Pseudoscience and the left: Imaginary solutions to real problems

by Daphne Lawless and Byron Clark

Anyone familiar with the political Left will be familiar with well-meaning activists insisting that scientists and experts are “lying to us” about important features of our daily life, and only a dedicated band of outsiders know the truth. Activists in Aotearoa/NZ have been giving dire warnings about the fluoridation of our drinking water, and promoting pseudo-economics such as “Positive Money”. Meanwhile, the Green Party of Canada – while correctly attacking the Conservative government’s climate change denial – includes unscientific “scare” data about the health risks of not only fluoridation, but also Wifi routers, in its manifesto.

“I really think the Green Party is just doing the same things everybody else does, which is to make up an idea that matches with your ideology, and then go looking for evidence to support it,” said Michael Kruse, chair of Canadian non-profit Bad Science Watch. There’s a word for this – pseudoscience. And it’s a problem on both the political Right and Left.

What is pseudoscience?
The skeptic website defines pseudoscience as an idea “which tries to gain legitimacy by wearing the trappings of science”, but does not in fact use the rigorous methods and standards of proof of science. In other words, it’s much like a conspiracy theory. The basic idea is that “official” science is lying on one particular subject – forming a conspiracy against the general population – but the purveyors of the theory know the real truth. It looks like science, but it isn’t – because the basis of the scientific method is the possibility of proving theories wrong. Pseudoscience, on the other hand, relies on fear and “what if?”s. It’s based on an emotional appeal while pretending to be rational.

Anti-fluoridation and anti-vaccination campaigners have made great strides among the Left in recent times. The claims are very similar – that fluoride in drinking water, and vaccinations, are secretly dangerous to our health, and that the Government is covering this up for reasons of their own. Perhaps they’re in league with big business providing fluoride or vaccines – or perhaps it’s a deliberate ploy to destroy our health so we’re more easily controlled.

The strange thing about this is that anti-fluoridation began as an extreme-right belief in the United States of the 1950’s. The character of General Jack D. Ripper in the film Doctor Strangelove was a parody of those who believed that fluoridation was a Communist plot to poison America’s “precious bodily fluids”. The language is the language of the libertarian right – the right of “freedom” from government interference in our bodies and our health. It’s not the language of the socialist left – the language of the common good and of the rights of communities. It’s also the language of fear and guilt, rather than empowerment – note how anti-vaccination campaigners try to make parents afraid of “causing” autism in their children.

pseudoscience smoking

Corporate pseudoscience
Part of what makes pseudoscience very hard to fight is that, in some cases, members of the scientific establishment do lie to us, on behalf of the powerful. The most pressing example of this currently is those scientists in the pay of Big Oil and other corporate entities who deny that global warming is happening, or that, if it is happening, it’s nothing to do with human activity.

Similarly, Big Tobacco spent most of the 60’s and 70’s buying the support of any scientist who could stomach arguing that smoking didn’t cause cancer. Meanwhile, the pharmaceutical industry, a common target of pseudoscience proponents, has engaged in numerous practices that distort science- such as only publishing favourable data about drugs and expunging other tests which show more negative results. They have also conducted tests on groups different from the real-world patients who will receive the drug, who will therefore possibly experience different outcomes. These are documented in Ben Goldacre’s 2012 book Bad Pharma.

Just as with tobacco and fossil fuel distorting science to favour their interests, the cause of these practices in the health sector is economic, not scientific. It is not science itself that is at fault – a mistaken conclusion for even legitimate critiques of the industry – but a system that puts private profit ahead of science, and the misuse of science for profit.

Political pseudoscience

Twisting science for political and financial ends goes back a long way – and not just by the prophets of capitalism. For decades, science in the Soviet Union was driven down a dead end by government support for the ideas of Trofim Lysenko – biological pseudoscience which happened to conform with Stalin’s idea of how evolution “should” work.

