In an era of a lot of strange ideological overlaps, one that’s particularly interesting to me is the overlap between two groups of people: those who invoke science to whip interlocutors into submission on everything from climate change to religion, and those who talk a lot about body positivity, fat shaming, etc. There’s absolutely zero scientific uncertainty as to the detrimental health effects of being overweight. (I say this as somebody who has been overweight since high school.) Obesity hurts people, full stop. Science says so.
Yet if you dip into the socially conscious movements that make a lot of headlines nowadays, it won’t be long before you’re catechized in the body-positive movement, which says that categorizing people as overweight is an assault on their personal dignity. There is no normal size, it is suggested, and diversity of body type is to be celebrated as unconditionally as diversity of skin color or gender. Pressuring people to lose weight is “fat shaming,” a grievous social sin that has no place in a compassionate society.
Of course, that is a militantly anti-science worldview. There is no question that there is such a thing as overweight, and there is no question that being overweight strains personal health and increases the risks of major complications. These facts are every bit as solid and universally attested as climate change or macroevolution. Yet it has become common for the same folks who invoke scientific consensus in their public-policy arguments to double down on body positivity, swiftly and unequivocally condemning any public observation that someone should lose weight.
This is a nicely transparent example of just how useless invoking science has become in contemporary discourse. “Useless” does not mean untrue, of course, it just means useless, as in: Even near-unanimous scientific consensus matters very little in practice if it runs afoul of certain shibboleths. Scientific consensus itself is becoming a slippery concept nowadays, as certain kinds of science are routinely ruled out of bounds if they produce politically undesirable data.
Lisa Littman, a professor at Brown University, was censored by her own institution for a peer-reviewed paper in which she asked whether “rapid-onset gender dysphoria” among teens was attributable to the pressures of peer culture rather than to actual transgender feelings. Littman’s research is formidable, and she does not describe herself as skeptical of transgenderism. Nonetheless, the mere suggestion that peer contagion could be contributing to a surprising uptick in teen trans identification was enough for the school’s administration, which defended the censorship with rather stunning bluntness: The university’s school of public health, its dean said in a statement, had heard from “Brown community members expressing concerns that the conclusions of the study could be used to discredit efforts to support transgender youth and invalidate the perspectives of members of the transgender community.”
Not even two years later, Brown hosted a forum on combating climate-change denial. Professor Mark Blyth opened the panel by noting that “so much of politics is about affect rather than facts — how does it make you feel. . . . We try as social scientists to take the veil away. Let’s talk about the facts; let’s find things as they really are.”
The inconvenient truth is that there is no “party of science,” just as there is no “right side of history.” All ideological tribes use scientific research when the result supports their priors and downplay it when it doesn’t.
There is a meaningful difference, though, between cultural conservatives and progressives. Conservatives, at least historically, have been willing to take their ideas above the rim of materialism, to argue against scientism and emphasize the transcendent and spiritual. For almost a century, arguably dating back to the Scopes trial, progressives have taken the opposite approach, forming an unwritten alliance with irreligious partisans of higher ed and instinctively deferring to science when it collides with faith or tradition. It’s not that one party believes in science and one party disbelieves it. It’s that only one party claims that’s the case.
In asserting themselves as people of rationality and objective facts (as opposed to people of “blind” faith), secular progressives intend to seal away their ideological opponents. That strategy arguably peaked with the so-called New Atheism movement, which now feels every bit as distant and irrelevant as the mid-20th-century fundamentalism it so often mimicked. Once a darling of the anti-Bush Left, Sam Harris now finds himself a lead character in the “intellectual dark web,” a vaguely libertarian, right-leaning coalition of free-speech advocates and critics of political correctness. It turns out that when you make a lot of money from telling people that Christianity is a plague on civilization, they might come to agree with you and then reach for as strong an anti-Christian repellant as they can find (namely, authoritarianism).
Atheists since Hume have insisted that society does not need transcendence in order to be moral and rational. An evidence-based, materialist account of the universe should be perfectly sufficient for reasonable people. But what shall we infer from the fact that university campuses, the intellectual environments most shaped by scientism, are also the ones producing the most-zealous crusaders for social justice, including causes that put them at clear odds with norms of scientific inquiry?
One possibility is to note an unintended consequence of the movement to secularize the public square, a movement not begun but certainly befriended by elected officials. Instead of secular rationalism, we are witnessing secular fundamentalism: an emergent new religion of social activism and neo-Marxism that is all the more buffered against criticism because of its ideological partnership with the secular scientific community. As Eric Cohen has written, scientism has its own theology, whose effects are visible especially in the triumph of technology at the expense of community and meaning. Scientism and social-justice partisanship are so often seen together in elite culture because they are, each in its own way, both post-Christian religions.
Too many activists, similar to those assembled at Brown, ridicule skeptics of their data and skeptics of their policy prescriptions. Such skeptics are (to use Blyth’s words) more concerned about feelings than facts. That posture may give, for example, the trans activists and the body-positivity gurus on Brown’s campus a sense of solidarity that is illusory but powerful. They look at the scientists in the classroom, then at the activists on campus, then back at the scientists, then back at the activists . . . until, like Orwell’s farm animals, they can’t tell which is which. That is why it is useless to appeal to science to explain why gender is real rather than a construct, or that a fetus really is a human being, genetically unique. Anyone on either side of such arguments believes he belongs to the party of science . . . because he knows that you, if you belong to the other side, are not.
The culture-war impasse is not inevitable. What needs to happen is simple: We need to un-deify “science” in public discourse. As a Christian, I agree with Richard Dawkins and others who hold up scientific progress and inquiry as vital to civilization. I agree with them about that much because, like Isaac Newton, I believe that the world is imprinted with order, structure, and laws that reflect an orderly Creator. Atheists and religious folk can disagree on where science ultimately comes from while agreeing on its importance.
The problems come when science is used cynically. Using science to demonstrate why religious belief “poisons everything” is no more legitimate than ignoring it for the sake of canceling others for their point of view. The New Atheists craved the first kind of fundamentalism and now decry the latter. They don’t recognize the bed they’ve made.
Let’s agree that science is a critical but insufficient discipline. It needs be accompanied by others, such as philosophy (which science bros need to stop ridiculing), law, history, art, and yes, religion. Let’s agree that scientism is not science but rather a worldview, and then debate it as a worldview that is not self-evidently true. And let’s agree that we are all ideological creatures who can find data to support our beliefs, and that therefore we should deliver the verdicts of science with humility, not triumphalism.