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Good Reads  History & Other Humanities  Philosophy, Ethics & Religion

Anti-Science and the Assault on Democracy Defending Reason in a Free Society

By: Michael J Thompson(Editor), Gregory R Smulewicz-Zucker(Editor)
303 pages, no illustrations
Publisher: Prometheus Books
A scholarly collection of essays, challenging in places, that aims to show that a healthy democracy goes hand in hand with a scientific mind-set.
Anti-Science and the Assault on Democracy
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  • Anti-Science and the Assault on Democracy ISBN: 9781633884748 Hardback Dec 2018 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 6 days
Price: £19.99
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About this book

In this collection of original essays, experts in political science, the hard sciences, philosophy, history, and other disciplines examine contemporary anti-science trends, and make a strong case that respect for science is essential for a healthy democracy.

The editors note that a contradiction lies at the heart of modern society. On the one hand, we inhabit a world increasingly dominated by science and technology. On the other, opposition to science is prevalent in many forms – from arguments against the teaching of evolution and the denial of climate change to the promotion of alternative medicine and outlandish claims about the effects of vaccinations. Adding to this grass-roots hostility toward science are academics espousing postmodern relativism, which equates the methods of science with regimes of "power-knowledge".

While these cultural trends are sometimes marketed in the name of "democratic pluralism", the contributors contend that such views are actually destructive of a broader culture appropriate for a democratic society. This is especially true when facts are degraded as "fake news" and scientists are dismissed as elitists. Rather than enhancing the capacity for rational debate and critical discourse, the authors view such anti-science stances on either the right or the left as a return to premodern forms of subservience to authority and an unwillingness to submit beliefs to rational scrutiny.

Beyond critiquing attitudes hostile to science, the essays in this collection put forward a positive vision for how we might better articulate the relation between science and democracy and the benefits that accrue from cultivating this relationship.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Important and scholarly, but challenging
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 24 Apr 2019 Written for Hardback

    The proliferation of pseudoscience and anti-scientific sentiments disturb me deeply. As someone with a scientific training, my concerns are foremost academic. But as the contributors to this edited collection wish to show, these anti-intellectual trends also impact democracy. This is perhaps nowhere more pronounced than in the USA and Anti-Science and the Assault on Democracy is therefore appropriately US-centric. It is also rather academic and scholarly in tone, more so than other works aimed at a general audience.

    Alan Sokal kicks off with the question of what science is and why we should care. His conclusion and argumentation leading up to it are clear: science is but one incarnation of a more general rationalist worldview, one that champions clear thinking and respect for evidence. And this kind of worldview is as important in science as it is in collective decision-making. Michael J. Thompson, one of the editors, makes much the same point in the next chapter, but with an important addition: we should not conflate technology with science. In our modern world, especially technology has become fused to capitalism, with its focus on control, profit, and efficiency. Many people don’t like this and extend their dislike to science itself. Thompson argues this is throwing out the baby with the bathwater. The hallmarks of scientific thinking are just as important for a healthy democracy. Barbara Forrest’s essay examines how the founding fathers of the USA – specifically Jefferson, Franklin, Adams and Madison – were scientifically literate figures that supported science and thought it important for a democratic society. She then focuses on how the religious right is now using democracy to undermine and subvert support for science.

    Gregory Smulewicz-Zucker, the other editor, contributes an enlightening chapter on both the attacks from the political left and right on science. He does an excellent job, in my opinion, in introducing postmodern theory and three of its important figureheads (Michael Foucault, Paul Feyerabend, and Ernesto Laclau). One of the things postmodernism holds is that objective truth does not exist because all truth is permeated by power, e.g. political agendas and special interests. Their lamentable conclusion has been that objectivity does not exist: your truth is just as valid as my truth. Although America’s political right might vomit on this kind of academic elitism, laced as it is with jargon, it has clearly and very successfully adopted it in practice. One only has to think of the stock phrases “fake news” and “alternative facts” that have arisen during Trump’s presidency to see how true this is. Margaret C. Jacob’s chapter similarly examines postmodern French philosopher Bruno Latour and the damage his thinking has caused, specifically in the context of climate change denial.

    Several other authors argue that science and democracy are not necessarily comfortable bedfellows. Philip Kitcher questions whether democratic societies can tackle climate change with the urgency it requires. The ever-excellent Michael Ruse takes a spirited look at the problem of pseudoscience in democratic societies. Clearly, we cannot go about prohibiting it (including Ruse’s bugbear of the anti-vaccination movement). And how would you do that in practice anyway? But, he argues, tolerance is no excuse for acceptance or indifference. He urges for continued opposition and vigilance, such as his own opposition to the teaching of creationism in US public schools (a definitive history is The Creationists). Finally, Diana M. Judd’s essay argues that science works better with a republic than with a democracy, and re-examines the work of Enlightenment philosopher Francis Bacon (1561-1626). Not an essay that was necessarily easy reading.

    I found about two-thirds of the essays in this collection interesting and (reasonably) accessible. Especially those where contributors harkened back to the Greek origins of democracy, looking at what philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato thought of it. They were, perhaps surprisingly, not its biggest cheerleaders. I also have my doubts at times, and hope to give some more substance to these feelings by (hopefully soon) reading Can Democracy Work? and Against Democracy.

