(n-1)-thoughts, n=5: Freedom of speech, university statement on free speech, the late Steven Weinberg, and delayed autism research

Freedom of speech

Outside of science, one of my favourite things to study as a hobby is history. I also deeply enjoy and appreciate philosophy. One thing I’ve learned in my time studying history and philosophy is that, when judged alongside the human character (insofar that we may establish such a generalisation), democracy is a system that perhaps shouldn’t work but somehow functions in miraculous ways. The miraculous part of democracy is that, as a system, it is generally stable despite or, perhaps, because of multiple competing forces. How it stablises despite so many pressure points, is a very interesting question of political theory and systems theory. Admittedly, it is naive to think in the following way, but there are times when I am pulled to consider a newtonian, mechanical view of social systems and their configuration. In the context of social discourse, think of how a view or movement based on certain ideas and arguements often seems to evoke an equal, opposite view. Look at the social world as a distant observer might, and notice the pattern that oftentimes there is a movement and then a reaction. In conditions of increasing polarisation, concepts and ideas – viewpoints – can become extremised and so too do their opposite. If a person is not left, then they must be right. There are a number of books on political polarisation, including some that take a science view of bias, and they all hint toward combinations of structural, cognitive, and psychological factors.

I often look at the social world as the absence of reason. This might be a bit too classical and critical enlightenment, but in many ways I think we’ve lost touch with the concept of subtlety in the rational process: that there is nuance and subtlty to concepts and to formulating rigorously researched ideas about complicated topics. For example, am I a ‘climate denier’? No. But am I skeptical of a lot of the hysteria around climate change? Yes. (I think, for example, of anti-modern movements or those that organise themselves under the notion of Deep Ecology). Does this mean I completely reject climate science, or that I completely reject the notion of climate change, although in places I may be sceptical? No. It seems that in the world of concepts and of human ideas, more often than not views become extremised and concepts are taken to their ideological boundaries where irrationality transforms into unreason. We see it all the time, not just in politics where formally it is accepted that designations of left and right, along with their associated bias, may clash in debate without much objectivity. To me, it is an absurdity. But one thing that history has taught me, and, certainly, the history of science, is that it is important to constantly resist getting tied down to bias, prejudice, and the type of knowledge formation that comes with ideology in all its guises. Much of what the history of science teaches is about our utter stupidity as a species in thinking that, in whatever historical period, we may belive to possess all of the answers or have a complete grasp on the truth. It is thus only a matter of pure comedy that we may engage in politics in such a way as thinking ours is the righteous view.

If I may speak honestly, I find a lot about modern politics – by which I mean the nature of its structure and engagement – irrational. I’ve never understood why in modern British democracy we assign the role of secretary of education, for example, to a professional politician with no experience in the field of education. Why is evidence-based, expert driven governance made to seem like a concept associated with some alien-rational, futuristic, scientific utopia? I suppose when contrasted to the system of competing echo chambers known as party politics, the idea of evidenced-based policy appears futuristic. Given that we do not live in anything like a scientific society, I’m not sure an actual scientific society would be structured in such a way that non-experts are allocated important roles in the practice of democratic governance. I mean, what does it say about the prospect of a society predicated on, or at least hoped to be informed by evidence based policy, when professional politicians with pre-established agendas preside both over the evidence and the policy? To me, the hard truth seems to be that all of politics is based on subjectivism and, in some sense, with the loss of the rational process that strives to seek the objective. Discourse instead seems to manifest in ways that formalise false equivalence or the categorical fallacy of inconsistency. For any issue, at least two sides are portrayed as equally valid when there may in fact be asymmetry. In some or many cases, perhaps no two political reductions are even capable of capturing the total complexity of the matter at hand. But with the loss of the objective as a concept that ought to be strived toward, debate is reduced to subjective bias and political prejudice that is symbologic of the postmodern vacuum in which we find ourselves.

Maybe I am just pessimistic. Then again, think of Brexit. Rub away all of the dross and antics, all of the extremisms and prejudiced ideologies that sought to exploit the situation, one will see that there were logical arguments from both sides of the debate. There were arguments from both the left and right-wing to leave the EU, with the former emphasising democratic control and participation in a similar way as the sovereignty argument on the right. Likewise, arguments to Remain were not just a left versus right issue, although, as it is so often today, simplistic narratives tend to rule public discourse and political slogan design. What was most striking about the entire process is that, rarely if ever, one observed a politician or public intellectual change their mind. It’s as though people didn’t engage in debate, but instead focused on shutting the other down. Maybe it is a matter of polarisation in which two sides often emerge as set against each other, and then from there discourse seems to shut down. Or maybe there is something to that old Newtonian idea. What is clear is that there was no collective encircling of an issue (or it was an exception to the rule), no process of gathering information from all sides – taking in new evidence and data – and constantly working through rational arguments (often through a process of changing one’s mind or outlook). This is how a civilised democratic society, armed with science and modern technologies, was meant to function. Or, at least, that’s how I like to imagine it.

This brings me to another thing that history has taught me: a democratic society based on core liberal and enlightenment values is one that requires citizens in deeply fundamental ways to be able to disagree. But the concept of the enlightenment requires something still much deeper – and this relates directly to democracy – that individuals enter into a debate, or disagree, within the frame of reason. Think of it this way: If I disagree with someone about a mathematical matter, it doesn’t make sense that I debate with them outside of mathematics. I pick up a dry wipe marker and explain mathematically why I don’t agree. Debates about freedom of speech in modern western society seem to lose sight of key content within the concept: what gives it so much fundamental import as a social concept is that it is intrinscially rational. If, at my university, an individual was invited to give a talk on why they are sceptical about the interpretation of climate science data, I may or may not agree; but given that their argument is rigorously constructed, well-researched, and rationally presented I support the freedom to present the view. If I don’t agree, and if I think that their argument is logically inconsistent or wrong, then it is up to me to disprove their case. This, to me, is what freedom of speech means. Yes, on some simplistic and practical level one may deduce their right to say anything, as so often this is what the popular debate on free speech seems to imply: for example, I may in this moment conjour some fanciful theory about why alien hamsters control all of human society, and I may provide a provocative argument for why this is true. But freedom of speech isn’t freedom to be unreasonable or freedom to not engage rationally in the arena of rational ideas, should one wish to engage at all; and although one might conflate their right to free speech with an imagined right to be taken seriously, such a view is in fact tantamount to utter stupidity.

Freedom of speech requires responsibility – it requires that one be normatively critical of one’s own view and be capable of exploring openly the thoughtful argument of the other – and it seems we have somehow lost sight of this fact just as we have lost sight of the meaning of constructive debate.

Stephen Fry, one of my favourites, had a fantastic line recently which is paraphrased below: ‘on one side is the new right, promoting a bizarre mixture of Christianity and libertarianism; on the other, the “illiberal liberals”, obsessed with identity politics and complaining about things like cultural appropriation. These tiny factions war above, while the rest of us watch, aghast, from the chasm below. […] It’s a strange paradox, that the liberals are illiberal in their demand for liberality. They are exclusive in their demand for inclusivity. They are homogenous in their demand for heterogeneity. They are somehow un-diverse in their call for diversity — you can be diverse, but not diverse in your opinions and in your language and in your behaviour. And that’s a terrible pity.’

