liberalization promoted by the “progressive
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Disputatio 9, no. 13 (2020): pp. 00-00
neoliberalism” (Fraser 2019) that represents the left edge of what seems possible
to today’s professionals, but it is by no means a reaction against neoliberal policies
as a whole.
The other common theme in explanations of populism is the effect of recent
information technologies. As the cost of access to information becomes lower,
experts become more easily scrutinized; often, they lose their role as gatekeepers.
Anger at technocrats is more easily organized, and trust in institutions erode
(Gurri 2018). The result is an opening for populism, which is further advanced
by the new forms of propaganda available to political actors who want to
radicalize and mobilize right-wing convictions (Benkler, Faris, and Roberts 2018).
The internet has been an especially ideal incubator of conspiratorial thinking, so
that many of the most prominent antiscientific ideas of our day, from anti-
vaccination beliefs to climate change denial, come wrapped in a package
claiming that mainstream expertise has been corrupted, that scientists have been
compromised and can no longer be trusted to tell the truth.
Studies of right-wing populism, then, do not present us with a unified
explanation with clean-cut primary causes to identify and address. Instead, we
have complicated, locally varying stories about the forms revolts against expertise
take, involving everything from common human psychological vulnerabilities to
opportunistic actors taking advantage of new social media to mobilize
populations made insecure by neoliberal regimes. In our current environment,
defenders of science can do little but try to make the best explanations available
and also hope to advance them locally and opportunistically.
§7. Incompetent Elites
Defending science usually means celebrating a particular sort of expertise,
embodied in particular institutions. Skeptics are often tempted to uphold an
idealized image of science, even when we acknowledge that probing and
explaining the world is always fallible. To learn about the world, we need to
institutionalize a scientific attitude (McIntyre 2019). But science comes to us
through universities, research labs, grant administrations, and the government
agencies and technology companies that are home to armies of professionals with
credentials in technical fields. Revolts against expertise cast doubt on all such
institutions. We then might be tempted to respond by defending all such forms
of established expertise as manifestations of rationality. But that, in effect, would
collapse skepticism about pseudoscience onto a specialized form of status-quo
conservatism. We also need to ask whether the experts are doing their job
properly. Populists are not wrong that many among today’s elites prefer self-
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serving policies, and that many in the professional class particularly
economists, lawyers, and management consultants serve to justify the
predatory behavior of ruling elites (Galbraith 2017). Trust in institutions has not
eroded without reason. In that case, we should also wonder if our institutions that
are supposed to produce knowledge need shaking up.
Consider neoliberalism, which plausibly leads to a post-truth environment
where pseudoscience flourishes. If this is correct, then much of the problem can
be blamed on experts. After all, neoliberalism has become the conventional
wisdom for journalists, politicians, and corporate knowledge workers alike. It is
the near-universal ideology of professionals who make their living from
expertise. And the most socially consequential expertise is that of economics, the
queen of the social sciences. Modern politics, including traditionally conservative
parties and social democrats alike, has come to center on the imperative of
economic growth and the conviction that a neoliberal version of a free market is
the expert-certified proper way to run a modern economy. Rationality, in our
social contexts, is very often economic rationality; efficiency, business efficiency.
Academic institutions, where business and management-oriented programs
are prominent, and where the best and the brightest graduates from the highest
prestige universities aspire to become financial consultants, often follow the same
pattern. The experts are, however, divided. There is plenty of criticism of
neoliberalism that emanates from academia, mostly from underfunded
humanities and social science departments rather than the business and
professional schools. If anything, the term “neoliberalism” is in danger of losing
its specificity, becoming a generic label for all that critics find obnoxious in
postmodern varieties of capitalism.
Some critiques of neoliberalism are especially relevant for science.
Organizing institutions to produce returns on investment for private actors, such
as closely tying universities to corporate sectors, can have corrupting effects,
especially on applied science (Mirowski 2011). Defenders of science are usually
aware of how scientific work with environmental implications, such as climate
science, can be subjected to disinformation campaigns funded by extractive
industries (Oreskes and Conway 2010). There are also more subtle distortions of
science that are due to institutional features of funding research. Climate science,
in fact, has a record of underestimating the severity of climate change, partly in
order not to jeopardize funding by appearing overly alarmist to conservatives
(Brysse et al. 2013, Herrando-Pérez et al. 2019).
Other criticisms more directly address the economic aspects of neoliberalism;
indeed, such criticism became more visible after the failure of mainstream
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economics to respond to the 2008 financial crisis in nontrivial ways. The criticism
had little effect; neoliberalism emerged unscathed from the financial crisis
(Mirowski 2013). A pattern of excuse-making, of insensitivity to empirical
challenges, is one of the characteristics of pseudoscientific institutions skeptics
very often highlight. While not comparable to a classic pseudoscience such as
creationism, economics exhibits enough candidates for institutional pathologies
to make the scientific status of economics an interesting open question (Edis
2018).