    There were a few chapters, though, that I found very hard work. Smulewicz-Zucker accuses much post-modernist writing of being jargon-laden talk with little reach beyond graduate programs in the humanities. The same can be said of some of the chapters here. Contrast his chapter on postmodernism with Landon Frim and Harrison Fluss’s essay on accelerationism. Both aim to introduce a political and social theory and the important people in its history. But where the former did a good job introducing it for a layman like myself, the latter was far harder to grasp, simply echoing the jargon rather than explaining it. Similarly, Lee Smolin's essay, which argues that science (especially physics and mathematics) seeks to banish time from its idealised descriptions and models of the world, is a piece of philosophical fireworks, but its applicability to democracy was lost on me. (I believe his point is that this attempt at banishing time seems to bleed over into our thinking on economics and politics, much to their detriment?)

    Overall I found Anti-Science and the Assault on Democracy a bit of a mixed bag. I think the topic and central thesis of the book are really important and most chapters, as I mentioned, are reasonably good, some really good. But I see two things preventing it from reaching a wider readership. First, this book seems mostly aimed at a humanities and philosophy crowd who will likely get the most out of it. It was far more academic in tone and level, and far less geared towards a general audience than I thought it would be. Second, I felt the book lacked a clearly outlined structure. A plethora of voices and ideas are included (which is great), some of which are very high-brow (as mentioned above) or very specific (such as an appraisal of the continued relevance of America’s premier philosopher of democracy, John Dewey). What might have made this book more accessible would have been more input from the editors. Either by having an opening and closing chapter to the book examining the relevance of all the contributions to the book’s central thesis, or even such a commentary with each section. The thirteen chapters are organised in four sections, so clearly the editors had some structure in mind. I think my reading of this book would have benefited from this. As it stands, I soldiered through this book, took several interesting ideas away from it, but likely also missed out on a number of things.
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Michael J. Thompson is an associate professor of political science at William Paterson University. He is the founding editor of Logos: A Journal of Modern Society & Culture; the author of four books, including The Domestication of Critical Theory and The Politics of Inequality; and the editor of eight previous books, including The Palgrave Handbook of Critical Theory.

Gregory R. Smulewicz-Zucker is a graduate student in the Department of Political Science at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. He is the managing editor of Logos and the editor The Political Thought of African Independence; Strangers to Nature: Animal Lives and Human Ethics; and Radical Intellectuals and the Subversion of Progressive Politics (with Michael J. Thompson).

By: Michael J Thompson(Editor), Gregory R Smulewicz-Zucker(Editor)
303 pages, no illustrations
Publisher: Prometheus Books
A scholarly collection of essays, challenging in places, that aims to show that a healthy democracy goes hand in hand with a scientific mind-set.
Media reviews

"Since the birth of the United States, science and democracy have been inextricably intertwined, feeding one another and bending the arc of the moral universe ever upward. Unfortunately, when scientific facts conflict with deeply held religious or political beliefs, it is almost always science that gets sacrificed. What can we do about this problem? Anti-Science and the Assault on Democracy provides a multitude of voices on causes and solutions. It is an invaluable volume that should be on the desk of all 535 members of Congress, every state governor, and every member of the presidential administration, including and especially the president himself. An indispensable contribution to the future of the republic."
– Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine, monthly columnist for Scientific American, Presidential Fellow at Chapman University, and author of The Believing Brain, The Moral Arc, and Heavens on Earth

"This book astutely diagnoses one of the main ailments afflicting democracy in our post-truth world – the overvaluing of feeling, intuition, and first-person experience. As a corrective for the relativism, cognitive bias, and motivated reasoning of subjective perception, it offers a more reliable prescription: apply to public discourse the scientific method of critical thinking, empirical evidence, and rigorous peer review."
– Ralph Lewis, MD, psychiatrist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, Toronto, and author of Finding Purpose in a Godless World

"Democratic civilization is fragile, just a set of agreements and choices made moment by moment, mind by mind. When those minds cannot distinguish between good and bad evidence for a claim, pseudoscience and anti-science rise. The principles of scientific inquiry can be grasped by a kindergartner but must be continuously reinforced. Anti-Science and the Assault on Democracy helps to instill these principles."
– Cameron M. Smith, PhD, Department of Anthropology, Portland State University

"As scientific institutions find themselves operating in increasingly difficult environments, questions about science and politics, and science and democracy in particular, keep coming to the fore. The essays in Anti-Science and the Assault on Democracy confront these questions directly, in full understanding of their importance for our civilization. The contributors do not represent any single perspective, but this makes the collection even more vital for anyone who wants to explore the current debate."
– Taner Edis, professor of physics, Truman State University

"Anti-Science and the Assault on Democracy passionately proclaims that the only hope for democracy is a rebirth of the scientific attitude among citizens, for how else can people make the right decisions other than by knowing the truths about the world? Anti-science, coming from the political right and from the left, is nothing new, but it must be continually opposed; the struggle is never over. This book's contributors come from diverse disciplines and cover everything from the theoretical foundation of science and freedom to the most current crises."
– Stanley A. Rice, Professor, Southeastern Oklahoma State University, author of Scientifically Thinking: How to Liberate Your Mind, Solve the World's Problems, and Embrace the Beauty of Science

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