University of Nottingham statement on free speech

As mentioned in a past post, since the start of term I have struggled to keep up with my blog. One thing I meant to write about was the recent statement by my university on freedom of speech. It may have been updated since I read it in the summer, as the university was seeking collaboration and feedback at the time. I should go back and read it again, but my assessment at the time was that it seemed well-balanced. It struck me that, as written, it conveyed the intention to genuinely realise the meaning of inclusivity, diversity, openess, and respect. This is what should come from an institution that seeks to foster learning, intellectual exploration, rational debate, and the wonderful process of formal inquiry in the collective pursuit of truth.

A thought of existential variety

The late Steven Weinberg had a wonderful comment about life and the human condition in his book, The First Three Minutes: ‘The more the universe seems comprehensible,’ he wrote, ‘the more it also seems pointless.’ I’m sympathetic with his view about the god-of-the-gaps. Truth be told, I consider myself agnostic; I don’t know for certain that there isn’t a God and if there is I would be inclined revolt in typical Camus fashion. That needless suffering should exist under the watch of some supreme being is detestable, in my view. So, although not an atheist in the extreme, I’ve always found Weinberg’s reflections reasonable when talking about the absence of God and how science may contribute positively to human meaning. Speaking in an interview, he once reflected: ‘To embrace science is to face the hardships of life—and death—without such comfort’. Pertinently, he continued: ‘We’re going to die, and our loved ones are going to die, and it would be very nice to believe that that was not the end and that we would live beyond the grave and meet those we love again. Living without God is not that easy. And I feel the appeal of religion in that sense.’

I often think that I could be diagnosed with cancer next week and be dead within a month. There is an innate indifference about the human condition, and with that I think a deep human fear of death, as Ernest Becker noted, governs a lot of human social systems. We can of course speak on the grandest scales and describe the precise nature of our cosmic insignificance – that we are not even a speck of dust on the scale of the universe. But even on a microbial and biochemical level, there is much that dictates the course of our lives over which we have no control. We can of course do our best to limit the probability of contracting some horrible disease or illness, and therefore play the percentages. And yet, really good people by the best moral standards, who eat right and live healthy, can contract the most awful of illness. These thoughts may appear morbid, but they describe reality. We’ve each known this indifference and fundamental arbitrariness from birth – catapulted into existence with no choice as to our geography or time in human history, we set forth with the conditions of our lives quite plainly and starkly defined. We can of course choose to fill the gaps – what some philosophers call the god of the gaps – but I’ve never found that a helpful or reasonable idea.

What I have found really important in philosophy, is that one can think in this way and acknowledge the gap without succumbing to nihilism. In an odd way, there is also hope to be found. Human beings are meaning makers, if nothing else. One can discover a cool new mathematical object and dedicate the rest of his/her life to studying it. Why? Because it is interesting, exciting, and contributes to knowledge. Of course an asteroid could crash into the earth and wipe out that knowledge completely, but that doesn’t mean that such knowledge shouldn’t have existed in the first place. There is a fine line between recognising and embracing the arbitrary and meaningless nature of life on the grandest scales, and also creating meaning and enjoyment and pursuing interests – to take care of one another and provide better conditions for those of the future – in revolt of that very reality. I often come back to this thought, because within it is a deeply lovely lesson. As Weinberg put it, the deeper idea is ‘to make peace with a universe that doesn’t care what we do, and take pride in the fact that we care anyway.’

Autism genetic project paused

One last thought. Actually, on this issue there is much to say, but I will limit this entry to a simple expression of disappointment.

It was recently announced that an autism genetics study was paused due to backlash. From what I understand, criticism includes a failure to consult the autism community about the goals of the research and there are concerns that the research could be misused, which I assume to be a concern about eugenics. This is obviously a very complicated issue, and always there are ethical points that need to be considered; but I think the latter is a bit misunderstood and this is probably a failure of scientific communication. The genetics of autism is complex. For example, cystic fibrosis involves a single gene, so it easier to screen for it. And, when screen is done, it is has nothing to do with eugenics. In the case of autism, it is likely that there are multiple genes, if not thousands, such that prenatal screening seems incredably unlikely – not that this was an intended outcome of the research anyway. Furthermore, while I understand some have concerns about eradicating autism as though it were an illness, when, in fact, it also contributes many positive traits, from what I have read the proposed research has no such intentions.

As a person diagnosed with ASD, I am very much supportive of the research. I think that, as with anything, it is best to study and understand a phenomenon as deeply as possible. Indeed, we should strive to have more of a scientific understanding of autism. At the same time, I understand that some may have ethical concerns. In science, we always have to proceed cautiously and thoughtfully. It is important to hold all scientific research to the highest ethical standards, which should be a normative process, and to also think about all possible outcomes and potential future (mis)use; but, in this case, it seems mistrust was largely down to a failure in scientific communication.

*Edited for grammar and clarity.

Disenchantment and the anthropology of (re-)enchantment

I recently read an interesting essay by Egil Asprem entitled Dialectics of Darkness. Its original purpose was to serve as a review of The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences by Jason Josephson-Storm. I have yet to read Josephson-Storm’s book, so I shall have to reserve comment for another time. But I am certainly already familiar with its main subject and the history behind it, which is one reason I found great interest in navigating Asprem’s essay on the enlightenment (and thus, too, the notion of enlightenment reason) and the anthropology of active (re-)enchantment.

Additionally, following the publication of Asprem’s work, a number of other short essays and articles appeared directly in response. I list them as follows, The Enchanted World Today by Josephson-Storm with a reply by Asprem; The Reemergence of Magical Beliefs by Adam Possamai; and, finally, Models of (Re-)Enchantment by Dafydd Mills Daniel. 

The latter article by Daniel offers what I think to be a decent and certainly interesting reading of Bertrand Russell and Richard Dawkins, particularly their nuanced and deeply considerate approaches to naturalist philosophy as well as their attempts to satisfy the demands for ethical norms rooted in a naturalistic model. It is no secret that I enjoy a lot of Russell’s writing, and a short disclaimer would highlight at this point that Russell’s essay A Free Man’s Worship (referenced by Daniel) is perhaps one of my favourite pieces of humanist literature. However, while I think a review of the contents of Daniel’s contribution could, in itself, be the focus of an entire essay, I will save a few comments for the end.

In reading the essay by Asprem, and then the follow-up by Josephson-Storm with a reply by Asprem, one thing struck me in particular. Up to this point, I’ve tended to see the enlightenment not as some cultural totality or as a total cultural shift in a particular moment of time but as a historical process. From d’Alembert and Descartes to Leibniz, Pascal, and Newton (to name a few enlightenment thinkers) – I think there is also a kernel of insight to be retrieved from their respective notes on this issue. Indeed, for many notable enlightenment thinkers, not least Kant, there was no such enlightenment as a historical period that completely extinguished enchantment; it was instead perceived as an ongoing process of social, psychological or spiritual development in human history. (In fact, as an aside, I would be inclined to argue that the enlightenment philosophes are generally distinguishable by the very nature of their confrontation with the dichotomy between process vs. substance metaphysics, a point that I think is relevant here). The philosophes were or can be read as an attempt to formally describe this process and capture its positive implications. Indeed, I think for many enlightenment scholars this view would not be received contentiously. And so, I am inclined to perhaps warn against the view that the enlightenment should be seen as a period of total cultural disenchantment that may or may not have eventually regressed to an unfolding process of (re-)enchantment over time.

