The Attack on Truth: Have we entered an age of willful ignorance? by Lee McIntyre

Three takes on the politicalization of knowledge and its origin

The Attack on Truth

By Lee McIntyre in The Chronicle of Hire Education

Brian Taylor
Picking and choosing the ‘truths’ we already embrace, we reject all other claims. (Brian Taylor)

To see how we treat the concept of truth these days, one might think we just don’t care anymore. Politicians pronounce that global warming is a hoax. An alarming number of middle-class parents have stopped giving their children routine vaccinations, on the basis of discredited research. Meanwhile many commentators in the media — and even some in our universities — have all but abandoned their responsibility to set the record straight. (It doesn’t help when scientists occasionally have to retract their own work.)

Humans have always held some wrongheaded beliefs that were later subject to correction by reason and evidence. But we have reached a watershed moment, when the enterprise of basing our beliefs on fact rather than intuition is truly in peril.

It’s not just garden-variety ignorance that periodically appears in public-opinion polls that makes us cringe or laugh. 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.

As egregious as that sort of thing is, it is not the kind of ignorance that should most concern us. There is simple ignorance and there is willful ignorance, which is simple ignorance coupled with the decision to remain ignorant….

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“The Attack on Truth”: A Sidelong Take

by Paul Horowtiz in Prawfsblawg

Yesterday’s Chronicle of Higher Education contained an op-ed titled “The Attack on Truth,” by Lee McIntyre, a research fellow focusing on the history and philosophy of science. There are standard-issue versions of op-eds by this name and on this subject for both the left and right, and for both science and the humanities; this one is the standard-issue left version for science. It’s just decent as these things go, but there is an interesting passage in the middle with some possible payoff for legal academic writing:

[T]hen 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.

A similar potential phenomenon, along with a second and more concrete interesting reversal, is also apparent in legal academic writing in my field of public/constitutional law. The scholarly legal analog to the “left-wing postmodernist criticisms of truth” and “Continental intellectual”-aping literature that McIntyre refers to above is Critical Legal Studies. As I’ve suggested elsewhere, in the fields that I’m most concerned with, especially law and religion, the most fertile population for such skeptical criticism these days comes from the right, not the left. There are a variety of reasons for this, I’m sure, but I suspect the most important one is that conservative positions on these issues are now more clearly minority positions than they used to be in the legal academy (as opposed to the courts themselves, although the ground may be evening up there as well). Insofar as CLS was born and used in large measure as a device for fighting guerrilla actions by undermining and sabotaging the overly confident assertions and assumptions of the majority, it makes sense that it would now be more useful for legal conservatives. In my view (see the linked article above), Steve Smith has for a long time made particularly productive and skillful use of it in his work. For the same reasons that, if McIntyre is right, this kind of thinking has become more prevalent on the right in certain areas, I would not be surprised if its use increased on the right in public/constitutional law scholarship. This is a good thing, in my view, and has been little remarked upon..

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No Place for Truth

by Alistair Begg in Truth For Life

Cover illustration by Brian Taylor for The Chronicle Review

 See also
You Have Your History, I Have Mine
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