Intellectual Hipsters: Science Luddites

by Benjamin Studebaker

Today I’d like to continue my series on intellectual hipsters–people who take up flawed ideas without giving them much thought to project a false intellectualism. The reality is that these individuals are both remarkably pretentious, self-congratulatory, and ignorant. Previous entries in the series include centrists, libertarians, metaphysical skeptics, and Nietzsche fans. Today’s entry is all about science Luddites–people who take positions that contradict the scientific consensus without any evidence that would justify doing so.

There are many subspecies of science Luddite, each of which will be addressed:

  1. Food Luddites–e.g. people who believe in juicing cleanses, non-celiacs who avoid gluten, people who avoid GMO or try to eat organic.
  2. Climate Luddites–e.g. climate change skeptics.
  3. Healthcare Luddites–e.g. the anti-vaccination movement, people who oppose organ cloning or genetic engineering more broadly.

Food Luddites

Food Luddites believe that modern food is somehow tainted or unhealthy and that they must go to great lengths to avoid ingesting poisons. Food Luddites are often well-educated and affluent. They shop at expensive specialty grocery stores and sneer at the hoi polloi who buy food at Wal-Mart and eat uncritically. The trouble is that there is little scientific basis for their fear of modern food. There is absolutely no evidence that juicing cleanses offer any substantive health benefits. For non-celiacs, there’s no benefit to abstaining from gluten–Consumer Reports recently debunked claims to the contrary in conjunction with a slew of scientists, finding that gluten-free food is no healthier (but considerably more expensive). But those are the most bizarre forms of food Luddite behavior. The trouble runs deeper.

A recent Pew survey shows that the scientific community is much more comfortable with pesticides and genetic modifications than the general public is:

The scientific consensus is, if anything, stronger when we ask scientists who specialize in related subdisciplines. Plant geneticist Kevin Folta claims that there is “no debate” in the scientific literature about the safety of plant transgenics technology. Many California biologists oppose GMO labelling on the grounds that it’s not a relevant health concern and may raise food prices. Physiologist Mark Hoofnagle calls the food Luddites’ arguments “denialism”, which he defines as:

…the employment of rhetorical tactics to give the appearance of argument or legitimate debate, when in actuality there is none. These false arguments are used when one has few or no facts to support one’s viewpoint against a scientific consensus or against overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

He accuses food Luddites of using several different fallacious argumentative strategies to create this illusion of debate:

  1. Conspiracy–accusing scientists of failing to report evidence because they’re all in cahoots with corporations.
  2. Selectivity–cherry-picking anecdotes or isolated cases without giving people a sense for the context or larger trends.
  3. Fake Experts–appealing to credentialed individuals who do not actually possess deep expertise in the relevant field or subfield.
  4. Impossible Expectations–demanding impossible standards of proof, then claiming that the inability of scientists to meet those standards necessarily implies the inverse conclusion.
  5. Logical Fallacies–appeal to the various formal and informal fallacies.

The cause? The average lay person is remarkably uninformed about these issues, so much so that 80% of the public can be tricked into calling for DNA labels (DNA molecules are the fundamental building blocks of life and are in virtually all food).

The consequence? Corporations are profiting from the ignorance of food Luddites, selling them expensive “healthy” alternatives that confer no substantive benefits. But food Luddites’ pocketbooks are not the only victims. Farmers use pesticides and genetic modifications to increase food yield, which lowers global food prices. By rejecting these technologies, food Luddites reduce global food supplies, increase global food prices, and contribute to world hunger. What appears to be another harmless health food fad in the affluent west can be a deadly contributor to starvation in poo countries, especially as the number of food Luddites increases.

Climate Luddites

Climate Luddites believe that human caused global warming is a hoax, that either the globe is not warming or that if it is doing so, this is the result of natural patterns. The Pew survey shows us that climate Luddites are way out of step with the scientific consensus here:

This matches up with what specialists are telling us–97% of climate scientists and 97% of climate research agrees with the consensus view that the globe is warming due to human causes. Yet you can still find lay people writing columns and op-eds questioning the research, and most republican senators still deny that warming is human caused or that the government should do anything about it.

There’s a technical term for this kind of behavior. Social scientists call it the “Dunning-Kruger effect“. Dunning and Kruger found that incompetent people display a variety of tendencies. They:

  1. Fail to recognize their lack of skill.
  2. Fail to recognize genuine skill in others.
  3. Fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy.
  4. Recognize and acknowledge their inadequacy if and only if they are subsequently exposed to the relevant training for that skill.