Even with communities of expertise being divided over neoliberalism,
skeptics have mostly been inclined toward status-quo conservatism in such
debates. There are many motivations to defend science, but a particularly
important one for skeptical movements has been a variety of humanism that
highlights the achievements of science as prime examples of human progress
when not shackled by premodern institutions such as traditional religion.
Confronting supernatural and pseudoscientific beliefs has not been just a matter
of advancing knowledge, but contributing to a much broader sense of progress.
Accordingly, the boundaries between skepticism and humanism have always been
nebulous. Paul Kurtz, who was instrumental in founding CSICOP in the 1970s
and headed it for many years, thought the rising tide of irrationality was a threat
to progress. Indeed, Kurtz was a humanist philosopher who also ran the Council
for Secular Humanism. CSI, the present incarnation of CSICOP, is
organizationally still under the umbrella of the Center for Inquiry, which includes
the Council for Secular Humanism.
Progress and unbounded human capability are also central themes of some
economic schools of thought, and technocratic neoliberalism. Today, with his
popular book Enlightenment Now, psychologist Steven Pinker has become a
prominent spokesperson for a neoliberal humanist version of progress (Pinker
2018a). He has been embraced as a leading figure by American skeptics,
appearing on the cover of The Skeptical Inquirer and The Humanist to proselytize
for the status quo (Pinker 2018b, Naff 2018).
The reception of Pinker’s version of progress has been varied. Enlightenment
Now has, notoriously, become the billionaire Bill Gates’s favorite book, though
philosopher John Gray describes it as an “embarrassingly feeble” exercise in
scientism (Gray 2018). Much in the book, such as its demonstration of a trend
toward less violence, seems convincing. But other trends, such as a global
reduction in abject poverty due to neoliberal technocratic practices, are much
less clear than Pinker’s representation (Hickel 2018, Hickel 2019). Moreover,
even if the trends Pinker points out were real, he does not adequately address
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questions about whether such progress is sustainable in the long term. In fact, he
is disturbingly sanguine about the existential threats that have been multiplying,
including nuclear war, climate change, biodiversity collapse, and future prospects
such as super-AI’s. Most such threats are directly related to our technologies, and
the fact that our civilization’s mistakes now have repercussions at a planetary
scale. Technological change and industrial processes linked to market economies
driven by short term profit can be, in this context, much more dangerous than
Pinker likes to admit.
American skeptics, then, worry about right-wing populism exacerbating
existential threats, but are also vulnerable to apologetics for a political outlook
that both inflames populism and generates existential threats. We appear to too
easily accept arguments for submission to technocrats wrapped in celebratory
rhetoric about progress and enlightenment. Perhaps this is hard to avoid in a
time when the image of science is closely tied to technological applications, and
when the most prominent public representative of science and technology is
Silicon Valley with its plutocratic libertarian politics, technological utopianism,
and facile “solutionist” approach to structural problems (Morozov 2013). Neither
is it easy when wealthy elites exclusively address social problems in market-based
ways that reinforce the status quo, invoking business expertise as an all-purpose
tool (Giridharadas 2018). Nonetheless, defenders of science as a process and a
body of knowledge have become stuck defending institutions that undermine the
public perception of science as often as support it. Even the crisis in public
universities (Newfield 2016, Wright and Shore 2017), while inspiring new ways of
thinking about academic institutions (Barnett 2017), has more often led to
efforts to salvage the status quo. We have not been able to imagine a positive role
for science beyond present institutions.
Perhaps this demands too much from skeptics, who are more usually
intermediaries between the public and the scientific experts. But then, other
intermediaries are also not in a healthy state. Consider journalism. Journalists
often share the reflexive opposition to populism characteristic of the professional
class. But structural problems have made journalism less effective against
pseudoscience and conspiracy theories. Trust in the press has eroded together
with most institutions. Perhaps, given the abject performance of the most
respectable American media in events such as the run-up to the Iraq War, the
press does not deserve trust. In the internet age, it is hard to find a funding model
to support serious investigative journalism; it is a rapidly declining enterprise.
Selling soap and amplifying artificial controversies may attract funds, but it does
not inspire trust. And yet, the American media continually frame debates as
conservatives versus liberals with a reasonable centrist compromise as an ideal.
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Especially in matters such as climate change, the performance of the press has,
again, been abject. Even when deploring our post-truth times and the crisis in
their profession, journalists usually cannot conceive anything but inadequate
technocratic fixes, reflexively siding with a status quo that created the problem
(Bomey 2018).
In the populist and conspiratorial imagination, the professional and
managerial class are supposed to be a liberal elite, directing affairs from behind
the scenes. The populists are correct that the professionals, the experts, are
disproportionately responsible for our current state of affairs. We have been in
charge. And yet, we do not seem to be the most competent of elites. From our
non-response to global warming to our inability to think beyond the status quo,
we have a large measure of responsibility for our post-truth predicament. And so
far, our complaints about the death of truth have an air of evasion of
responsibility rather than taking constructive action.
§8. In experts we trust?
In the 1950s and 60s, American experts would have been operating in a context
of Keynesian economics. Some would have been working on nuclear weapons.
