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The Ideological Contours of Public Scientific Controversies

When the utility of masks or vaccinations became politicized during the COVID-19 pandemic and lost its mooring in scientific evidence, an already-developing crisis of expertise was exacerbated. Those who believe in consensus science wondered: “How can ‘those people’ not see the truth?

This book shows that it is not a ‘scientific’ controversy, but an ideological dispute with ‘believers’ on both sides. If the advocates for consensus science acknowledge the uncertainties involved, rather than insisting on cold, hard facts, it is possible to open a pathway towards interaction and communication, even persuasion, between world views.

As the crisis of expertise continues to be a global issue, this will be an invaluable resource for readers concerned about polarized societies and the distrust of consensus science.

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This chapter acknowledges the complexity of the crisis of expertise, as well as the danger of assuming that only one “side” is operating ideologically. The chapter surveys some recent explanations (of our crisis of expertise) offered by sociologists and endorses their suggestion that recourse to scientific explanations needs to be accompanied by some level of modesty. Finally, the chapter considers two institutions that some hope will solve the crisis of expertise, namely, the law and the scientific establishment. In other words, why not just impose scientific truths through legal regulation? Or, alternatively, why not just have a majority of scientists announce a compelling consensus that everyone should accept? The chapter explains that both of these institutions have failed, and will continue to fail, due to (1) the current capture of the legal system by political parties and (2) the fact that the consensus of a majority of scientists alone is not necessarily compelling nowadays.

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This chapter focuses historically on the philosophical theory of quasi-religious worldviews in conflict by analyzing a 17th-century Dutch Golden Age painting. The painting reflects the effects of iconoclasm—destruction of images—in formerly Catholic churches by Dutch Calvinists, as well as providing an example of citizens—Protestants and Catholics—who live in different worlds, that is, who see things differently and have different values. There is an analogy here with Latour’s sense that there are two worlds in the climate-change debate, making it difficult for us to have a common understanding of a scientific issue. Finally, the chapter revisits a unique 19th-century critique of Enlightenment claims to have risen above religious belief. Dutch Calvinist thinkers identified a religion among the supporters of the French Revolution, not in the sense of a deistic religion, but a set of faith-like commitments—perhaps a “quasi-religion” or ideology.

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This chapter explores some recent studies that support the argument for an ideological or religious orientation to the crisis of expertise, including Professor Shi-Ling Hsu’s identification of anti-science ideology in the Trump administration. Such studies are helpful in showing how science can become politicized—scientists become associated with a political party—and can lose its mooring in evidence. The problem with the term “anti-science ideology,” however, is the implication that believers in consensus science have no ideology—they (allegedly) simply follow the facts. The scientific enterprise, however, issues numerous facts, sometimes inconsistent and sometimes outdated in terms of scientific progress. Even consensus scientists belong to a community of believers with values and commitments.

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This chapter turns to religious belief as an example of expertise, drawing on: (1) the study of religious practices in the anthropology of religion; (2) the literature associated with the so-called Third Wave in Science and Technology Studies; and (3) Wittgenstein’s concept of forms of life, including his remarks on the potential for communication across ideological or religious boundaries. There are actually four expert communities in the crisis of expertise, namely: (1) consensus scientists; (2) non-scientist citizens who believe in consensus science; (3) fringe (or “minority”) scientists; and (4) non-scientist believers in fringe science. Expertise, that is, should be associated neither with esoteric knowledge (such as scientific principles), nor with “correct” views (even astrologers can be “experts”). Religious believers become experts in the language, practices, and principles of their community, just as scientists become experts in the language, practices, and principles of their discipline. Both occupy, in Wittgenstein’s terminology, a “form of life,” or worldview.

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This chapter argues that viewing the crisis of expertise in terms of a battle between “expertises,” grounded in faith-like commitments, will best serve the goals of communication, persuasion, and understanding in policy disputes in a divided nation. Since conflicting expert communities have specialized languages and values that, respectively, unite and distinguish each community, the solution to the crisis of expertise involves persuasive communication between worldviews. Communication is made possible by: (1) self-awareness that we are all ideological; (2) modesty about the science in which one believes (that is, recognizing uncertainties); and (3) a common anchor in some level of scientific data and method (hence, my argument and solution do not apply to ordinary “culture war” controversies, such as who won the 2020 US presidential election). That analysis finds support in the literature associated with science communication theory and conflict resolution in policy disputes. However, this chapter’s approach differs from similar analyses by scholars in this field who, like Naomi Oreskes, emphasize a diversity of viewpoints as a key to trustworthy science and, like Frank Fischer, emphasize citizen science and deliberative collaboration in policy arguments.

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This conclusion confirms that while the culture wars generally seem intractable, there is hope for constructive and persuasive communication, based on understanding another’s perspective and values, in the crisis of expertise. That diagnosis goes beyond the familiar observations that a cultural distrust of expertise persists, that consensus science is worthy of acceptance, and that (in light of social studies of science) we should be modest about consensus because science is tentative and often uncertain. Specifically, this book adopts Third Wave categories of expertise, extending that theoretical framework with a new constellation of disciplinary approaches—the anthropology of religion, the neo-Calvinist critique of the Enlightenment, and Wittgenstein’s later philosophy—to highlight the inevitability of ideological commitments in the crisis of expertise. Once that is acknowledged, it is possible to at least understand that believers in fringe science occupy a different world than consensus scientists, and that persuasive communication requires understanding that world.

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This introduction to the book explains that the so-called “crisis of expertise,” wherein large segments of the population distrust consensus science, is not a new phenomenon. The crisis was, however, exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic. This book addresses the public controversies that arise when there is some science on both sides of the dispute, such as a dispute between fringe views by minority scientists and consensus views by the majority in a scientific community. The book recommends that both sides respect each other to encourage communication about scientific matters, especially because both sides have ideological commitments and values that drive scientific positions. Both sides should therefore be recognized as experts, not because both sides are correct, but because both sides represent respective communities of believers. Due to the inevitable uncertainties of science, consensus scientists cannot assume that their views are obvious, or that their facts are unassailable. Persuasive communication is needed, based on an understanding of how the other side thinks.

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