Charles Darwin’s theory of biological evolution was twisted in the early 20th century into “social Darwinism” and “eugenics” – the idea that only the “strong” should be allowed to have children, and the “unfit” (the disabled, the disadvantaged, or whoever the eugenicists didn’t like) should be left to die. The extreme outcome of this was the Nazi policies of extermination of the disabled, gay people and “inferior” races.

On the other hand, fundamentalist Christians have created an elaborate pseudoscience of “creationism”, to protect the privileged place of religion in the culture of the United States against the materialistic implications of evolution. In recent decades these arguments have caught on in the Islamic world – even though Muslim scientists had anticipated the idea of biological evolution as far back as the 13th century. So both evolution and the opposition to evolution have been used in the service of pseudoscience.

Pseudoscience works backwards from real science. Real science says: we have proven this hypothesis beyound reasonable doubt, therefore we should change our behaviour. Pseudoscience says: we would have to change our behaviour if this was true, so it can’t be true. Most global warming deniers start from the point of view that if human-made global warming is real, we would have to adopt socialist and green politics to preserve civilisation. And that is what the proponents of pseudoscience really want to protect – their pre-existing beliefs of how the world should work.

Is economics a pseudoscience?
The relationship of our rulers to science has changed over the decades of capitalism. In the early days of the Enlightenment, science went hand-in-hand with political and social revolution – the scientific emphasis on experiment and discovering what worked was the opposite of the aristocracy’s reliance on tradition and the Church. As the British socialist Tony Cliff puts it: “the aristocrats had the Bible, the bourgeoisie had the Encyclopaedia”. When put came to shove, the Encyclopaedia won out.

Understanding how the world really worked was vital for the new capitalist class to take power, and to increase their wealth through industrialisation and technological breakthroughs. But along the way, Karl Marx developed Adam Smith’s new science of economics to a point where it pointed out the limits, faults and further trajectory of the capitalist system. After that point, it became in the capitalist class’s interests not to understand how their system worked – how could they justify their power if it was based on exploitation, and doomed to ever worsening crisis?

Alfred Marshall’s “marginalist” economics attempted to justify the wage and profit system with an imaginary construct called “utility” – and this is the basis of the economics of today, which increasingly resembles a pseudoscience itself. Modern capitalist economics cannot predict the future, as the global financial crisis showed. And yet, its tenets remain unchallengeable in the academy, to the point where British students have demonstrated against the continued teaching of “pre-crash economics”.

Economics has become a kind of religion, belief in which is necessary unless one be cast out as a heretic. For example, a columnist for the big business magazine Forbes loudly demanded that the new socialist city councillor in Seattle, Kshama Sawant, be banned from teaching economics – a subject in which she has a PhD – because she doesn’t believe in the capitalist version. Science can prove itself in practice and has nothing to fear from opposing views – pseudoscience can only rely on force and rhetoric.

The retreat of the modern capitalist class from science is also shown by the growth of non-rational modes of thought in business. Although scientific psychology is used to make workers more productive and to market goods to consumers, businesspeople and sales staff alike increasingly embrace magic, “the power of positive thinking”, wish-fulfilment fantasies like The Secret, pseudo-philosophies like Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, and other non-rational ways to convince themselves that they “deserve” their privilege and power. And since the beliefs of our rulers are generally the beliefs of society, it’s no surprise that superstitious beliefs have become increasingly popular throughout society since the high point of rationalism in the 1950s.

Science as oppression
Although science is potentially one of the greatest allies of the oppressed, given all of the above, working people, women, LGBT and other oppressed peoples have no reason to trust the “scientific establishment”. A classic example of oppression by scientists is the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. Between 1932 and 1972, the US Public Health Service gave fake “health care” to African Americans with syphilis, so as to monitor the progress of the disease as the test subjects sickened and died. To this day, the memory of Tuskegee discourages African-Americans from participating in medical science.

When oppressed people lose faith in science as practiced by their oppressors, or in their traditional practices, creative pseudoscience tends to spring up. Beliefs which are in fact ridiculous, but conform with “common sense” and the life experience of the oppressed, are a comfort and a source of inner strength – in the same manner as religious observance.

