Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Anti-Science Left (on The Agenda)

This is post is really part 3 of a series of posts on science and justice, see part 1 and part 2.

Last night I watched this very interesting discussion on how the left (like the right) can have strong anti-scientific inclinations. Two particular parts of the show really made me reflect on the attitudes I often face with my students in my course (which I have been teaching for over a decade now) "Science and Justice".

At one stage in the interview this speaker (see his article here) mentioned how insights from evolutionary psychology can explain why many of the left take a purist attitude (purity being an innate part of the psychological systems which ground “intuitive ethics”) about the food they put in their body and fears about population growth and its detrimental impact on the environment.

This suggestion resonates with my own experience in teaching my students for over a decade. Most political science students that take political theory courses are left leaning. As such they are very passionate about trying to make the world a better place. As admirable as this sentiment may be, unfortunately they are less diligent about cultivating intellectual virtue (e.g. an appreciation of the salient facts, understanding, the detective's virtues, etc.). Instead, they are prone to adopt a rather simplistic lens that reduces complex problems into a "good guys" vs "bad guys" analysis. The "bad guys" are typically Big Pharma, the rich, men, or developed countries as a whole, and the "good guys" are the poor (e.g. developing countries), women and children. Once one has adopted this mindset, then any problem in the world, whether it be poverty, climate change, war, infectious disease or patriarchy, can be explained by this simplistic analysis. And the more specialized a student's training in political theory, the more fervor they (most, not all) tend to have for their commitment to this vague and indefensible framework.

Now I understand these students have good intentions (they, rightly, perceive that the world has many problems), but their desire to take the "moral high ground" often clouds their understanding of the complexity of the problems in the world. Bear in mind that all the problems I just listed-- poverty, climate change, war, infectious disease and patriarchy- all existed prior to their being any "developed world" or Big Pharma. This fact alone should make one cautious about adapting overly simplistic explanations of these problems. Climate change is the one example that is uniquely different. The climate has of course always been changing, even before industrialization. But the more specific concern with man-made global warming over the past century and a half is a more recent concern. However even in this case the story is much more complex than the simplistic (and false) belief that the developed world is responsible for climate change (past and future) and have enjoyed all the benefits of development at the expense of those who have had to bear all the costs (namely, developing countries). Our minds are perhaps hardwired to interpret the world in terms of simplistic patterns (like "haves" and "have nots"), but that does not mean it is an accurate representation of reality. Education should challenge our preconceived ideas of the world and dogma.

When I teach the weeks of my course on aging and life extension these points become most salient. I am always struck by the fact that (a) very few students understand that chronic diseases are the leading cause of death in the world, and (b) that chronic disease is a problem for both rich and poor countries, and (c) that people in poorer regions of the world actually age, and that this can cause them to experience suffering, disease, a decline in income, etc. I could go on.

I suspect that the dominant framework most undergraduates have of the world (it was the one I had 20 years ago) is something like this-- there are rich countries (like Canada and the USA), where most disease is caused by obesity and inactive lifestyles which Big Pharma makes billions off of, and then there is "the rest of the world" (which is poor). It is in "the rest of the world" that they believe most people die young, die from poverty, infectious disease like HIV/AIDs, and climate change. No doubt this perception has been shaped by what they have heard in the media in the first two decades of their life.

The interesting exercise I try to get them to engage in is to see that the process of evolution by natural selection itself is also implicated in the story of human suffering and disease. Initially most students are not sure how to respond to this. They do not deny evolution by natural selection, but the suggestion that there is a moral imperative to redress the vulnerabilities of our evolutionary history just doesn't (at least initially) engage their moral sensibilities. These intuitions are themselves the product of our evolutionary history, and thus ill-equipped for grappling with the question of what constitutes well-ordered science. Indeed, many students react very negatively to the suggestion that justice might require we aspire to promote health in late life. In their minds, science has little, if anything, to do with realizing ideals of justice, freedom or equality. If anything, science has helped facilitate injustice, which is why many on the left are easily persuaded to be anti-science on many issues.

Here are actual comments (I am paraphrasing from memory) I have heard students and others express when discussing population aging, global health and a Darwinian approach to medicine:

"Old people should die sooner of disease so younger people can get a job".
"A cure for cancer already exists, but Big Pharma makes more money off of cancer than curing it".
"Wouldn't it be boring being alive longer and thus being married to the same person for longer?"
"We shouldn't modify the rate of aging as it is unnatural".
"Why don't we just spend all health research money on saving children and forget about helping those who are lucky enough to have lived a long life?"
"Slowing human aging will destroy the planet".

Such sentiments are common, and part of my research involves trying to understand why people have such attitudes, and how one can help people come to critically examine such attitudes. The students that I encounter who have strong convictions that the world is overpopulated, and that the future of the planet is a bleak one because of population growth, typically have little knowledge of demography. To start to chip away at their preconceived ideas about the state of the world one can ask questions like the following. "The world is a diverse place, which specific parts of the world are overpopulated? Does Canada have too many people? What about Italy, China or India?" And this will lead to a consideration of fertility rates. Which parts of the world are creating the most babies? And is this a good or a bad thing? Which factors (e.g. economic development, education, etc.) influence fertility rates? Which factors explain the current global population size and what is likely to occur in the future? Is it ever desirable to stifle or forfeit health innovations (e.g. sanitation, antibiotics) for the goal of reducing global population? What, specifically, are the harms of population growth and which types of fair and feasible interventions could help redress such problems? And how do such problems compare to other problems, such as the prevalence of chronic disease?

How can one cultivate a sense of proportionality that helps students overcome the "sacred values" they ascribe to nature or small(er?) population size and develop instead an informed and balanced view of the challenges facing humanity? This question is perhaps the central one that I face in teaching my course. Unfortunately many students in the humanities and social sciences have, at least in my experience, a world view that is shaped more by intuition and media "sound bites" than by science and empirical data. And many faculty teaching in the humanities and social sciences perpetuate this problem, including my own field (and for many years myself!) of political theory/philosophy. And I think this is a significant problem. Sharpening and strengthening the moral intuitions we have inherited from our evolutionary history (namely, when we lived in small hunter gatherer societies) does little to help develop the skill-set the next generation needs to face the challenges of the 21st century.

Not only is there a great deal of misunderstanding about what causes suffering, disease and death in the world, but society also suffers ageist attitudes that can be extremely difficult to dislodge. Many see health as a "zero sum" game. This means that they think of the good of health as something governed by a "fixed pot", and increasing health for one region of the world means there has to be less health for others in another part of the world. And so this mistaken view helps reinforce the negative attitudes people have to the goal of promoting health in late life. It strikes them as inherently unfair to want to do so because they believe it will make others worse off.

A second part of the episode of The Agenda worth noting was the admirable transformation this activist has undergone. In the 1990s he was a strong opponent of genetically modified organisms. His interests then turned to climate change, and as he became informed about that topic he realized one had to learn a great of science, and base one's assumptions and arguments on the best available empirical data and evidence. And so over time he realized that his opposition to genetically modified organisms was actually doing more harm than good. And so he critically reflected upon, and drastically changed, his views. This takes a great deal of intellectual humility and courage. And it is an encouraging story as it illustrates how science can overcome dogma and the confidence we tend to have in assuming we have the moral high ground on our side when the issues are extremely complex matters.

Below is a video of a lecture Lynas recently gave where he describes the change he underwent. My favorite part is when he mentions a comment someone made on his final anti-GMO article in The Guardian. They commented "So you are opposed to GMOs on the basis that it is marketed by big corporations, are you also opposed to the wheel because it is marketed by the big automobile companies?"