And some would have been managing the Cold War. American foreign policy has
long been a domain of experts isolated from democratic constraints, and the best
and brightest used their expertise to make disastrous decisions. Physicists found
plenty of employment in weapons research, but some became increasingly
horrified at the existential threat posed by the prospect of nuclear warfare and
the policy of mutually assured destruction. Sociologist C. Wright Mills, who
described the “power elite” of his day (Mills 2000 [1956]), introduced the phrase
“crackpot realism” to capture the outlook of elites who considered themselves
practical, rational, and above party politics and invariably ended up
recommending bombing somewhere.
Debates over the political role of expertise, distrust of elites, and suspicion
among intellectuals that some alleged experts are not up to their task are no more
a novelty than worries about public irrationality. Looking back at the perception
of a rising tide of irrationality in the 1970s that led to the formation of CSICOP,
we can also identify a conservative impulse. When a substantial number of
educated young Americans revolted against the experts behind the Vietnam War
and Cold War liberalism, many also indulged in UFO cults and pyramid power
fantasies. When newly organized skeptics offered declarations against astrology
or criticized psychic claims in the media, they reasserted the authority of science
as hard-won, accumulated knowledge that should not be lightly rebelled against.
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At least in the case of science, skeptics implied, the experts were right and their
institutions deserved respect.
Science is not intuitive; it takes significant resources to learn and practice
science. Joining scientific debates is not possible without significant prior effort,
usually demanding credentials. Therefore, science must unavoidably depend on
expert consensus, even as it must also remain open to challenge. Completely
escaping the confines of established knowledge too easily leads to conspiracy
theories, religious enthusiasms, or lunatic schemes of some sort. Creationists or
alternative medicine enthusiasts will inevitably present themselves as rebels
fighting an Establishment that excludes their views, and excluding them after due
consideration is exactly what a properly functioning scientific enterprise must do.
To t hi s ex te nt, pu bli c d efe ns es o f sci en ce w il l al wa ys h av e an e le men t o f
conservatism about institutions and expertise.
But such conservatism need not be the full story. It is no surprise that
concerns about rising tides of irrationality will partly be motivated by institutional
conservatism and elites worrying about status loss. But there are a multitude of
motivations behind public criticisms of pseudoscience. For example, some of us
teach science. We consider widespread acceptance of creationism or quantum
healing claims in the public sphere to be at least as much of a nuisance as in the
classroom. We want to have real science, with its powerful explanations and
magnificent conceptual structures, available to everyone as much as possible.
Some of us encounter pseudoscientific scams, and criticize such scams from the
perspective of consumer protection. Some of us have democratic political ideals,
and precisely because we believe in public deliberation, do not want knowledge
to be confined to social elites.
Today’s concerns about pseudoscience in a post-truth era are similar to the
concerns voiced in the 1970s, though professional status anxiety is more visible,
and denunciations of irrationality more prevalent in media and politics. Some
varieties of anti-science activity, such as climate change denial, raise the stakes
further. This means an opportunity for defenders of science to reach a wider
audience and to play a more prominent role than swatting down minor irritations
such as pyramid power. But it also introduces a danger of being swept up in a
politics centered on a professional and managerial class shoring up an
unsustainable state of affairs.
If existential threats such as climate change amplify the need to combat
science denial, we should also recall that the “business as usual” practices familiar
from climate models and projections are what produced the existential threats in
the first place. Highly educated professionals oversaw our civilization’s non-
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Disputatio 9, no. 13 (2020): pp. 00-00
response to climate change, ocean acidification, and impending biodiversity
collapse. Status-quo politics still promises half-measures and attempts to patch up
business as usual (Hickel and Kallis 2019), deploying a rhetoric of reason and
realism against more adequate proposals. Experts with the best credentials have
administered our absurd stockpiles of nuclear weapons. Physicists have still, long
after the Cold War, found little reason to stop worrying. Complacent, expertise-
affirming liberals are far more responsible for our predicament than newly
emboldened reactionary populists, even if populists are only likely to make things
worse. Much of the media hand-wringing about post-truth political actors is in
the service of a status quo that still promises to drive civilization over a cliff, just
more slowly.
Crackpot realism lives on. Defenders of science should be able to keep their
distance, while still opposing the nonsense generated by right-wing populism.
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NOTES ON CONTRIBUTOR
TANE R E DI S is professor of physics at Truman State University, United States. He has long been interested in
the philosophy of science, especially concerning differences between healthy scientific enterprises and
institutions that promote popular pseudoscientific and supernatural beliefs.
A REVOLT AGAINST EXPERTISE | 29
Disputatio 9, no. 13 (2020): pp. 00-00
CONTACT INFORMATION
Department of Physics, Truman State University. Kirksville, MO, 63501 - USA. email (): edis@truman.edu
· iD: http://orcid.org/0000-0002-8195-7343
HOW TO CITE THIS ARTICLE
Edis, Taner (2020). «A Revolt Against Expertise: Pseudoscience, Right-Wing Populism, and Post-Truth
Politicst». Disputatio. Philosophical Research Bulletin 9, no. 13: pp. 00–00.
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