Moreover, an investigation into the objective validity of reason and of scientific knowledge discloses, I think, a sort of naivety that sometimes saturates our thinking with regards to the idea of the historical realisation of cultural enlightenment. In the essays cited above, Newton is mentioned because for all his mathematical and scientific genius he also studied alchemy. But when the enlightenment is seen as a process, which too must exist or manifest in given history with its own established domain of concepts and prejudices, the weight of this contradiction becomes more measurable. To generalise my complaint: it is no secret that many enlightenment thinkers, even some members of the radical enlightenment (as some scholars distinguish), maintained belief (personal or via organised religion) in God whilst championing secularised knowledge and humanistic values. However, I’m not convinced this should be seen as a failure or interpreted in the context of (re-)enchantment. Even today, I don’t think it is entirely false to say that some members of the scientific community maintain a belief in the superstitious, supernatural, or the divine. Famously, there were many significant and famous modern physicists who also carried superstitions beliefs or artefact beliefs in myth. Taking a broader view, we may objectively perceive and criticise such logical inconsistency, and perhaps for the benefit of reason take lesson from their example. One lesson to recognise is that myth – or perhaps its remnants depending on how we parameterise the theory – may persist in very organised or established ways as historical legacy or artefact. It is not at all controversial to say that human bias and prejudice may continue to exist despite evidence against whatever belief; and it would seem very appropriate to look at these issues in their sociohistorical context in order to establish as nuanced a view as possible.

So from my own reading and studies, my interpretation of the enlightenment project is as an ensemble of concepts not necessarily unique in category but realised uniquely in time. In a sense, my view has been shaped around the idea of the enlightenment as a unique realisation of concepts, the genesis of which dates back and through such pre-Socratic scholars as Anaxagoras and Democritus, Thucydides and the The Mytilenaean Debate, and then eventually the philosophical considerations of Plato onward. Such concepts include, in modern language, basic ideas of reason as set against myth and political realism.

In many of the grandfathers and fathers of modern science we see this much more in terms of a general shaping of epistemology, however much residues of myth and enchantment may be found (from one philosopher to the next), given that human history is saturated in the perpetuation of prejudice. Although such a course of discussion requires a fuller essay in itself, what I am trying to say, in different words, is how the enlightenment may be viewed as a certain continuation in the historical generation of ideas and that epistemology is perhaps the best site to study its development. In philosophy, particularly or especially philosophy of the subject, this may be expressed by way of a study of the genesis of the modern subject, which some trace as far back as Homer’s Odyssey. Perhaps more insightful is Bertrand Russell’s study of knowledge in The Problem’s of Philosophy (1912) in which, rather than considerations of metaphysics, epistemology is brought directly into focus. From this view – namely, from the study of epistemology – the genesis of well-known enlightenment values and ideas appear in different forms, under different guises, and through manipulations of different frameworks in the very seeds of philosophical thought in classical antiquity forward.

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave can very much be read as an investigation into epistemology not so dissimilar to the enquiry of enlightenment philosophes into the possibility of knowledge – rational and scientific or otherwise. The leading question for the enlightenment may be stated, ‘What even constitutes knowledge, let alone rational and objective knowledge?’. As a profound site of investigation, often ignored or not taken serious enough, it is one that can be traced back to pre-Socratic study which was, I am inclined to argue, eventually refocused with advent of the first Medieval universities and their systematic introductions of Aristotelian language, then in the humanist renaissance of the 14th and 15th centuries, and finally in the 18th century philosophes.

On the other hand, although the enlightenment project did not emerge simply out of nothing, there is something unique about it which continues to draw serious interest and consideration. In a sense, I think it may also be viewed a lexicalized concept. As such, it is unique in what it represents as a particular unification of ideas and values realised in such a way as to be epistemologically revolutionary. Taking this view, I think we can also begin to delineate different epistemologies and their significance with respect to the prospect of enlightenment knowledge.

Arguably, one of the last great philosophical efforts to answer the fundamental question of the status of knowledge and the possibility of knowing – and, really, the status and legitimacy of abstract concepts – was in the work of Kant. Interestingly, I think it can be strongly argued that Kant’s investigations, and likewise also Hume’s skepticism in which Kant seeks to overcome, are much more relevant to philosophical systems of knowledge than scientific systems of knowledge. There is, at a point, a divergence between traditional philosophical epistemologies and scientific epistemologies. For Kant, and also Hume, neither seem to be able to do justice to the unique epistemological domain of scientific enquiry, which, I think was clearly realised in the 20th century to be very different than the general philosophical domain of enquiry. Although, in my opinion, Kant comes extremely close in places, I would be inclined to expand that, at least in a Platonic sense of conceptual space, scientific knowledge can be cleanly and clearly differentiated from purely subjective reasoning, and that while Kant’s response to Hume’s skepticism is not entirely satisfactory, the latter can be overcome through explanation within scientific systems of reasoning. But with these matters put to one side, the deeper point is that I think one can see clearly this delineation of epistemologies not only in the progression of modern science but also in what it has to say about the prospects of reason and human rationality.

Mention has already been made of Russell. It would be terrific to write more about his works in both a critical and non-critical way, because his 1912 investigations are some of the best when it comes to late-modern encircling of these differences in epistemology by way of fairly systematic investigations into the nature of knowledge. That said, I think some of the most illuminating sites of reflection can also be found in the writings of many of the great 20th century physicists, who concerned themselves with such longstanding historical debates. Einstein, to offer one example, is noted to have spent time thinking about epistemological questions and engaging with debates on the nature and status of knowledge.

***

These essays, especially the one by Asprem which ignites a wonderful chain of contributions and perspectives, are undoubtedly stimulating. The one thing that stands out to me, given the above reflections, is the risk that one may easily take a viewpoint that is too binary, lacking the complexity of a systems view of human society and the general types of behaviour it fosters. Disenchantment and re-enchantment seem less like fundamental processes than epiphenomena. In many ways, I think the antimony often defined between disenchantment and enchantment can be broken down into very basic elements of the epistemological study of reality versus appearance, from which Russell for example delineates two forms of knowledge: by description and by direct acquaintance. The latter is very much akin to the best of existential phenomenology of the 19th and 20th centuries, in which intimate description of the phenomenal world of direct experience and sense data is given. Often these movements neglect the abstract and theoretical or are simply unable to conceptualise it. Russell, on the other hand, is able to substantiate the validity of logicism and logical reasoning – indeed, we may even extend his analysis today to theoretical knowledge – whilst maintaining ample recognition of the experiential and the phenomenological. Preservation of the recognition of the type of knowledge by direct acquaintance is important in terms of secularised ethical and moral foundations; but doing so while maintaining a concept of the objective and not regressing to subjectivism is no easy task. Much of contemporary post-modern philosophy, for instance, sinks into the muddied confusion of pure subjectivism and at a great cost.

But if we decide that the disenchantment-enchantment model is not satisfactory, what I want to say is that, as I have been alluding, perhaps the more fundamental site of enquiry is the study of epistemology, from which any and all discrepancy between disenchantment and (re)-enchantment may emerge. And, in few words, I think this and the paragraph immediately above describe why Daniel’s essay touches on something very important in his reference to the compelling arguments by Russell and also Dawkins, respectively. Intentionally or not, they both present fairly convincing approaches principled, firstly, on the foundations of knowledge and the validity of objective knowledge. From this, and as modern science would also indicate, (re-)enchantment is reduced to the domain of cognitive human bias, dogma and superstition; the persistence of myth played out in daily human life has its roots here, just as the violence and irrational ideologies that define the contemporary political domain are often a projection of the unreasonable on the basis of the prejudiced nature of the subject’s interaction with the world. If, as some scholars describe, the contemporary political domain may be generally depicted as a polarised space for the practice of bias and prejudice, with the establishment of echo chambers and irrational subjective pursuits of ideological ends as opposed to rational, disclosing, truth-giving processes – I take it from the view of Russell that such a space is merely the continuation pathological epistemologies.

