U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Willful Ignorance At-Large and Anti-Intellectualism in the Academy: Lee McIntyre’s Recycled “Two Culture” Problem

[Thanks to Ben Alpers and Robin Marie for pre-reading and giving comments on this piece. Their comments, however, do not constitute approval of everything within. I take full responsibility for what follows. – TL]

As is perhaps the case with many thinking people, young and old, the quest for truth can be an inspirational endeavor. It still inspires me—no matter the complications, difficulties, and potential impossibility of obtaining some particular truths. As I grew older, however, the quest for understanding began to overshadow the pursuit of truth. This probably arose from a desire to think through all the grey areas of human action and thought. As an offshoot of that, as a professional historian I have been continually intrigued by what one could call a mirror image of the quest for truth and understanding: the problems of unreason, anti-intellectualism, and ignorance.

Given those deep currents in my life, there was never any question about whether I’d read Lee McIntyre‘s provocatively titled Chronicle of Higher Education essay: “The Attack on Truth: We have entered an age of willful ignorance.” Given the similarity in titles, the piece is clearly a preview of McIntyre’s new book, Respecting the Truth: Willful Ignorance in the Internet Age.

Respecting-Truth-CoverBecause of the subject matter, I can imagine that other intellectual historians will be drawn to the piece. The essay is divided into three sections. I found the first, on the recent history and present state of unreason and anti-intellectualism, to be terrible. I disagree with almost every aspect of McIntyre’s analysis. The second section, on the virtues of good thinking, was wonderful. The last, on current catalysts of unchecked unreason, was a mediocre-to-bad in its analysis. If the essay is a true preview of the book, I won’t be purchasing it—and I don’t recommend it for others. Let me explain.

In the first paragraph of the first part of the essay, McIntyre, as highly respected philosopher, begins by eliding the differences between the pursuit of truth, caring for the truth, scientific skepticism, media distortions, and willful ignorance. McIntyre bunches these topics together, but each involves numerous nuances—such that they just can’t be grouped in this way. It was an inauspicious start to the essay, to say the least.

McIntyre then posits a manufactured feeling of crisis: We live, he asserts, in a “watershed moment, when the enterprise of basing our beliefs on fact rather than intuition is truly in peril.” The invocation of change over time had me hoping that he would make some historical comparisons–and put historical thinking on display.

But first he used some recent statistics to justify his/our fears:

A 2009 survey by the California Academy of Sciences found that only 53 percent of American adults knew how long it takes for Earth to revolve around the sun. Only 59 percent knew that the earliest humans did not live at the same time as the dinosaurs.

He builds on this to say those numbers represent mere “simple ignorance” and not the more egregious “willful ignorance.” What is this new and fearful beast? McIntyre explains:

Willful ignorance. . .is simple ignorance coupled with the decision to remain ignorant. Normally that occurs when someone has a firm commitment to an ideology that proclaims it has all the answers — even if it counters empirical matters that have been well covered by scientific investigation. More than mere scientific illiteracy, this sort of obstinacy reflects a dangerous contempt for the methods that customarily lead to recognition of the truth. And once we are on that road, it is a short hop to disrespecting truth.

Let’s ignore the slippery slope at the end, for a bit, to focus on McIntyre’s key words and ideas. Let’s try to define them in terms provided by the author:

a) “Willful”—By this I think he means an active and purposeful decision to close one’s eyes to facts. It’s a stubbornness or “obstinacy.” Fair enough.
b) “Ideology”—A system, it seems, that contains all the answers and is opposed to empiricism and investigation. This is an inadequate definition, but let’s keep going.
c) “Methods that customarily lead to recognition of the truth”—By this I think McIntyre means “scientific investigation.” Definitely not “intuition.”
d) “Truth”—We’ll have to wait and see how McIntyre plays this, but it seems clear that relative truths are not part of the ballgame.
e) “Ignorance”—McIntyre posits only two types, simple and willful. But research by Robert Proctor has revealed a myriad of types, each requiring its own research methods and remedies. Proctor, a historian of science, has basically created a field, agnotology, to study these varieties of ignorance.

In the next paragraph he points toward a cause of the recent denigration of truth and promotion of willful ignorance: “the modern attack on truth started in the academy.”

Interesting. An academic attacking higher education. Aside: McIntyre is, according to the article’s byline, “a research fellow at the Center for Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University.”

But the problem is not just in the academy. McIntyre is “sad” to inform us that this attack on the truth began in “the humanities.” Again, interesting. Here McIntyre appears, given his position, to be attacking his own. He is an academic engaging in anti-intellectual polemics, even though he’s not yet marshalled facts, reasons, or history to make his case. As a humanities practitioner, he appears to be subverting the legitimacy of his own professional class and unaware, ironically, of his own subject position.

