What Glenn Beck knows (part II)

Again, it’s not American history.  Beck does know, however, that people like to find authorities who agree with them.  The fact that people who like what Glenn Beck, uh, teaches, can log onto Amazon and find real books (bound and printed paper!) that endorse and amplify those lessons only makes Beck more credible–to people who already believe him.

That W. Cleon Skousen’s books inspire little credence among professional historians, or that they are not published by reputable scholarly presses is of little concern.  Indeed, it makes a certain amount of sense: if there’s really a conspiracy to keep these truths from the general public, then why would we expect the (completely corrupted) professoriate to give them appropriate attention?

But the choice of authorities based on their political positions is hardly limited to Beck’s 9/12ers.

An animal rights activist once told me that scientists learned nothing from research using animals that they couldn’t have discovered without animal experimentation.  When I suggested that most working scientists (indeed, virtually all working biologists) would disagree with that statement, she responded: Henry Heimlich.

The inventor of the Heimlich maneuver indeed condemned animal research at one point in his life.  His authority outweighed that of other scientists because he agreed with the animal rights activists.  Indeed, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (which opposes animal experimentation) has given awards for “innovative medicine” in Heimlich’s name.  It also features a list of expert authorities on health, medicine, and nutrition, who will support PCRM’s political line on animals.  What makes them credible experts is not necessarily training, research, or publications; rather, it’s their political line.

Climate change doubters have to look very hard to find scientists who dispute the recognition that human activity has changed earth’s climate, and that these changes are serious and demand collective responses.  But they find and then promote them.  For years, this meant Bjorn Lomborg, a Danish journalist with a Ph.D. in political science (like Woodrow Wilson!) received extraordinary attention for his 2001 book, The Skeptical Environmentalist.  Opponents of the Kyoto agreement trotted Lomborg out to legitimate their opposition to global action on the environment.  Working climate scientists, however, tore the book apart, dismissing its claims and emphasizing the ignorance and deceptiveness of its author.

Lomborg, however, has come around, and now says he pretty much agrees with Al Gore.  His new book will call for a carbon tax and global action on climate change.  Climate change skeptics, long his allies, have dismissed his apparent flip on the science as a lack of courage.  To be sure, they have found others with academic credentials to support their position, but not working scientists

Dinosaur rides at the Creation Museum in Kentucky

The scientific landscape is even worse for critics of evolution.  The number of working biologists who doubt evolution is somewhat less than a handful.  The very very few prepared to stand for the science of “intelligent design” can stay extremely busy, and can reach an appreciative audience that eludes scientists worried about publishing journal articles and designing replicable experiments.  The most famous, Michael Behe, a professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University, has largely abandoned peer review science based on experiments to promote intelligent design.  His department has taken the highly unusual step (I’ve never seen such a thing before) of defending his academic freedom while disputing his views on its website.

Crusaders against childhood vaccinations have argued that the MMR vaccine increases the likelihood of autism in children.  A key plank in their platform was a published study in the Lancet by Andrew Wakefield in 1998, based on a study of twelve patients.  Over time, all of his coauthors withdrew their support for the paper.  In February 2010, the Lancet officially retracted the article, announcing that its findings were fundamentally deceptive.  Other journals followed, retracting two other papers by Wakefield.  The UK’s General Medical Council also investigated Wakefield, and found his research and practice to be dishonest and irresponsible, striking his name from the medical register in Britain.

But Talk about Curing Autism, an activist group in the United States, continues to endorse Wakefield’s science, and is currently promoting his current book tour.

The main point is a disturbing one: people seek out authorities to endorse their views, trumpeting their credentials and research only when it supports what they want to say.

Are we all like this?  Think about the experts you decided to trust on the last controversial issue you cared about.  How about the last time an expert’s opinion changed your mind on something important?

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About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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2 Responses to What Glenn Beck knows (part II)

  1. Pingback: Defectors and dissident elites: rifts in the campaign against gay marriage | Politics Outdoors

  2. Pingback: Do you believe in science? | Politics Outdoors

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