What is also significant about both Russell and Dawkins is that, rather than completely rejecting the human existential inclination to search for meaning, it is acknowledged and reformulated positively. They argue that there is no deeper source of meaning than that which is naturally disclosed within the epistemological domain of science, and that through science and its many lessons the human need and thirst for meaning may be quenched, even in the face of our own cosmic insignificance. Unlike romanticism for example, in which meaning and inspiration is deduced purely subjectively and with emphasis on the primacy of the individual, which completely prefigures the notion of the subject by neglecting the objective; what we see in the better parts of Russell and Dawkins is a positive, evolving notion of enlightenment meaning-giving process that in many ways may begin to answer Camus’ deep (and certainly valid) conundrum.

For these reasons, I agree and sympathise with Daniel’s assertion that, in many ways, Russell and Dawkins successfully carve a path a forward, transcending the pitfalls of the romantics so often tied to (re-)enchantment and anti-modern movements, whilst preserving the existential depth of what it means to be human and in search for meaning. Through this lens, I think the picture of total enlightenment disenchantment from the perspective of cultural anthropology becomes something of a myth. Allow me to explain.

In certain strands of contemporary philosophy, the projection of some complete realisation of reason and the crystallisation of rational society (such as in Weber’s construction) would seem to rely in some way on a view of cultural enlightenment as a sort of final development. In that sense, it too would seem predicated in places on the myth of cultural enlightenment and hence the achievement of solid rational outcome. But I would argue that history has witnessed neither, and even the best examples of contemporary society fail satisfy the demands of both concepts.

Furthermore, many of the critical philosophes of the 20th century, most of which were rooted in or indebted to the enlightenment, placed great importance on reason, its historical genesis, and the ongoing struggle in its realisation. That is to say that the genesis of the modern subject was a central point of focus, and with this focus many provocative debates on knowledge and reason may be found. Crucially, the concept of enlightenment reason is not perceived as a given. The concept of enlightenment reason may have historically crystallised in a unique way – or at least some framework was formalised to better describe it – and hence concepts of rational society may have begun to spring forth. But we learn in the critical philosophies that the parameters in which reason and notions of rational (thus disenchanted) society may be historically realised can be more or less pathological, and that generally in the social and communicative domain it is reason’s absence that continually defines humanity’s historical struggle. In Weber’s construction, then, one could argue that the concept of reason is essentially utilised in a less than rational way. There is, in other words, an ongoing classical distinction between form and content, and their lack of synthesis, that I would argue underlies much of the struggle for reason that continues to the present day.

Such a viewpoint reinforces the idea – indeed, the acute observation – that we do not presently live in a rational, scientific society. Evidence of this can easily be found in the very structure of contemporary debates and the issues they concern. Instead, it would seem much more akin to a society that uses notions of reason or quasi-systems of reason and science at its convenience, without complete subscription to its logical and rational demands. So, in a way, I think there is a deeper truth to Josephson-Storm’s study. I would say that some enlightenment disenchantment has been achieved but only up to a point within a particular epistemological domain that exists within broader social-pathological and enchanted parameters. I think the subtlety and nuance of such a viewpoint carries forward what may have been deemed the radical enlightenment based largely on the assessment that, following a lexicalized concept of the enlightenment, the reality of the process of enlightenment reason is much more akin to a struggle for reason and for a future rational society against the forces of its absence.

One last comment, to conclude this already lengthy engagement. If the enlightenment is seen more as a unique configuration of concepts and ideas, as part of a larger history, which triggered a process (against myth, prejudice, etc.) in the development of reason, science and ultimately fundamental secularised values – from this point of view, reason and human rationality may be perceived within the scope of a theory of society that recognises how, and in what way, such important concepts must be socially fostered. The notions of disenchantment and enchantment, if the binary is correct to construct, discloses a tremendous conflict: namely, the legacy of historical and cognitive biases, in addition to general irrational human tendencies and inclinations which reject the objective. That a society may, in recent time, promote itself as disenchanted only to then be said to have regressed to (re)-enchantment and myth – or only for (re)-enchantment and myth to continue propagate – would seem one of the central themes of Dialectic of Enlightenment. At the same time,  modern science continues to push the boundaries of human thought, and its special epistemological domain of enquiry is generally irrefutable. The influence and demands of enlightenment reason continues to challenge, even scientists, to normatively check one’s biases and to continue to struggle for a clearer recognition of objective knowledge within the historical context of constraints of that knowledge at any given time.

However, in that the promise of enlightenment reason – the promise of reason and human rationality – may exist and yet simultaneously be folded into a human social world of continued and renewed enchantment – and hence, myth and the irrational confluence with the rational – this is akin to acknowledging that differentiated spheres of society may each be affected differently. It is this fragile and precarious existence of reason and its unrelenting possibility of betrayal that seems to be one of the essential features of today’s social world, so much so that in continued enchantment reason can take on the appearance of a disfigured form that is, in fact, absent of any rational content.

The struggle is to see reason and unreason, solid as the ground beneath one’s feet or as the material objects in one’s daily life. Even those who believe they command reason often, in their certainty, fall guilty of its opposite. It is notable that most major cultures and religions to have crystallised in human history possess a concept of good and bad, in moral philosophical terms; light and dark in religious language; or reason and unreason, in epistemological terms. With no exception, none have reconciled these ideas however much one may faithfully believe the contrary. This is as close to an objective view that may be accessed, and almost always whatever lesson one may wish to glean such fleeting objectivity can quickly turns subjective through the simple demand of interpretation. This was as much a struggle for Plato as Aristotle and the 18th century philosophes. In the modern lens, it was as much a struggle for Kant and Hegel as Adorno or alternatively the opposing attempt to formulate the post-modern.

One thing I can speak to is that in mathematics, ideally, we follow the systematic through to the result, and then we ascertain whether the logic is true or not. But this space of concepts and of thought would seem different to the world of social occupations, in which concepts – like policy – can be reasonable, unreasonable, or both simultaneously. This is why there is no realised fundamental moral theory, because the space of concepts is saturated in the subjective stuff of daily human life. The point is not to say that the objective is in accessible, but oftentimes its fleeting and precarious nature cannot be trusted in the eyes of human beings. Even when solid objects are attempted to formed in words, such as God, or in symbols, such as peace, one can easily feign through solid and rigid representations the opposite of its conceptual substance. People have killed in the name of religion or the idea of a just politics without any awareness of the indignation of the contradiction. I think here, too, Russell and Dawkins serve important lessons and insight as we continue to reflect on the importance of the enlightenment and its realisation.

**Image: Projection of the Enlightenment by Anshu Kumar.

As a substitute for Christmas tales, let’s talk evolution

Some time ago I wrote a post on human evolution and civilisation. It was one of my first contributions to my general reading blog. But I feel it is worth thinking about this morning, as, generally, this is what I tend remind myself of at Christmas: our immaturity as a species. Instead of fanciful tales of miraculous birth, I think of the hard grind of evolution and our general cosmological insignificance.

This might sound gloomy and depressing, but it’s lesson is the opposite.

Human evolution is a process over millions of years, and still that is nothing in contrast to geological and cosmological time. With early migrations estimated to be between 2 and 1.8 million years ago, current best approximations place first arrivals to Australia as 60,000 years from present and 30,000 years from present for the Americas. And yet, if we maintain a macroscopic view, agriculture and civilisation only began to emerge approximately 12,000 years from present. In the greater context of reality, this timeline is not even a mark on Earth’s total history.