On why the humanities are the problem, McIntyre tells us that “initially” the “stakes may have. . .seemed low in holding that there are multiple ways to read a text or that one cannot understand a book without taking account of the political beliefs of its author.”

But when were those stakes ever “low”? Reader and author subjective positions have ALWAYS factored largely into how one understands the place of a text—canonical, “great”, religious, otherwise—in one’s life, culture, and the world generally. The stakes have never been low in that game, not in the past and definitely not in the present.

McIntyre then goes on to say that those reading problems are, in effect, cancers that started from tumors in the academy and have “metastasized into outrageous claims about the natural sciences.” He then lays out an ahistorical theory of “science wars” that pits natural scientists against cultural studies thinkers. I say ahistorical because McIntyre’s first historical citation comes by way of the 1996 “Sokal Affair/hoax” (i.e. in the midst of the Culture Wars), but C.P. Snow forwarded his “Two Cultures” theory in 1959. That theory, given in a lecture, argued that the sciences and the humanities were two intellectual cultures that could not cooperate in favor of human progress.

Then McIntyre makes an Albert O. Hirschman-style perversity argument about the consequences of historicizing scientific endeavors:

But then a funny thing happened: While many natural scientists declared the battle won and headed back to their labs, some left-wing postmodernist criticisms of truth began to be picked up by right-wing ideologues who were looking for respectable cover for their denial of climate change, evolution, and other scientifically accepted conclusions. Alan Sokal said he had hoped to shake up academic progressives, but suddenly one found hard-right conservatives sounding like Continental intellectuals. And that caused discombobulation on the left.

In sum, left-wing postmodern analyses of science enabled right-wing science denial. Perverse indeed, if actually shown to be true.

McIntyre then uses the out-of-context reflections and seeming regrets of so-called left-wing academic intellectuals such as Bruno Latour and Michael Bérubé to show that postmodern ideas have been a boon to right-wing reactionaries. So much for McIntyre’s historical thinking (i.e. inadequate contextualization).

McIntyre’s vision of perverse consequences doesn’t stop at left-wing academic ideas. Indeed, because postmodern (or poststructuralist) humanities academics have enabled an attack on “the entire edifice of science,” they are also indirectly responsible for the effects of climate change. It will be “the poor and disenfranchised, to whom the left pays homage,” that will “bear the brunt” of the general public’s skepticism about climate change.

Get that? The academic left, who peddle poststructuralist theories of knowledge and inspired the pseudointellectual reactionary right, are therefore responsible for the general political backlash against climate change science. That’s quite a jump.

But in following up on that argument, McIntyre immediately cites Oreskes’ and Conway’s Merchants of Doubt, which chronicles the historical alliance between contrarian-dissident scientists and conservative think tanks to challenge progressive/good policy on tobacco, acid rain, the ozone hole, and global warming. That book is about how industry personnel and right-leaning thinkers created alternative knowledge structure, not about how they re-used left-wing theory.

McIntyre then gets the historical scholarship on contrarian-dissident scientists wrong when he asserts that those “academically suspect centers” have “almost nothing” to offer the public “by way of peer-reviewed, scientifically reputable evidence.” In fact they do, which is why they get an audience. Michael Gordin, using the example of Immanuel Velikovsky, shows historians of science how pseudoscience and non-consensus science are structured (i.e. in memetic fashion). Peer review exists in journals of lesser and suspect quality. A category of “science” exists that is neither fish (pure and with consensus) nor fowl (impure and without any consensus). If McIntyre were a more careful humanities scholar, he would not have made such a confident but easily refutable assertion about the demarcation between science and pseudoscience.

Part two of McIntyre’s piece consists of a nice lesson, exhibiting a great books sensibility, about the relationship between knowledge (real and false), attitude, and the search for truth. And here McIntyre connects his lesson to present-day cognitive research (Mercier and Sperber, responses by Sternberg and Norman) and work on irrationality (e.g. Kahneman and Tversky). This part of the essay is great—worth publishing on its own.

Part three is an interesting analysis of the catalysts of recent unchecked unreason. I disagree with his culprits but “the stakes,” McIntyre says rightly, “seem enormous.” McIntyre identifies two primary means of distortion.

Blame is first assigned to “the Internet.” McIntyre asserts that internet sites lack “editorial gatekeepers who can vet information.” He believes that “marginal views are embraced” more now than ever before. Again, history easily counters this presentism, whether one wants to use intellectual history (e.g. Hofstadter, Jacoby, Lecklider, Ratner-Rosenhagen, Hartman, my own work), the history of science (Gordin), histories of history (e.g. Richard Hamilton, David Lowenthal), political history (Mulloy, Hofstadter again), the history of education (e.g. Cremin, Liu, Hartman again), or the history of print culture (Rubin, works on pamphleteering).

