Seth Godin, who as far as I can tell is reasonable fellow, had an interesting post today, titled Selling confusion. You can read it here. I have to say that reading it felt to me like fingernails scratching on a blackboard. (Do people still know how that sounds, given how rare proper blackboards are getting? Here’s a fairly tolerable example, although even this sets my teeth on edge.)
But back to Seth …
“Over the last few decades, there’s been a consistent campaign to sow confusion around evolution, vaccines and climate change.”
Let’s just stick with the evolution part for now, just because whether “we have evolution right” is what this blog is all about. And it’s what my book Purpose and Desire is all about.
By Seth Godin’s criteria, I think he would probably include me as one of the “sowers of confusion” over evolution. I can’t really claim to be a Darwinian anymore. I no longer think that evolution is driven by natural selection. Rather, I think it’s more of a cognitive phenomenon, with the intentional and purposeful striving that cognition entails. I’m not alone in this: Godin would probably include a large number of my colleagues as confusion sowers as well.
What Godin’s comments show to me, however, is that he profoundly misunderstands and misrepresents “science.” It’s a common misunderstanding, but one that is increasingly prevalent, and that is deeply corrupting our discourse, and not just in science.
Most problematic to me was his claim that there is an “increasingly asymptotic consistency in scientific explanations” on all these issues. In other words, “science” converges inexorably on something called “truth.” Once it’s done so, all debate should cease and any dissent therefore becomes obscurantist heresy.
Yet, looking critically at the history of Darwinian thought, as I do in Purpose and Desire, reveals quite the opposite of convergence and consensus. Prior to the emergence of what we might call the “Darwinian consensus” in the 1930s, evolutionary thought was extraordinarily rich, and marked by tumultuous and fertile debate. What prevails now, in contrast, is not so much a convergence on “truth”, as it is an agreement among authorities that only one explanation—Darwinism—will be considered as legitimate. Something like the Council of Nicea, in other words, which was also a consensus-building exercise, with its consensus backed up by the authority of the Church. What the Darwinian consensus has brought us, therefore, is more dogma than science. Is that what Seth Godin is pitching? I hope not. But from his words, it seems that is exactly what his pitch is.
The irony, of course, is that Godin conflates “science” and “dogma” in a way that corrupts both, and that betrays the origin and spirit of the emergence of science in the Enlightenment. The scientific approach promised a liberation from authoritarian dogma, let us remember. What Seth Godin is advocating is a return to those pre-Enlightenment days when dogma (a political consensus, after all) was the ultimate arbiter of truth, with the marginalization (and persecution) of dissenters as “denialists” (or “confusers”) to follow. How profoundly illiberal! And how profoundly corrupt!
At the end of his post, Seth Godin poses this challenge:
“Ask a confusor that the next time he offers a short term smoke screen. If this is a race to be the most uninformed, and the most passive, what if we win?”
Here’s my answer: dissent and challenge is the norm of a healthy intellectual culture. If there’s a smoke bubble, it’s one of your own creation. Poke your head out of the fog and you might be surprised at what you find.