Temples to Irrationality

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

There are many things I disagree with about his column, but Michael Schulson (or the editor) of The Daily Beast asks a pregnant question in the opening blurb to "Whole Foods: America's Temple of Pseudoscience" (HT: Snedcat):

Americans get riled up about creationists and climate change deniers [sic], but lap up the quasi-religious snake oil at Whole Foods. It's all pseudoscience--so why are some kinds of pseudoscience more equal than others?
Schulson comes to the following interesting and relevant conclusion about the predominantly leftist clientele of Whole Foods:
... By the total lack of outrage over Whole Foods' existence, and by the total saturation of outrage over the Creation Museum, it's clear that strict scientific accuracy in the public sphere isn't quite as important to many of us as we might believe. Just ask all those scientists in the aisles of my local Whole Foods. [link added]
Schulson also does a good job cataloging the scientfic nonsense peddled at Whole Foods and likening it to religious dogma and practice. That said (and again), there are many things I disagree with about Schulson's analysis. For example, I don't agree with parts of his conclusion, which is that:
Bringing sound data into political conversations and consumer decisions is a huge, ongoing challenge. It’s not limited to one side of the public debate. The moral is ... that whenever we talk about science and society, it helps to keep two rather humbling premises in mind: very few of us are anywhere near rational. And pretty much all of us are hypocrites.
I think Schulson is right to look at the questionable "science" tolerated or accepted on both sides of this cultural divide and conclude that neither side is ultimately rational. His exhortation to bring "sound data into political conversations and consumer decisions" is also laudable.

But good data isn't enough. What is also needed -- whether we are discussing how to achieve good health, the origins of life, or the proper scope of government -- isn't just good data, but the proper method of evaluating such data. Without it -- as we see time and time again in politics -- all the data in the world won't amount to a hill of beans. We should not just insist on good data, but rational justifications that actually follow from it from each other when conversing. In fact, we should start off by insisting on this from ourselves, because the conclusions we form have life-promoting or -impairing consequences. If enough people start doing this, the political conversations would start improving as a result.

It is this last context -- rational self-interest -- that I think is missing from Schulson's analysis, and I think it causes him to miss why leftists get so irritated by the Creation Museum, yet don't bat an eye at Whole Foods. When someone adopts an ideology or a practice that has no rational justification, that person has, somewhere along the line, accepted an arbitrary statement or evaded a falsehood. No matter how much that person distracts himself by performing rituals or making long-winded justifications or getting others to join his folly, he knows what he has done, and the best way to anger him to to hold a mirror up to his face. The Creation Museum is just such a mirror. Add to that a dollop of jealousy of the political power theocrats have regrettably amassed in recent decades, and you have the perfect trigger for an angry leftist to explode.

-- CAV

P.S. More than once in the past, I have offered my support here to Whole Foods CEO John Mackey for his stand against ObamaCare, with which I agree. Considering some of the products he sells and the campaigns his stores support, I regard him as at least intellectually inconsistent, like many too many other businessmen.


Anonymous said...

Hi Gus,

I ran across this article yesterday and spent a little time in the comment section perusing the reaction. I came across this gem;

So, while I agree with the author on his points about the damage done by pseudo-science in ALL its forms (it's long been something I rant about, given the opportunity), he has missed a crucial difference in pseudo-science on the left versus that on the right.

While creationism does do damage by itself, the IMPORTANT difference is that on the left, we don't try to make our pseudo-science law, and we don't elect anything like the number of pseudo-scientific nutjobs the Right seems to like.

We don't have Congresspeople saying (or trying to legislate) things like "science is all lies straight from the pit of hell". Most of the people liberals elect are openly scornful of the far left, kooky and sane alike.

And every time one of these articles come out, it IGNORES that the right wing of America is trying to legislate the ideas of its anti-science sub-section, while pushing out those that believe in science.

On creationism, reproduction, climate, pollution, economics, and a number of other subjects, the right wing consistently gives power to people whose ideals, actions, and policies fly directly in the face of reality, and as a result do huge amounts of harm.

THAT is the difference between pseudo-science on the Right and on the Left, or at least the one that matters, and THAT is why most journalists focus more on the stuff coming from the Right, because on tobacco, and on acid rain, and on climate change and on science education, they have spent GENERATIONS using government power to enforce their ideals at great damage to everybody.

I'm certain that your educated readers will see the unintentional irony here what with all of the maggots calling the rice white and the implicit assumption that the product of their bowels' normal operation is not as odoriferous as that of the opposition.

This certainly underscores your point about having a proper method to guide ones' search for truth.

I'm leaving the obvious congruities of left wing pseudoscience with the bolded portions as an exercise for the reader. (grin)

c. andrew

Gus Van Horn said...


That's a great quote that takes care f something I was tempted to address, but for which there was no time.

Similarly, the author was fast and loose about the good/bad of individuals following pseudoscience because he was focused only on whether they were trying to implement it poitically. Fads -- and even actual science misapplied due to lack of understanding -- can be harmful to the individual.

Irrationality is wrong regardless of whether it is part of a political agenda.