Sidky, H. Science and anthropology in a post-truth world. A critique of unreason and academic nonsense. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2021. vii, 231 pp. ISBN 978-1-7936-0651-8. $100.00 £77.00
The notion that we now live in a post-truth world, is widespread, with Donald Trump and his sycophantic senators agents of the big lie, continuing to claim that Trump won the last year's Presidential election (he didn't), that voter fraud was rampant (it wasn't), and that left-wing agitators led the assault on the Capitol building (they didn't). It seems that right-wing politicians, supported by the contributions of big business, are followers of Adolph Hitler:
in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victim to the big lie than the small lie. (Hitler, 1939)
Understandably, this book has a predominantly U.S. orientation, and it may be that the post-truth phenomenon has spread further there than in many other countries. However, nowhere is safe: Sidky points out that the tobacco companies continued to spread lies about their products long after the link with lung cancer was firmly established (aided by 'a cadre of turncoat scientists' (p. 10)), and the science-deniers continue to be promoted by the fossil fuel industry, ably supported by Trump who described climate change as 'a total, and very expensive hoax'. We find science-deniers, around the world, today arguing that vaccination is an attempt to control citizens by inserting microchips, and that the lockdowns to prevent the spread of the Covid-19 virus are unnecessary, when, at the time of writing 2.5 million people have died from the virus.
Sidkly points out how difficult it is to convince people who have accepted the denial of science and conspiracy theories that they are relying upon untruths. He notes the 'backfire' effect, which research has uncovered, meaning that attempts to change the believer's mind can result in the original views being held even more strongly. Changing beliefs is difficult: the conspiracy theorists are most closely associated with right-wing extremists, and research into the holders of extreme view is 'interesting'. A study published in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B found that:
people with extremist attitudes tended to think about the world in black and white terms, and struggled with complex tasks that required intricate mental steps. (Grover, 2021)
which suggests that such people may also have difficulty in grasping the complexities of scientific research and are more comfortable with the black and white of the conspiracy theorists.
Sidky's answer to the question of how we reached this situation is that the blame rests with the post-modernists, 'a cadre of American academics, the so-called New Left' (p. 19) who adopted the ideas of the French philosophers, Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard, Latour, Baudrillard, Lacan, and others. These philosophers drew on the ideas of Nietsche, whose works inspired Hitler by advocating the extermination of inferior races, and adopted his hostility towards modernity, truth, and rationality.
Sidky goes on to review the impact of postmodernism in his own discipline of anthropology, drawing attention to the 'science of science' studies of Bruno Latour, a researcher without any knowledge of science, who, following field work in a science laboratory, declared that, 'Nothing special, nothing extraordinary, in fact nothing of any cognitive quality was occurring there'. One wonders how he, a non-scientist, would know this, and how he would feel about receiving a vaccine from a laboratory in which 'nothing extraordinary' had happened?
The author builds a convincing case for his thesis throughout the book, dealing with the general problem of how we know what we know and demonstrating beyond doubt that scientific knowledge is well-grounded and infinitely superior to metaphysics, supernatural explanations, or pseudo-science. One chapter deals with a well-known spoof that demonstrated the intellectual level of American's New Left. This was the Sokol hoax: Alan Sokol, a physicist, wrote a paper entitled, Transgressing the boundaries: towards a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity (Sokol, 1996), which was accepted by the leading postmodernist journal, Social Text for a special issue on the 'science wars'. The paper was completely nonsensical, yet the editors tried to justify its inclusion by claiming that Sokol had failed to understand fully the authorities he had been quoting. The journal is owned by Duke University and the website has no issues before the year 2000.
The final chapter details how the postmodernist attack on science has led, almost inevitably, to the post-truth era. The postmodernist position on the equal value of all claims to truth gives, apparently, sound philosophical support to the creationists, the anti-vaxxers, and the conspiracy theorists, although most of them will never have read Derrida or Latour. The author concludes:
It remains to be seen just how far down that perilous road we will go before a semblance of reason and respect for truth and democratic principles will return, if they ever do. (p. 179)
I have the impressing that Professor Sidky wrote this book out of a justifiable anger at the way academe has been complicit in allowing the pernicious philosophical nonsense of postmodernism to gain such hold in university departments
Grover, N. (2021, February 22). People with extremist views less able to do complex mental tasks, research suggests. The Guardian. https://bit.ly/3r2Nq4g
Hitler, A. (1939). Mein Kampf. London: Hurst and Blacket. http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks02/0200601.txt
Sokol, A. (1996). Transgressing the boundaries: towards a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity. Social Text, (46/47), 217-252. https://bit.ly/3b15ma1
Professor T.D. Wilson
Editor in Chief
How to cite this review
Wilson, T.D. (2021). Review of: Sidky, H. Science and anthropology in a post-truth world. A critique of unreason and academic nonsense. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2021. Information Research, 26(1), review no. R707. http://www.informationr.net/ir/reviews/revs707.html
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