In our current history, we tend to issue the belief of advanced civilisation. But this notion of advancement is only relative to a microscopic history that, in the grand scheme of things, is puerile or callow. Social-historical, moral and technological progress are both micro and macro in scale. Our systems, knowledge, even the genesis of such concepts as reason and human rationality are at best fledgling, should we take seriously the idea of evolutionary process. General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics are only about 100 years old, while our theory of the Standard Model of Particle Physics is much less than that. Physics is young. Science, while having made significant progress in a few hundred years, is far from complete. Still, today, human beings believe in myth and remain governed by prejudices and tribalisms, from arbitrary nationalistic identities to fear-driven impulses of racist and bigoted behaviourism. The total of what we know is little, and the extent of genuine progress of our systems is morally and ethically debatable.

As far as human beings have come as a species, as much as the historically recent modern enlightenment traditions have stoked the fires of human intelligence, reason and science – our systems, our ideas, the genesis of our concepts and the macroscopic patterns in our behaviours and beliefs are the mark of a species still very much young and undeveloped. The continued persistence of irrationality in addition to the microscopic pathology of our societies, dating as far back as the earliest tribalisitic identifications along with the continuation of the constituent psychologies of Myth in both shamen and totem, attest only to this immaturity. But these also serve as healthy reminders.

If Christmas is generally a story entwined with narratives of the divine, encompassing also a greater historical tale spanning just a few thousand years in which human beings are said to be of special rank touched by God (see creationism), I prefer instead to remind myself of the actual reality that human beings are in fact cosmologically insignificant. We’re a product of millions of years of evolution. Our knowledge is fledgling, and the total body of that which we know scientifically is not that much at all. Hurling through space on a rock, in the context of our own micro-scale history of life, the lesson of science is that culturally and morally we have only our humanism. I think this reminder contributes more to one’s ethics and morality than any tale of miraculous birth.

Sagan demon haunted world

Thinking about philosophy and Carl Sagan’s “The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark”

I find philosophy to be an incredibly controversial subject, one that is difficult to get a handle on. There is a value to philosophy, though I often struggle to understand it or place it. Perhaps this is because I lack a satisfactory definition of philosophy – a term which can represent so many different bases of ideas, including different methodologies and epistemologies ranging broadly from the analytical to the postmodern and purely subjective. For me, any grasp I may have of philosophy breaks down with the latter – I find a lot of contemporary philosophy to be subjective and lacking what I once termed “epistemological and methodological coherence”.

Maybe this last comment strikes a more explicit concern: philosophy not as a particular form of systematic enquiry, but as a weapon to enforce the formalising of opinion.  I suppose as a person who has engaged a lot with philosophy over my younger years, from the enlightenment philosophes to critical theory and anglo-american or what is otherwise known as analytical philosophy, I think I can say that, despite my struggle to find the basis for logical and rational validity, I am not of the scientific representatives who reject philosophy’s relevance. I think philosophy is relevant, in some ways, perhaps most crucially with respect to the social world. In other words, I think the situation is much more nuanced and convoluted than to merely assert “philosophy is dead” and that its fate was brought about by the march of science. Even though some of the utmost traditional philosophical areas of study are becoming (and rightfully so!) increasingly subject to scientific methodologies and epistemology – there is still something lastingly relevant to genuine philosophical thought.

From the perspective of science, one of the easiest mistakes, I think, is to presuppose the existence of some sort of rational communicative utopia. It doesn’t correlate with the phenomenology insofar that the ideas of science, of scientific logic and rationality, and more broadly of the principle of objectivity, are found to be in constant tension with the opposite: the irrational characteristics of the human social world. Science can report objectively verifiable facts and those facts may still be rejected for the benefit of political bias or general prejudice. This duality seems quite apparent, at least from my vantage. The more science becomes politicised the worse the situation because the more rational and objective engagement and communication is undermined. At the same time, the pathologies of the social world also confront the scientist, as a human being, embedded in those systems and cultural patterns. The idea of objective reality, natural and social, can easily fade by force of overwhelming communicative disorientation. That even a scientific subject of concern – say, for example, climate change (without fronting my own position and study on the subject) – is contested by some members of the scientific community (for example, see here or here) despite overwhelming consensus reveals that something fundamental in human knowledge and in the engagement with scientific study is vulnerable to bias, ulterior motivation or worse. Indeed, even scientists – perhaps especially physicists – can be guilty of hubris. But it still begs a different question. Science is principled on the basic idea of expert consensus forming, and with that a weight is given to experts in their field followed by great trust and responsibility. In such a debate, who is right and what are the facts for rational consensus? The hope, always, is that the scientific method will prevail (assuming a scientific matter). But there also seems to be implicitly a philosophical criterion here which demands consideration.

For myself, my concern is with science inasmuch as it is also with knowledge, such that the former also implies fundamental concern with reason and the idea of obtaining as objective of an understanding  of reality (social and natural) as possible within the confines of human ignorance. There is an entire thesis to be written systematically dismissing many arguments by the likes of Thomas Kuhn and others regarding the nature of “ordinary science”, “scientific revolution” and theory-forming from historical, epistemological and scientific perspectives. That science probes closer to some truer notion of reality is should not be contentious.

And yet, these concerns also become philosophical when science is forced to reflect upon itself in a critical way. And in thinking about this, I’ve come to the suspicion that the continued relevance of philosophy is possibly featured particularly with respect to the social domain as it exists in tension with such concepts of reason and unrelenting scientific consideration. Moreover, it is hard to avoid that many questions remain with respect to human behaviour, society and ethics that currently extend well beyond the scope of scientific enquiry. That scope may, indeed, continue to narrow over time, such that even the traditional philosophical subject of consciousness is becoming an increasingly scientific concern. But today it is not possible to find a scientist who, outside of thinking scientifically and performing scientific research, offers non-scientific opinion and thus also implies non-scientific philosophical assertions. That one might feign opinion as scientific – or exploit one’s position and authority in science to propagate personal bias outside of science – is something we observe all the time. To recognise the existence of bias is perhaps one of the certain hallmarks of broader intelligence in a systems-thinking frame. And yet, when all things are considered, the question of unavoidability is genuine. That, generally, the whole of science as a movement in history teaches valuable lessons – morally and broadly philosophically – does not mean that, in particular instances, subgroups may still profess scientific reason and be simultaneously fascist or bigoted or whatever.

I suppose, if one follows this course of enquiry, it can be stated that there exists and may always exist a contiguous region within a scientific society – a region of questions about greater (systemic) moral and ethical patterns and trends that require critical philosophical concepts and tools to enable science science, empiricism and evidence-based thinking to reflect upon itself in truly systemic ways. Even members of the scientific community that argue against the lasting relevance of philosophy (in whatever form) often invoke philosophical arguments outside of scientific matters of concern reveals an intriguing contradiction. That one may argue, as a matter of opinion, toward or from a basis or counter-basis of facts without the objective means to recognise potential implicit bias in the simultaneous formation of biases in those arguments, is an essential element of human irrationality that seems to come with being human (or, so the science of cognitive bias increasingly reveals). Some people are better than others in such practices of critical reflexivity, but one can hardly argue with any clarity that this is the general rule.

In any case, and whilst I have deviated somewhat from the primary trajectory, the key idea I am encircling considers whether philosophy continues to have genuine meaning in this context – that is, whether it has a role to play a critical function in human thought. As much as I have engaged with philosophy in the past, placing the role of philosophy in the enterprise of human thought (especially in the age of modern science) and excavating some satisfactory definition of “genuine” or objective philosophical theory as opposed to “bad” philosophy is something I struggle to grasp in any sort of satisfactory way. I think, primarily, because delineating between the basis of objective and even systems-based philosophy and philosophy with objective flavouring or even completely fiendish philosophical argument – the point at which one blends into another is currently subjective. And this subjective problem is what perhaps undermines completely any claim to philosophical objective enquiry, whereas science, despite microscope tensions and struggles and problems in practice, has much more of a grip on the objective.

