Posted by: coloradokiwi | April 18, 2008

The Scourge of Anti-Rationality

Slate has been running a short series on “The Paranoid Style in American Science” by Daniel Engber, which chronicles the recent trend of skepticism run amok, meaning it is skepticism that takes up such a contrary position that it crosses over into the paranoia of the conspiracy-minded.  We are well familiar with this, of course:  global warming skeptics, intelligent design proponents, people who swear off vaccines because of alleged links to autism, etc. etc.  Engber deftly points out the myriad ways in which so many people have taken on the mantle of skepticism, starting with legitimate problems or weaknesses with their object of inquiry, but going much further, such that:

the conspiratorial thinker sees “a projection of the self”—he’s just like them but more discerning and more rational. Indeed, for the paranoid skeptics, it’s not that science is wrong but that the scientists aren’t scientific enough. (original emphasis)

The circuitous discourse that is then taken up is seen by the skeptic as hyper-rational, when it is in fact anti-rational.  The effect of this tack of so-called skepticism, then, is not to find “truth,” but to destabilize it.  Although they themselves think they are exposing a conspiracy to hide truth, what they are in fact doing us undermining our ability to consider anything “true” that does not exist with 100% exactitude — in other words, that scientific fact/theory (which is understood as being “true” yet contingent) becomes suspect as an entire regime of knowledge.  What the skeptic actually engenders then, is not truth but Truthiness.

Truthiness”, coined of course by Stephen Colbert, refers to the notion that “truth” does not necessarily stem from, or adhere to, “facts”.  Although the term is mostly reserved for “intuitive” thinking that one thinks or wishes to be true when it’s not, I think the term is actually somewhat more complex with regard to the way in which people approach “truth.”  The purveyor of truthiness recognizes that facts are only meaningfully rendered when they enter into discourse (and are at base derived from science, which operates according to its own discourse), but nonetheless holds that the discourse of truthiness, while not literally “true” in the traditional sense, speaks to a kind of truth, a higher order truth.  Thus we have a discourse that adopts a sophisticated postmodern disdain for truth on the one hand, but paradoxically believes that somewhere out there is truth in an absolute form.  In this way, proponents of intelligent design call into question the way scientific knowledge is legitimated in order to propagate a notion that speaks to the “truth” of God’s creation without making any claims on truth that can be empirically defined or arrived at.  This kind of postmodern position is (perhaps ironically teleologically) best explained via poststructuralist notions of discursive practice and skepticism toward metanarratives—how else can we explain this marriage between irrationality and rationality?  What aspect of capitalist ideology can systemically produce subjects who are both very good capitalists and very good fundamentalists?  And so we have the ultimate irony:  people who believe in truth in its absolute form are in fact the ones pushing us further and further into postmodern relativism, whereby “truth” and “facts” are entirely subjective and discursive.  To this end, “truth” is linked to situational politics, and is taken up strategically, as a weapon to “prove” whatever it is one already believes in (needless to say, without good reason).

So, welcome to the (post)modern era, where the logical conclusion of truthiness will lead us into a new age of, potentially, hyper-rational capitalism paradoxically (or so it would at first seem) coexisting with an anti-rational culture.  So, awesome, we get all the exploitation and commodity fetishism, but none of the reason.  This oughtta be fun.

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