This discussion between Michael Specter & Chris Mooney pointed me to an interesting new book, Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives. Instead of Global Warming or Creationism, Specter addresses less pervasively disputatious issues such as genetically modified food, the anti-vaccination movement and the politics of the FDA approval process (at least judging from the discussion). Mooney & Specter also point to the reality that denialism exists in Blue America (though anyone who has followed the dabbling of the Huffington Post in this area would be aware of that stream of thought). When I was in college a friend of mine who was active in Leftish causes expressed her disgust with the idea of fish genetic material spliced into tomatoes.* This is a cliche and widely quoted example, so she wasn’t being original, but it was clear that she thought that the argument was powerful on prima facie grounds. That is, fish genes shouldn’t be in plants. Why? Because they just shouldn’t. This genre of argument from intuition and plausibility derived from an emotional response is of the same family as Sarah Palin’s Creationism.
This does not mean that one should reject intuition and reflexive feeling. These stances often encapsulate the wisdom of evolution (e.g., aversion to sibling-sibling incest) and/or society (again, aversion to sibling-sibling incest). The totally rational life, where all acts and opinions are subject to deep and thorough criticism, is not the human life (even Karl Popper was more of a theoretical critical rationalist than an operational one judging by his private and personal actions and style of argument). But, serious problems emerge when our intuitive prejudices push themselves into the scientific domain. Natural science has over the past few centuries proven itself to be a marvel not by extension of our intuition, but contravention of that intuition resulting in an even closer fit to reality (contrast Newtonian physics with “folk physics”).** Humans have always had engineering in the form of tinkering with technology. But the last two centuries of productivity growth through mechanical improvements have been based in part on the rise of science as a theoretical framework which allows for more than trial & error experimentation guided by intuition. Science allows us to stand on the shoulders of giants, no matter how bizarre or counterintuitive their theories are, because they are judged not on plausibility but predictivity.
* This is a very intelligent individual who went and completed a doctorate in the humanities.
** Of course, there’s intuition and then there’s intuition. Specialists in technical fields often develop domain-specific intuitions through long experience. This is often evident when it takes some time to unpack one’s thought process to someone else as to why a problem or issue has a given resolution. When I was an 18 year old taking general chemistry a graduate student explained this problem to me, as she often could immediately balance equations because of her familiarity with the subject matter, but had to slowly think her way through all the various steps to explain to a bewildered freshman the nature of the solution. Or at least that was her apologia for the disjunction between the rapidity of her “recognition” of whether an answer was wrong & what the general form of the solution would be, to her often labored step by step exposition.