Weekend update: paradox of scientific knowledge dissemination in the liberal state
Sunday, November 19, 2017 at 3:01AM
Dan Kahan

From The Cognitively Illiberal State, an early formulation of Popper's Revenge:

A popular theme in the history and philosophy of science treats the advancement of human knowledge as conjoined to the adoption of liberal democratic institutions. It is through incessant exposure to challenge that facts establish themselves as worthy of belief under the scientific method. Liberal institutions secure the climate in which such constant challenging is most likely to take place, both by formally protecting the right of persons to espouse views at odds with dominant systems of belief and by informally habituating us to expect, tolerate, and even reward dissent.

But at the same time that liberalism advances science, it also ironically constrains it. The many truths that science has discovered depend on culture for their dissemination: without culture to identify which information purveyors are worthy of trust, we’d be powerless to avail ourselves of the vast stores of empirical knowledge that we did not personally participate in developing. But thanks to liberalism, we don’t all use the same culture to help us figure out what or whom to believe. Our society features a plurality of cultural styles, and hence a plurality of cultural certifiers of credible information

Again, the belief that science will inevitably pull these cultural authorities into agreement with themselves reflects unwarranted optimism. In accord with its own professional norms and in harmony with the social norms of a liberal regime, the academy tolerates and even encourages competitive dissent. As a result, cultural advocates will always be able to find support from seemingly qualified experts for their perception that what’s ignoble is also dangerous, and what’s noble benign.  States of persistent group polarization are thus inevitable— almost mathematically —as beliefs feed on themselves within cultural groups, whose members stubbornly dismiss as unworthy insights originating outside the group.

Because we have the advantage of science, we undoubtedly know more than previous ages about what actions to take to attain our collective wellbeing. But precisely because we tolerate more cultural diversity than they did, we are also confronted with unprecedented societal dissensus on exactly what to do. 

Article originally appeared on cultural cognition project (http://www.culturalcognition.net/).
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