Links and Comments: Wars on Science; Epistemology; Conspiracy Theories

A facebook friend comments:

“Research” isn’t just googling to find someone saying what you want to hear. That’s confirmation bias, and cherry picking.


My own thought, a week ago: The big political conflicts aren’t about asking the same questions and reaching different conclusions; it’s about thinking some questions and their answers are more important than others.

Comment now: the central one of these is the conflict between freedom and equality. Both may be enshrined in the US founding documents. But they’re not consistent. Conservatives are more concerned about freedom (to discriminate if it pleases them), liberals more about equality and justice, even if those require regulations to entail freedoms.


Vox, Sean Illing: Inside corporations’ war on science: A new book explains how corporations create a climate of doubt around science and expertise.

Keyed off the recent decision by Johnson & Johnson, looking back at the history of Big Tobacco and the fossil fuel industry. It’s not the *scientists* who are trying to fool you, it’s the industries and their cherry-picked “scientists” to support corporate profits. This is why there are industry regulations (which Republicans are always trying to undermine).

“The Republican base,” Michaels told me, “has been acclimatized to be skeptical of mainstream science, and easily believe accusations that they are being manipulated by the deep state, the liberal media, and pointy-headed scientists.”


In its broadest sense one of my key interests is epistemology, how we know what we know, how we know what we think is true, more loosely about how people in general think they know what is true, which is why I keep emphasizing contingency and circumstance, why I don’t believe that everything happens for a reason, and why I’m fascinated by the attraction of conspiracy theories, virtually all of which are self-serving fantasies.

In NYT, long-time technology writer Farhad Manjoo writes, The Worst Is Yet to Come, subtitled, The coronavirus and our disastrous national response to it has smashed optimists like me in the head.

Key comment:

In a book published more than a decade ago, I argued that the internet might lead to a choose-your-own-facts world in which different segments of society believe in different versions of reality. The Trump era, and now the coronavirus, has confirmed this grim prediction.

As I said in a recent blog post, we seem to be living in different alternate realities, with different opinions about the facts of reality, simultaneously.


Another strong essay:

Religion News, Tara Isabella Burton: How Americans’ ‘tell it like it is’ attitude renders us vulnerable to conspiracy theories

The mythos of American self-making — that with the right amount of grit and cunning, the individual can determine his own truth and fate — lends itself to the view that civil bureaucracies and establishments, by contrast, are inherently sclerotic and corrupt: the information they provide automatically suspect.

This tendency can be glimpsed in the contrarian programs of investor and PayPal founder Peter Thiel, who founded and funded a Thiel Fellowship designed to coax promising would-be entrepreneurs to drop out of college and go straight into solitary startup life. It is this tendency, too, that underlies our collective obsession with “fake news” — and with alternative news outlets and conspiracy theorists, like Alex Jones, who claim to “tell it like it is” — in coded contrast to the wisdom of the establishment.

Conspiracy theories tie into a wider mistrust of civic life, combined with an optimistic belief that the individual is capable of “discovering” — through a cursory YouTube search or other research in the digital landscape — truths about the world order that the establishment is trying to hide.


And one more:

The Atlantic: Ellen Cushing: I Was a Teenage Conspiracy Theorist. Subtitle: Want to know why wild conspiracism can be so irresistible? Ask a 14-year-old girl.

Conspiracy thinking is incredibly compelling. It promises an answer to problems as small as expired light bulbs and as big as our radical aloneness in the universe. It is self-sealing in its logic, and self-soothing in its effect: It posits a world where nothing happens by accident, where morality is plain, where every piece of information has divine meaning and every person has agency. It makes a puzzle out of the conspiracy, and a prestige-drama hero out of the conspiracist. “The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms,” the historian Richard Hofstadter wrote in his seminal 1964 essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” “He is always manning the barricades of civilization.” What Hofstadter declined to put a finger on is the intoxicating feeling of having insider knowledge about the fate of the world, or at least believing you do.

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