But if the question of philosophy as a relevant critical function remains open, what I am reminded of whilst writing this short essay is piece is perhaps one of the most penetrating and thought-provoking pieces of social philosophy that I have ever read. The book I am referring to is by Carl Sagan titled “The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark” (2008). Sagan may have his critics, but this book has always struck me as being intriguing for the reason that it interweaves both science, scepticism and philosophy (social and natural) in a way that seems to exemplify the continuing power of philosophy to draw certain connections and illuminate objective patterns for the benefit of broader critical reflexivity.  Sagan evokes, if not practices with a relatively high degree of success, a rational and critical epistemology, applying scientific logic and reason along with philosophical tools to evoke deep questions about the human world. In the process, he unfolds his own humanistic values as those which he sees as a product of the unfolding of science (and, perhaps, of enlightenment reason). It is not the perfect book, by any means. And almost all popular literature shares the same fatal flaw. But what Sagan does is capture, or at least has a unique way of tracing, a sort of enlightenment scientific philosophy (however one may then project their views or biases on such a philosophy). He goes from deriving the importance of scepticism in all things (in science as well as in human policy) to forewarning about the dangers of dogma in the form of modern witch-hunts, New Age healing, and fundamentalist religion. He extracts patterns from human history – patterns of bias and repeating tendencies toward the irrational, pathological and dogmatic – to offer explanations that fit with the science.  There is also the presence of critical thinking, and, perhaps, the presence of a sort of critical theory, in which great emphasis is placed on understanding and being able to dissect fallacious arguments and practice media literacy (to be able to identify sensationally fallacious media stories and biased narratives) as well as rationally consider all that which envelops a person, with grounding in evidence; it is, in a sense, Sagan’s own social philosophical appeal to a future rational society. This is deeply philosophical inasmuch as it is motivated by science and its broader lessons.

Below are two particular passages. Reading these parts of Sagan in the contemporary social context remind one that perhaps science does serve many valuable critical lessons – even moral lessons, should one argue from the basis of its epistemology and draw out a broader philosophy of human reason. In what way, and on what basis it might philosophy be grounded in science, or cooperate and collaborate with science, I am not sure. That there are theoretical physicists who have vacated their physics departments in order to find new homes in philosophy departments, where it is felt they can then ask potentially deeper questions about the physics they are practising, is perhaps one reference point. Of course, I might also invoke MY past studies of history here, and cite the classical context in which philosophy and science were not separate, divisible parts. The natural philosopher – through the tools provided by philosophy – conceived of the scientific method, and a trace of that legacy – in the very concept and practice of scientific logic – surely remains.

That such a deep connection exists suggests that a rational, critical and objective philosophy would not see itself as being too far from also being normatively informed scientifically. Moreover, perhaps it is true that philosophy is necessarily speculative, but philosophy without science is condemned to the practice of blind speculation. From another angle, I’ve read in the past that perhaps it is the categorical imperative of philosophy to support the project of human reason, science and critical thinking – to guide such efforts and keep them honest. In some ways, I read this in Sagan – he is philosophical in his humanism without ever vacating from his scientific foundation, referring to the support of science, education and a literate and rational social class as key values (there is also a very clear economic argument to be made here, if one is thinking of psychological well-being in relation to fostering the capacity for increased social rationality, as linked in past discussions on social pathology). He writes, for example:

I worry that, especially as the Millennium edges nearer, pseudoscience and superstition will seem year by year more tempting, the siren song of unreason more sonorous and attractive. Where have we heard it before? Whenever our ethnic or national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity, during challenges to national self-esteem or nerve, when we agonize about our diminished cosmic place and purpose, or when fanaticism is bubbling up around us – then, habits of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls.

The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir.

Sagan lays out these arguments in the context of science and its potential broader moral and ethical lessons, while discussing anything from Maxwell’s equations and electromagnetism and quasars to the human genome. He does so from a framework that allows for prescient critique, such as in the following quote that I reference to close this article. Notice, too, the kernel of applied critical philosophy as the web for each concerning depiction of the future. I close with the following quote,

I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time – when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness. The dumbing down of America is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30-second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance.

‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’: Epistemology, Feedback Loops and the Science of Bias and Human Irrationality

R.C. Smith

If we take as a stated assumption, based off the growing body of science, that prejudice is pervasive – that human irrationality is, to put it philosophically, a central theme in the human struggle toward a rational society – I think one of the lessons is epistemological in form. Its basic reduction is this: instead of approaching the world of phenomena, a priori, through the conscious endeavor to understand, which implies openness in the learning subject as a sort of constant and normative orientation process, the standard paradigm of irrational society is driven to approach the world a priori through hardened established frameworks. It is the practice of what some call dogmatic thinking. It is the philosophical account of being deeply consumed by paradigmatic emphasis on bias of opinion instead of an emphasis on fact.

I remain interested in the notion of social pathology, particularly in how through the notion of “social pathology” there exists the potential for a broader meta-analysis of human irrationality. Further, it is interesting to think about how human irrationality might become deeply normalized paradigmatically, in both thought and practice. One description or example is in the form of the increasing hostility and polarisation of political views, which has been observed or described also in terms of the hardening of attitudes (toward opposing views). The idea of pathology, in critical sociological terms, attempts to explain this (in part) through an account of positive and negative feedback loops. This concept is one that can be found in a number of areas, from science and engineering to social systems theory. But the idea, applied in the current context, is simple: the more divisive and polar people’s views, including also things like media consumption (which have become increasingly biased and tribalised on both sides of the spectrum), the more that creates a sort of echo chamber that basically serves only to reinforce the extremity of polar views. As the median of polarisation widens, into opposing extremes, the pathology of the cycle is such that it leads to increasing irrationality of views that no longer have any first order engagement with facts, unbiased researched, or constructive rational debate.

Another additional account of such pathological cycles or feedback loops can be found in a critique of the sociology of “worldviews”, in which these feedback loops essentially operate in terms of the solidification separate hardened and almost absolute views of reality. But the core detail, at least in how I’ve thought about it in the past, concerns how the feedback loop leads to or is an exemplification of increasingly extreme positioning of views that are no longer rational in epistemological engagement. The study of an issue or social phenomena, the engagement in debate about varying interpretations, is not based on an openness to learn or to arrive at a more accurate account – rather, the drive seems more to argue from the basis of one’s biases. This is not only generally counter-scientific, and also non-rational, it is very similar to the sort of patterned dogmatisms that was critiqued by certain enlightenment philosophers centuries ago.

Evidence of such trends can be found both in theoretical and empirical research, such as the widely cited study by Pew Research on Political Polarisation in the American Public.
But we can also deepen this discussion by noting that what one is also describing here is the implicit (and often explicit) presence of bias in people’s engagements, as well as what seems to have become the cultural acceptance of that bias on behalf of “politics”. This signals the magnitude of the problem of human self-ignorance, individually and culturally. I think it is an epistemological problem inasmuch as, in other studies, we understand such bias and prejudice and dogma as sociological, cultural, psychological and even bio-chemically driven. As an aid, what is required, to the best of my reading, is genuine critical thinking that challenges the very existence of the construction of these negative feedback loops and “worldviews” as well as, psychologically, the production increasingly hardened attitudes.

