Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Conspiracy and other strange theories

A new article in today's NYT offers a review of a study of conspiracy theorists.

I found the review interesting, although I'm not going to buy the book. I have enough conspiracists to deal with in my day-to-day. I don't need to be introduced to any additional ones.

Equally illuminating, and connected in my mind, is a Leo Hickman's blog interview in the online British Guardian about the California school board that is requiring high school science teachers to "teach the controversy" about climate science.

Finally, also in the same vein, the infamous Koch brothers are trying to buy the acquiescence of a Florida university's board of governors to the teaching of "free market, anti-regulatory" economics.

What connects all these things in my mind is that we have several cases here where different people, for different reasons, think that facts, and particularly science and social science facts, are properly subject to political outlook.

In other words, my politics trump your fact, and that's the way it should be.

This is an inherently dangerous development in western society, although it isn't a particularly new one.

There was a time, back when western science was born, that the great hope for the new endeavor was that empirical method and careful quantification might allow distance from the great political controversy of the day, which was of course which of Protestant or Roman Catholic Christianity was the "true" belief.

Scholars like Bacon, Descartes, Newton and Voltaire advocated the use of empiricism as mean to both understand the world, but also to get away from the sectional religious conflict that was then threatening to destroy European civilization. Even the new science of economics, as per Smith's Wealth of Nations, was intended in part as a contribution to the reduction of conflict.

How ironic then, in our new age, that it's an objective geological danger that threatens global civilization, while sectional conflict over economics has become so religious that its proponents have become the new Jesuits, proclaiming a counter-reformation complete with a proper Inquisition of certain key "heretic" scientists.

Of course, this too shall pass.

King Knut's legend is instructive here.

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