Next on McIntyre’s blame list is “biased” journalists—the same journalists who, for the most part, have been downsized and pushed out of work since the advent of The Internet—and have not been rehired for real online journalistic endeavors because they’re too expensive. They’re the victims of the disruptor economy, not willing participants in the demise of their profession. Yet McIntyre confuses FOX News and MSNBC for the journalism profession generally. That said, I agree with McIntyre that there is nefarious bias toward “balance” (a better term than “objectivity bias”) that distorts the truth by compromising it in the face of controversy.

Looking back at the whole piece, what McIntyre’s analysis is missing, for the most part, is solid historical thinking about the problems of unreason and anti-intellectualism in American culture. McIntyre is a philosopher, so I shouldn’t be surprised at the historical lacunae. That said, when you make arguments involving change over time and context, you have to back up your work accordingly. While I find his celebration of the virtues of good thinking and reading inspiring, his sense of the present catalysts of unreason was also unsatisfactory. A more careful and convincing sense of the history of American culture, education (K-12 and higher), politics, science, and journalism would have helped his overall goal of getting Americans to respect truth.

In sum, before encouraging others to make better choices in their pursuit of truth, it helps to start that endeavor at home, in your own work. – TL

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I noticed your reference (May 16, 2011) to James Frederick Ferrier’s “Agnoiology”. If I understand it correctly, JFF coined both that term and also “Epistemology.” Having recently been fascinated with these in his INSTITUTES OF METAPHYSIC, I was wondering whether you know of any comparable thinker.

    • Truth be told, I don’t know a lot about Ferrier’s overall body of thought. But I love that he was thinking about the structures of ignorance during the mid-19th century. Tell me more about his *Institutes of Metaphysic*! – TL

    • Thanks Dave. I don’t know if it deserves as much attention as I gave it. I just knew that I cared about the topics. – TL

  2. Wonderful analysis. The issue of whether the right learned from postmodernists is a bit more complicated, though. Yes, the canny doubt-mongering began very early on in the tobacco debates, as Oreskes and Conway show. But the right’s invocation of the social context of science as a tool to discredit consensus arguably appeared a bit later. For example: in the late 1960s, there were massive debates within the American Physical Society, the major professional organization of physicists, about whether it was appropriate for the organization to make political statements in addition to its “pure” scientific work. A small number of leftist members argued that the organization was already political anyway (and even silence about the war in Vietnam could be understood as political), whereas the majority of members, including Edward Teller, Frederick Seitz, and others, vehemently argued that the organization was better off remaining “pure” and “neutral,” and that any political activity would discredit its authority.

    By the 1980s, however, the inclinations of the APS had changed, most clearly embodied in its public opposition to Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative. When the APS issued a massive report and attached statement attacking SDI on both technical and moral grounds, Teller tried to discredit it by characterizing the society itself as thoroughly politicized, biased, and therefore unreliable. Moreover, other pro-SDI physicists criticized scientists in general as not coolly dispassionate and objective but motivated by competition, prizes, esteem — language right out of Bruno Latour’s Laboratory Life. In other words, Teller et al used their characterization of the social conditions under which scientific information was produced in order to discredit that information.

    Had they actually read Latour? I don’t know. But Teller and Seitz were certainly part of the heated 1960s debates that included serious discussion of the social context of science. Perhaps from their perspective, what they feared in the 1960s had come true by the 1980s, and so their arguments were consistent. Or perhaps they kept abreast of trends and recognized how valuable and effective this kind of argument could be when it 1) served their larger political purpose (promoting SDI) and 2) put their opponents in a tricky defensive position.

    To me, what’s missing in this article is an acknowledgment that *both* an understanding of the social context of science *and* an appreciation of the value of scientific consensus are key. For the most contentious current scientific issues, especially those involving health and the environment, science can’t always provide 100% certainty in predicted outcomes, and capital-T Truth is not a helpful concept. Knowing how to deal with the messiness is.

    This brings me back to the question of whether postmodernists are to blame for the backlash against climate change science. I don’t think so. But if I *were* to make this argument, I wouldn’t look to Latour but to some version of the “citizen science” movements of the 1960s and 1970s, which encouraged, at the time, a healthy disrespect for experts and a confidence that average citizens could learn about their world and gain their own expertise. This is a wonderful thing, up to a point. But now disbelievers of climate change or opponents of vaccines can spend a few moments on the internet, consider themselves informed, and glibly dismiss the consensus of experts. It’s not willful ignorance, but… empowered ignorance?

    • Sarah: Thanks for this excellent comment, esp. the info on the American Physical Society. I tried to get at the social context of science via demarcation and consensus, but perhaps that was too indirect. Michael Gordin’s recent book is wonderful. He doesn’t really get into (or I don’t recall him getting into) the conversation between poststructuralism and science on those terms, though the outcomes of doubt and criticism are similar (e.g. undermining legitimacy of consensus and whatever objectivity is there). – TL

Comments are closed.