Psychology

But let’s pause a think a little bit about the psychology. This problem seems to be more than instinct versus rational cognition, though that is one reduction. The notion of a “gut feeling” – or an intuition or impulse based purely off experience (i.e., emotional history, past experiences, etc.), could be argued as being one distinct basis of the irrational process of belief formation. It is based on subconscious decision making processes, cognitive biases, memories and even bio-chemical reactions. There is a lot of incredibly interesting science in this area, especially in relation to survival training. One might think, too, of the psychology of self-affirmation theory, in which researcher describe how “much research suggests that people have a ‘‘psychological immune system’’ that initiates protective adaptations when an actual or impending threat is perceived” (p. 184). Additionally, and interestingly, “At both the individual and collective levels, important domains of functioning—health, political decision-making, conflict, relationships, academic performance—call forth the motivation to defend the self. People defensively distort, deny, and misrepresent reality in a manner that protects self-integrity” (pp. 230-231).

Furthermore, there is a lot of evidence in psychology about how, when one perceives oneself to be under threat, one’s brain resorts to an evolved fight or flight reaction. This perceived threat can be immediately physical or cognitive. Under anxiety, the brain shuts down (for lack of a better description). This state is certainly not prone to rational deliberation, as areas of brain that govern working memory, the processing of new information, and so on are prohibited as adrenaline floods one’s bloodstream and the hormone cortisol is released. Working memory has also been shown to be impaired in response to increases in the hormone cortisol. In other words, the body switches into or turns to being reliant on instinctual mechanisms.

In these situations, and even those where one is faced with overwhelming or unclear information and uncertain decisions, studies have found the people tend to resort to cognitive shortcuts. In psychology such shortcuts are referred to as heuristics, which can be useful but also tend to lead to irrational decision-making processes. It’s an interesting concept, which refers back to the inhibiting of the brain and basic cognitive processes which might foster rational deliberation and consideration. Most recently I learned of a study in The Journal of Neuroscience, which furthered discussion on heuristics.

There is too much science to link in one essay. But one of the basic ideas across the literature seems to suggest that, in many situations, the cognitive status can be incredibly reactionary and certainly not logical. That some studies on heuristics, such as the one in The Journal of Neuroscience, suggest that it is not all emotion, but potentially also cognitive laziness, add even more intrigue to the total picture that researchers are slowly building.

From a behavioural perspective – and here I am thinking aloud in memory of passed resources I’ve studied over the years – it would seem that there are many instances in which one’s inclination is toward very instinctual pattern of thinking, designed similarly to the fight or flight reaction; though I don’t think it is necessarily deterministic, as survival studies show people can think rationally under threat or stress. And this makes sense in that, if my memory serves me correctly, the primitive part of the brain is understood to be the amygdala. Located deep within the medial temporal lobe, it is thought that this part of the brain is link to both fear and pleasure. Some describe it as the “danger detector”. But the amygdala has also been linked to cognitive bias and biased behaviour.

On an epistemological level, these fascination points of research remain me of the widely celebrated book Thinking, Fast and Slow (2012) by Daniel Kahneman. I discovered this book far beyond my particular period of interest and study that resulted in my thesis on social pathology, which is a shame as it would have significantly impacted my arguments and would have served as a key reference.

Additionally, this discussion brings to mind a study I recently read on the epistemology of bias, particularly in relation to conspircist ideation.

PLOS Study

The study, titled Epistemic beliefs’ role in promoting misperceptions and conspiracist ideation, is interesting in that it studies prejudice, bias and conspiracist ideation in relation to epistemology. As an empirical reference, it seems to drill down a bit deeper into an incredibly fundamental issue: human irrationality.

In short,  the researchers found that “People who tend to trust their intuition or to believe that the facts they hear are politically biased are more likely to stand behind inaccurate beliefs. And those who rely on concrete evidence to form their beliefs are less likely to have misperceptions about high-profile scientific and political issues”.

As the lead researcher, Kelly Garret, commented in the article linked above:

“Scientific and political misperceptions are dangerously common in the U.S. today. The willingness of large minorities of Americans to embrace falsehoods and conspiracy theories poses a threat to society’s ability to make well-informed decisions about pressing matters […]. A lot of attention is paid to our political motivations, and while political bias is a reality, we shouldn’t lose track of the fact that people have other kinds of biases too.”

In addition to the PLOS study, the book by Kahneman also serves to suggest, it seems, how there is potentially the question of an interesting connection between all the points discussed so far and the general cultural development of thinking fast as opposed to slow, rational thought and consideration. More than that, as the author’s of the PLOS article suggest: one counter to epistemic beliefs not based on evidence is premised on “emphasizing the importance of evidence, cautious use of feelings, and trust that rigorous assessment by knowledgeable specialists is an effective guard against political manipulation”. It echoes calls that what is needed – at the very roots of culture and society – is a more scientific mindset. Perhaps it also signals the need for a more slow, thoughtful and considerate culture? Perhaps, too, it signals the need for “critical thinking” and less political thinking?

All of these questions and many others encircle a deeper issue that seems to be subject of increasing empirical acknowledgement. But more concisely there is also the question as to whether – or to what extent – there is a social and structural component to the fostering or promoting of cultural groups based on misperception, bias and conspiracist ideation. It sort of ties-in to discourses on social pathology, in which there is a component of human stupidity and, thus, irrationality, understood to operate as a scar. It’s the idea of the frightened snail, as edges along with its tentacles extended, until, in fear, it recedes back into its shell. The analogy serves also as a description of the hardened subject, of which stupidity is, in a sense, a developmental and emotional scar. The key idea here concerns an enquiry into what role social, economic and broader environmental conditions play in fostering rational subjectivity, as opposed to irrational, fear-driven and hardened forms of subjectivity.

It is striking, too, in this age of post-modernism in which post-empirical, post-truth developments provide ripe soil for the growth of conspiricist ideation and non-scientific approaches, that such conspiracies as the earth being flat often also refer in some way to hidden forces. It’s almost like the myth of the devil all over again. But what I am really angling toward is the question of sociohistorical-cultural context in addition to psychological, emotional and cognitive development. A lot of conspiracy theories are premised, as the PLOS study alluded, on manufacturing what I would describe as a substitute reality. As such, many of them seem to perform the same operation as the myth of devil – and of religion writ large – insofar that they explain away, in a ‘just so’ sense, everything that the individual finds overwhelming or difficult in life and in the (real) social world. Unemployed or stuck in a dead-end job in one’s thirties? ‘It’s not my fault, it’s the Illuminati or some hidden New World Order!’ These sorts of explanations or justification don’t seem uncommon – they indicate some belief that society is rigged, and that one’s struggle in life or in seeking personal success are the result of a massive hidden force, as opposed to one’s choices or concrete social issues like economic inequality. Conspiracies, in this sense, act as substitute realities to appease the psyche not only with respect empirical injustice, struggle and suffering – that is, concrete structural social, economic and political issues – they also seem on my observation to deflect from personal responsibility and the platitudes of existential angst common to human experience. These “worldviews” become so entrenched, even the concept of facts are rendered meaningless.

Thinking broadly – and perhaps searching philosophically

What I am mostly curious about at the current juncture is how all of this might link together, especially considering the PLOS study with respect to the formation of closed and prejudiced – or dogmatic – systems of belief. Philosophically speaking, it is interesting to think about how prejudiced systems of belief seem to operate according to established predictors of misperception. Indeed, that is something the PLOS study hints at.

