Monday, January 18, 2010

The bliss of ignorance

Writing about Sarah Palin in The New York Review of Books, Jonathan Raban characterized Going Rogue as a “paean to virtuous ignorance,” a term that looks like something that could stand further examination.

***Just a minute, boys, let me be clear from the outset that I am not writing about Sarah Palin but about the concept of “virtuous ignorance.” No need to douse me with that adolescent vitriol you splashed on Mr. Raban at Free Republic. (Apparently, anyone who is not enchanted with Ms. Palin is a homosexual given to using big words, and that counts as refutation, at least on that site.)***

For a pure example of virtuous ignorance, it is hard to surpass Jenny McCarthy, the actress-turned-autism-advocate. Diane Sawyer invited her onto ABC News to denounce a study in Pediatrics, a medical journal, that determined that the special diets Ms. McCarthy advocates are ineffective. Her response was that it’s time that doctors “start listening to our anecdotal evidence.”

Ms. McCarthy, who has an autistic son, Evan, was previously granted a platform by Oprah Winfrey to discuss growing scientific evidence that there is no link between vaccines and autism. Ms. McCarthy rebutted it thus: ‘My science is Evan, and he's at home. That's my science.”

It is a puzzlement: In a technologically advanced society, in which lifespan and standards of living have been improved by more than two centuries of post-Enlightenment scientific research, a Jenny McCarthy can become an influential figure in public health. Increasingly, people believe what they wish to believe, against all evidence, especially if someone with whom they can identify, whom they see as a sincere person, agrees with them.

The Columbia Journalism Review has an article on the high proportion of television meteorologists who are skeptical about the scientific evidence for global warming. Never mind that meteorology and climatology, though related, are distinct disciplines. Never mind that TV weather forecasters may have negligible training in climatology. They are the people seen every day as representatives of science, and their word carries weight.

Ms. McCarthy and the climate skeptics are quick to claim that there is a scientific establishment with a sinister agenda, falsifying research, operating on behalf of hidden interests. Indeed, there is malpractice in science, as you can read in Horace Freeland Judson’s 2004 book, The Great Betrayal: Fraud in Science. People rush to publish, people lie, peer review can fail.

But it’s dangerous to generalize from single cases. Piltdown Man was a fraud for decades, but its exposure did not mean that we had to discard anthropology. Science still has self-correcting mechanisms. The reason that proponents of creationism and intelligent design have turned to the secular arm to undermine by legislative means the teaching of evolution is that they have not been able to make a persuasive case scientifically.*

Do not imagine that paranoia and self-righteous fantasy are limited to the right, even though contemporary conservatives have vouchsafed us some of the more lurid examples. In Vanity Fair, Christopher Hitchens examines how Gore Vidal, a distinguished novelist (his Lincoln is exceptional) and formidable essayist, has given himself over in advancing age to uttering crackpot statements, among them the assertion that George W. Bush connived at the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. This is vile, and it is painful to see a man of letters fall so low.

Vaccines for credulity appear to be a long way off.

*I fear the day when the bigots discover that we got algebra from the Arabs (al-Kwarizmi’s book ’ilm al-jabr wa’l-mukabala, “the science of restoring what is missing and equating like with like”) and mobilize to eliminate the teaching of mathematics in public schools. Then all that will remain for us to do is ask what accommodations our Chinese overlords require.