The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 18 No. 3 (Fall 2016)

Science Anxiety

Ari N. Schulman

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Fall 2016

(Volume 18 | Issue 3)

There is a classic psychological experiment, known as the Strange Situation Protocol, in which children become unwitting stars in a piece of abstract theater. An infant is brought into a playroom with one parent. A stranger enters; soon the parent leaves; then the stranger departs, leaving the baby alone; then the parent returns; and so on in varying combinations. Some babies play unbothered in the presence of the stranger and show affection to the parent when he or she returns. Others are wary of the stranger, reluctant to play in his presence, and alternate between clinginess and defiance when the parent returns.1

Psychologists who conduct the experiment describe these respective behavioral patterns as secure and anxious-ambivalent attachment. The latter is the product of inconsistent parenting, neglect mixed with intrusive attention. The child’s inability to depend reliably on its parent prevents the growth of the child’s independence. The vacillating parent creates a vacillating child, pulled one moment by neediness and the next by wariness, in a simple harmonic motion of dysfunction.

Whatever the merits of this tidy theory on its own, it’s a useful metaphor for thinking about the relationship today between the public and that vast body of knowledge, work, and authority we monolithically call “science.” Our conversations about science are dominated on one side by those who reflexively distrust broad swathes of it as corrupted by groupthink, corporatism, or global governance conspiracy, and on the other by those keen to distance themselves as far as possible from the first group, to label any deviation from scientists’ opinions as paranoia, “denialism,” “anti-science.”

We seem to be facing a slow-brewing crisis of scientific authority even as we hear ever-more-eager paeans to science. Though these attitudes of defiance and deference might seem at odds, they are each dysfunctional stances toward scientific authority, mutually reinforcing and commonly opposed to the empowering independence science is supposed to sustain. Both attitudes suggest a kind of infantilization. That our science popularizers are heaped with the greatest praise when they “destroy” some crank or declare that they “F***ing Love Science” speaks to the peculiar exaggerations of our emotional involvement. Seldom do our conversations resemble the dispassionate, evidence-based discourse science is said to perfect.

One common story is that this conflict is a societal one, between factions with sharply divergent affinities for science—left versus right, secular versus religious, technocratic versus traditionalist. But there is little stability as to which side proclaims itself pro-science and which the bold challenger to an ideologically exhausted establishment. The capitalist conservative who is skeptical about climate change may have no trouble tarring his environmentalist foes as anti-science for opposing nuclear power. The coastal bobo who sees creationism in Texas classrooms as a harbinger of a new Dark Age may be contributing to keeping childhood vaccination rates in his city below those of Third World countries, owing to beliefs the Texas parent regards as voodoo.2

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Endnotes

  1. Inge Bretherton, “The Origins of Attachment Theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth,” Developmental Psychology 28 (1992), 759–775.
  2. Zack Kopplin, “Texas Public Schools Are Teaching Creationism,” Slate, January 16, 2014, http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2014/01/creationism_in_texas_public_schools_undermining_the_charter_movement.html; Tasneem Raja and Chris Mooney, “How Many People Aren’t Vaccinating Their Kids in Your State?,” Mother Jones, February 17, 2014, http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2014/02/vaccine-exemptions-states-pertussis-map.

Ari N. Schulman is a senior editor of The New Atlantis and has written for The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, First Things, and Time.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 18.3 (Fall 2016). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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