Another interesting study from Stanford University was recently published. It seems to go with recent trends in terms of research findings and the slow piecing together of a much larger picture on human bias. It suggested that changing behaviors may be easier when people see norms changing. This raises a number of very interesting sociological questions.  One example cited, as summarised in the article linked above, concerns how “people ate less meat and conserved more water when they thought those behaviors reflected how society is changing”. One can think of a long list of examples that would seem to support, or be supported by, this research. Think of such a facile example as the changes in fashion trends, where majority of people will think a new fashion style looks ridiculous only for that same style to be normalized and supported by the majority five years later. One can draw examples of the same basic meaning from a number of areas.

More deeply, it is interesting to think of this research in relation to cognitive bias. Can it help explain why some norms, which may have become pathological or destructive, continue to be sustained? For example, think of the norms of gun culture in the U.S. in comparison to every other western society, particularly in relation to levels of gun violence. The data, at least when I last reviewed it, was striking. Moreover, in that studies of social pathology have a direct connection to the study of social norms, can it be said that there is link between this research on behaviour in relation to norms and social bias more generally? One can think of a number of different types of bias in this context, including Bayesian priors.

Ultimately, these questions should be saved for another time and after more thorough research and studies have been achieved. Indeed, a lot of the questions I am hinting at need to be weighed against the evidence. But this essay has, admittedly, aroused in me a deeper question about bias and what, in sociology, one might described as “systemic trends”. If bias is so widespread and prevalent, and if human beings are (or can be) incredibly irrational, what does this say in epistemological terms about us in our present history? Let me put it another way, what does it say about the current successes of the enlightenment project and how far do we still have to go to defeat the epistemologies of myth? Bias and prejudice are intimately linked to myth, which, itself, is perhaps the most pure case of human irrationality.

A fascinating example, which I’ll cite here to touch on the deeper point I seem to be encircling, refers to an anti-vaccination movement in the 1990s. I recently read about this in relation to the latest science which suggests, due a variety of factors (some cyclical, some in relation to climate change), that lyme disease is potentially about to explode among the populace. Currently, there is no vaccine, and lyme disease remains a very urgent problem. But that’s not to say that there wasn’t a vaccine! Indeed, as Chelsea Whyte wrote, “We used to have one, but thanks to anti-vaccination activists, that is no longer the case”. What happened?

In the late 1990s, a race was on to make the first Lyme disease vaccine. By December 1998, the US Food and Drug Administration approved the release of Lymerix, developed by SmithKline Beecham, now GSK. But the company voluntarily withdrew the drug after only four years.

This followed a series of lawsuits – including one where recipients claimed Lymerix caused chronic arthritis. Influenced by now-discredited research purporting to show a link between the MMR vaccine and autism, activists raised the question of whether the Lyme disease vaccine could cause arthritis.

Media coverage and the anti-Lyme-vaccination groups gave a voice to those who believed their pain was due to the vaccine, and public support for the vaccine declined.

What is interesting about this example is because it is in no way uncommon, and it offers interesting angle of insight into a similar problem the PLOS study sought to investigate. A few years after the anti-vaccination movement won the media battle and persuaded public opinion, comprehensive research in a retrospective study showed “only 905 reports for 1.4 million doses”. “Still, wrties Whyte, “the damage was done, and the vaccine was benched”. And even though there is a vaccine currently in ear;y human trials, what is essentially myth – false or baseless knowledge thought of as true – remains insofar that it will be an uphill battle to fight anti-vacc. lobbyists and re-educate the public.

Why this example, among many others, stand out is because it seems to correlate not only with the PLOS study but also more broad studies on the development of post-factualist, post-empirical culture. And the deeper question of this essay asks: what, if at all, underlines such developments in thought, perception and in human behaviour?

Concluding reflections

To conclude: it will be fascinating to monitor the emerging research and growing body of evidence when it comes to understanding human bias. What direction it all goes, it is difficult to say. We know human beings can be deeply biased. Not only is this a problem is greater society, it is one we must also constantly fight against in the natural sciences. But in thinking about epistemology in relation to the PLOS study, I suppose what I find interesting is the question of whether, if bias can take different forms – from the construction of some sort of complete worldview (think of a highly politicized subject) to prejudiced belief about a particular topic (think of a generally pro-science politically left individual, who then is also anti-GMO in the face of scientific consensus) – perhaps the simple reduction is one of science or anti-science? When I think of anti-science, and anti-reason for that matter, which can actually sometimes operate under the guise of pro-science and pro-reason, I think of a closed, repressed, dogmatic form of thinking that possesses very particular epistemological characteristics. What does one call such thinking? I have no answer. I’ve seen accounts under numerous headings: “uncritical thought” (associated with the critical thinking movement), anti-enlightenment epistemology, ideological thought, the epistemology of cognitive bias, and so on.

It also serves to emphasize things like Bayesian reasoning, critical thinking and critical reading (and simply general cognitive and epistemological agility and openness to new evidence), which are incredibly important skills and analytical tools when it comes to academic study and even daily experience, forming a precursor to exercising to the fullest extent one’s capacity to reason and to engage with the world in a rational way. Critical thinking has a deep place in science, and is increasingly informed by advanced scientific research in learning, cognitive and neural systems, and so on. The definitions of all these terms are very well known, with students introduced to critical thinking and reading exercises at undergrad (or earlier).

Having said that, it is worthwhile noting that critical thinking is not necessarily a negative process, although some describe it this way. This is because the a priori aim of critical thinking and reading is not to find fault. Identifying, constructing and evaluating arguments is certainly one aspect of critical thinking, and this includes the ability to dissect arguments and locate underlying assumptions, and thus test those things for inconsistency. At its most basic however, critical thinking is a deeply rational process – to assess the strength and weakness of an argument, especially when weighed against the evidence and a fuller assessment of the phenomenon or issue in question from all points of study in its complexity. Thus, it refers to systematic evaluation and problem-solving, as well as normative consideration and reflection on the status of one’s own beliefs and values as a subject, so as to ensure openness against potentially creeping bias and prejudice.

In this sense, it may not be entirely accurate, but I often think of “critical thinking” in epistemological terms as systemic thinking in that one one component of it is to seek to understand not only  the local phenomenon but also the systems around it or within which that phenomenon (or issue) exists, and thus also the logical connections between concepts, ideas and the thing itself. It is about deep, multidimensional and open consideration inasmuch as it entails scrutinizing the work presented to see whether there are biases that one can detect which shape the author’s interpretation of any facts and ideas. But beyond that, to think critically does not necessarily mean to think “politically”. It is much closer, in epistemological terms, to thinking objectively, slowly and with great deliberation.

And so maybe one lesson here – in a consideration of deeply biased social world – is the need for more critical thinking, and less political thinking?

Perhaps another interesting questions concerns whether, if bias and prejudice are so widespread and prevalent, as emerging research on cognitive bias would seem to indicate, is the current trajectory of social culture not then heading in the opposite direction that it should? Contemporary social culture seems, in a more speculative tone, predicated on “fast thinking” (to borrow from Kahneman) and heuristics. There seems to be a lot of reactionary debates, instead of thoughtful, informed and considerate engagements. With an overwhelming and endless flow of information – which almost acts as a new form of censorship repressing genuine content, data and fundamental discussion – there seems to be a significant emphasis and discernible demand for immediate reaction, click-bait headlines, news spectacle and watered down literature, as opposed to thoughtful and well-informed and evidence-based deliberation that requires deep rational consideration. It leaves one to wonder,  would the general coordinates of a science-based society or science-inspired culture not be represented by a complete different vector?