Conversely, competent people tend to underestimate their own competence, assuming that lay people are more like themselves than they really are. Says Dunning:

…when you’re incompetent, the skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is.  In logical reasoning, in parenting, in management, problem solving, the skills you use to produce the right answer are exactly the same skills you use to evaluate the answer.  And so we went on to see if this could possibly be true in many other areas.  And to our astonishment, it was very, very true.

Science Luddites of all stripes are arrogant enough to deny scientific evidence precisely because they lack the relevant skills to evaluate or understand that evidence. They project their skill in one area of life into other areas of life where it does not translate. We see this in politics all the time–businessmen constantly profess to know how to run governments even though corporations and governments operate very differently and for entirely distinct purposes. Our democratic system exacerbates this, because it implies that the opinions of lay people are no less valuable than the opinions of those who study these matters professionally, regardless of what they are based upon (or not based upon).

In the case of the climate Luddites, the consequences are potentially highly lethal–climate scientists forecast rising sea levels that would drown coastal cities all over the world. This could kill millions of people. Even if there are substantial technological breakthroughs that allows us to mitigate these consequences, those solutions will likely be extremely expensive and cause confusion and delay.

Healthcare Luddites

Healthcare Luddites are mistrustful of healthcare advances that they consider to be unnatural or dangerous. The big one in the news lately is the anti-vaccination movement, which I wrote about the other day. This movement is already responsible for raising measles from the dead, and there’s no telling what other awful calamities it will bestow upon us. As usual, the Pew survey confirms that the public is out of step with the scientific consensus:

And the anti-vaccination movement’s claims have been extensively debunked, to no avail. But since I last discussed the anti-vax movement, a presidential candidate, Rand Paul, has lent aid and comfort to the anti-vaxers, claiming that vaccines should be voluntary. This highlights a larger problem with Rand Paul–his absolute priority on personal freedom at the expense of all other political and moral values can cause serious harm to large numbers of people.

But vaccinations are not the only area in which substantive numbers of people are needlessly skeptical. A significant minority of Americans opposes using genetic engineering to create lifesaving replacement organs:

This minority becomes a majority when the question is about whether or not to use genetic engineering to immunize babies against various diseases or increasing their physical or mental capacities:

The public fails to recognize that using genetic engineering to help people is not in principle any different from using vaccines or medicines. They accuse scientists of “playing god”, but why is it playing god to alter a baby’s genetic makeup to increase intelligent or avoid a disease but it is perfectly acceptable to cure diseases with antibiotics or vaccinations? All medical treatments constitute human interventions into what would otherwise happen. Human beings are natural parts of the universe–human actions are not less natural than the actions of bacteria or viruses. It is just as natural for us to genetically engineer as it is for us to create antibiotics as it is for us to build houses or make fires. Human beings innovate. This is part of what we do, and if we were designed by god, it would necessarily be part of what he designed us to do. Whatever becomes possible becomes possible because it is in our nature to make it possible. The public is biased in favor of the technologies it is already accustomed to, but this bias is arbitrary–it’s a distinction without a difference.

In all of these cases, people get things wrong because of a lack of expertise, an ignorance about science and about specialized fields of knowledge. The easy thing to do is to scold them and blame them for this ignorance, but this is lazy. What needs to be recognized is that there are limits to the amount of specialized knowledge a given person can reasonably be expected to acquire. There are certainly many science Luddites who are extremely talented in other areas of life. The trouble is not that they are ignorant, but that they are unable to recognize their ignorance. Our political system relies on the ability of voters to either become informed themselves or to recognize their ignorance and defer to others. What’s more, because of the Dunning-Kruger effect, we know that their inability to recognize their ignorance stems from the fact that they ignorant in the first place. If people cannot be reasonably expected to stop being ignorant, they cannot reasonably be expected to recognize their ignorance. This means that our political system needs to take into account the reality that many voters cannot know what they’re doing and cannot know that they cannot know what they’re doing. In most democratic societies, this problem is not even acknowledged as a problem, let alone solved. The Luddites (and intellectual hipsters more broadly) are symptoms of this larger structural problem. Until it is addressed, governments will continue to produce sub-optimal policies that marginalize specialist research in favor of the crowd’s bad fad ideas.