Like religious beliefs, true believers in pseudoscience will respond to criticism of their beliefs with angry attacks rather than debate. The argument will be framed as a choice between “official science” and pseudoscience – without any suggestion that the truth might lie elsewhere. For example, criticise the pseudo-medicine of homeopathy, and you’ll get angry comments that you must be a “shill” for the Western medical profession – whom any good lefty can tell you are the Bad Guys.

Pseudoscience – like its cousin, conspiracy theory – arises because it looks good and makes sense, given our everyday experience of the world. Of course fluoride is probably a poison if “they” are putting it in our water supply! Or, of course the money system is the problem with capitalism, which would be fair otherwise! It’s also much easier than real science – because the goal is not to establish truth, but to create fear, uncertainty, and doubt.

Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens use their atheism to justify imperialist violence

Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens use their atheism to justify imperialist violence

Against imperialist rationalism
Skepticism as a social movement has grown significantly in recent years, with the Internet allowing pseudo-scientific claims to be debunked almost instantaneously. Yet this movement has not appealed to oppressed groups. Magicians Penn Jillette and Teller spread critical thinking through their long running TV series Bullshit! (which aired in New Zealand on Prime) but their right-wing libertarian political views meant their flavour of skepticism was one linked to individualism and shying away from any social theory that might add an extra dimension to the critique.

Ironically enough, Penn and Teller also peddle pseudoscientific global warming denial. It’s no coincidence that other proponents of atheism and the scientific method, such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, have also strayed from an opposition to religion and pseudoscience into racist, sexist and pro-imperialist positions.

The hardcore rationalism espoused by many skeptics, not only defending science but suggesting that all other forms of thought are illegitimate, ignores the fact that non-rational modes of thought are an important part of what it means to be human. Psychology, culture and art are based on intuitive, associated and other non-rational modes of thought – outside the domain of science, but not necessarily in conflict with it.

Similarly non-Western ways of thinking – such as tikanga Maori, Chinese traditional medicine or other “lifeworlds” – though often non-rational, play an important cultural and psychological role in binding marginalised and oppressed communities together, and a source of resistance to capitalist oppression backed up by “instrumental rationality” – science in the service of exploitation.

In fact, the place where non-Western beliefs become pseudoscience is the place where they have been appropriated and commodified by the “alternative medicine” industry. Concepts such as the Chinese qi and various Native American practices have been ripped out of their cultural contexts and are peddled to the middle-class as pseudoscientific remedies for the ailments of life under capitalism.

Science for the oppressed
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels described their political and economic programme as “scientific socialism”, to distinguish it from the various brands of “utopian socialism” – which would paint a glorious picture of an imagined future free from want or oppression, but would give no clues on how to get there from here. “Scientific” meant that – as far as they were concerned – communist politics grew out of what was happening here and now, and could precisely identify how elements of the present could create a better future.

It is in this sense that science – or more rightly, the scientific method – is our greatest ally. The scientific method – including rigorous “double-blind” testing and peer review free from ideological bias – is the best way that humanity has found for gaining understanding of and power over our environment. That it has been misused and warped to increase oppression is not a problem with the method itself, any more than the nuclear bomb proves that particle physics is wrong.

Socialists and other critical thinkers on the political left should stand with the movements against pseudoscience, which is non-rationality disguised as rationality – and that includes a lot of what our rulers want us to believe is “science”, like their mumbo-jumbo economics. But if non-rational thinking is demonised as the source of all our problems, then it’s people of colour, non-Western civilisations and women – traditionally associated with the Other of the Enlightenment – who end up first in the firing line.

Defending “science” without separating the method from the oppression committed in its name leads to a reactionary defence of the current capitalist-imperialist world order. We need to show those outside the left that we are not all vaccine denying fluoride fear-mongers, and the leftist adherents of pseudoscience that we can support science without supporting the racism, sexism and imperialism committed in its name.

Real science can free us – pseudoscience can only give us justifications for our own slavery. It backs us into dead ends, tilting at false enemies and distracting us from the real one. It is an imaginary solution to a real problem, to which the scientific method is a major part of the real solution.

See also

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