The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent

Question Authority vs. Trust Science


Astral Codex Ten has an interesting piece on the subject, using Don't Look Up (spoilers) as the launching point. I haven't seen Don't Look Up, but the analysis that follows strikes me as quite sound; an excerpt:

Progressivism, like conservatism and every other political philosophy, is big and complicated and self-contradictory. It tells a lot of stories to define and justify itself. Here are two of them:

First, a story of scruffy hippies and activists protesting the Man, that embodiment of capitalism and conformism and respectability. Think Stonewall, where gay people on the margins of society spat in the face of their supposed betters and demanded their rights. Even academics are part of this tradition: Chomsky and Herman's Manufacturing Consent accuses the mainstream media of being the Man. It's jingoist and obsessed with justifying America's foreign adventures; we need brave truth-tellers to point out where it goes wrong. Environmentalism shares some of this same ethos. In Erin Brockovich, a giant corporation is poisoning people, lying about it, and has bribed or corrupted everyone else into taking their side. Only one brave activist is able to put the pieces together and stand up for ordinary people. [I would add that, even apart from progressivism in general, modern progressive Hollywood is all about that, perhaps because audiences generally like to root for the feisty mavericks over the clumsy establishment. -EV]

Second, a story that comes out of the Creationism Wars of the early 00s. We are the "reality-based community", the sane people, the normal people, the people with college degrees and non-spittle-covered keyboards. They are unwashed uneducated lunatics who think that evolution is a lie and Obama was born in Kenya and vaccines cause autism and COVID isn't real. Maybe they should have been clued in by the fact that 100% of smart people and institutions are on our side, and they are just a couple of weirdos who don't even agree with each other consistently. If this narrative has a movie, it must be Idiocracy – though a runner up might be Behind the Curve, the documentary about flat-earthers.

The first narrative says "there's a consensus reality constructed by respectable people, and a few wild-eyed weirdos saying they've seen through the veil and it's all lies…and you should trust the weirdos!" The second starts the same way, but ends "…and you should trust consensus reality!" They're not actually contradictory—you could be talking about different questions! You are talking about different questions! But they're contradictory at the mythic narrative level where they're trying to operate. On that level, there should always be a good guy and a bad guy, and you should be able to tell who's who by their facial hair or at least the color of their clothing. You shouldn't have to learn a bunch of facts about the biochemistry of hexavalent chromium (or whatever it was Erin Brockovich was investigating) to resolve the object-level issue; nobody has time for that!

Is it a problem that people have two contradictory narratives at the same time? Take it from a psychiatrist: not at all. People are great at this. Loads of men are walking around with stories like "women are perfect angels" and "women are terrifying demons" in their heads all the time, totally untroubled by the contradiction. Different situations will activate one schema or the other; one that activates both might just never come up….

Read the whole piece.