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The War on Science, Anti-Intellectualism, and ‘Alternative Ways of Knowing’ in 21 st-Centuray America

The decades-long academic assault on science has bewildered the American public about the role and function of science, promoted anti-intellectualism, and politically empowered purveyors of supernaturalism and paranormal beliefs.

At the start of the twentieth century, over 40 percent of Americans did not know that the Earth orbits the sun in a year-long cycle (Otto 2016, 224). Another 52 percent did not know that dinosaurs died before the appearance of humans, and 45 percent were unaware that the world is older than 10,000 years. It is unnecessary to mention the equally alarming numbers of people who believe in ghosts, space aliens, paranormal monsters, devil possession, angels, demons, miracles, and so forth (Smith 2010, 22–23).

This mostly scientifically illiterate public seems to lack the necessary skills to distinguish between contending claims to knowledge or differentiate between fact and opinion. We now live in a scary and confusing “post-truth” era of disinformation, “fake news,” “counterknowledge,” “weaponized lies,” conspiracy theories, magical thinking, and irrationalism (see Andersen 2017; Levitin 2016).

Bogus and irrational ideas (beliefs that have been falsified or are unfalsifiable) are thriving and seem to be widely received and accepted. However, tolerating irrationalism and scientific illiteracy poses many dangers. It is dangerous to individual well-being. Numerous people have died because of their trust in sham alternative medical cures, and many others have lost their life savings by believing in psychics and miracle workers (see Bridgstock 2009, 1–3; Coyne 2015, 229–239; Gilovich 1993, 5–6; Hines 2003, 38–41; Schick and Vaughn 2014, 12–13). More than that, acquiescence to irrationalism threatens the well-being of our society (see Mooney and Kirshenbaum 2009; Sharlet 2010). As philosophers Theodor Schick and Lewis Vaughn (2014, 13) have put it:

A democratic society depends on the ability of its members to make rational choices. But rational choices must be based on rational beliefs. If we can’t tell the difference between reasonable and unreasonable claims, we become susceptible to the claims of charlatans, scoundrels, and mountebanks.

Purveyors of supernaturalism, anti-intellectual dogmas, medieval credulities, and “alternative forms of knowledge” that are daily an affront to our intelligence and sensibilities are swarming with bluster and hubris that science is now defunct and offer their own “truths” and “ways of knowing” as better substitutes. However, before we submit to the assertions of religious ideologues, miracle workers, and quacks and make their “truths” the basis of our worldview, we need to ask the following question: Are the assertions that science is defunct based on compelling evidence? To answer this question, let’s look at the circumstances that brought us here.

Explanations for the rise of anti-intellectualism and antiscience perspectives in this country would no doubt include many complex interconnected factors, such as globalization, demographic shifts, changes in the socioeconomic infrastructure, disparities in wealth and power, the disenchantment of the world by science and technology, and so forth. However, as the science writer Shawn Otto discusses in his recent book The War on Science: Who Is Waging It, Why It Matters, What We Can Do About It (2016), the decades-long systematic academic assault on science and rationalism stands above many other factors. Paul Gross and Norman Levitt’s Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science (1994) also provides an insightful account of the academic war on science. More specifically, philosopher and historian of science Noretta Koertge (1998) explores the direct influence this assault on science has had on scientific literacy in various fields of study in the United States. Embarrassingly, cultural anthropology, the discipline to which I belong, was instrumental in this untoward enterprise (see Otto 2016, 175–176).

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The War on Science, Anti-Intellectualism, and ‘Alternative Ways of Knowing’ in 21st-Century America