We know the problem with science in America, right? Ignorant groups cluster around pseudo-scientific claims; people cling to outdated and disproven ideas out of a false sense of moral purity and righteousness. Worst of all, scheming charlatans profit off this manufactured ignorance.
Same old, same old. But what if we’re not talking about religious creationists, but rather about secular liberals? In The Daily Beast, Michael Schulson recently accused shoppers at fancy-pants Whole Foods supermarkets of succumbing to pseudo-scientific claims. Worst of all, Schulson writes, such folks often do so while feeling intellectually superior to the rest of benighted America.
As Schulson puts it,
From the probiotics aisle to the vaguely ridiculous Organic Integrity outreach effort (more on that later), Whole Foods has all the ingredients necessary to give Richard Dawkins nightmares. And if you want a sense of how weird, and how fraught, the relationship between science, politics, and commerce is in our modern world, then there’s really no better place to go. Because anti-science isn’t just a religious, conservative phenomenon—and the way in which it crosses cultural lines can tell us a lot about why places like the Creation Museum inspire so much rage, while places like Whole Foods don’t.
Read the entire piece. Schulson describes the more-than-questionable claims of many of the products on sale at Whole Foods. When he invited a biologist to look at some of the probiotic claims, she offered a quick conclusion about their scientific accuracy: “‘This is bullshit,’ she said, and went off to buy some vegetables.”
Most compelling, Schulson asks why creationist institutions such as the Creation Museum cause such outrage among the mainstream scientific community, while the anti-science on display at Whole Foods doesn’t. One thing he doesn’t consider is the difference of scale here. Young-earth creationists claim that the earth is somewhere between six and ten thousand years old. Such an idea is utterly at odds with the fundamental premises of today’s science. Claims that probiotics can work medical wonders might be false, but they’re not so enormously out of sync with mainstream science.
But that doesn’t mean that the parallel between young-earth creationism and organic-food fetishism isn’t important and valid. As I have argued elsewhere, too often anti-creationists take false comfort from calling their creationist foes “ignorant.” Certainly, some creationists might be naively ignorant, but more significant are those who know modern science and simply reject it. The real question, IMHO, is not simply who is more ignorant, but rather a question of which cultural authorities people on each side choose to believe.
Along those lines, I appreciate Schulson’s stirring conclusion:
The moral is not that we should all boycott Whole Foods. It’s 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.