Cats Fighting

The Rise of Contempt Above Curiosity and Reason

In public life and unfortunately, in science and health policy, we find too often that contempt takes over from curiosity and reason. It is obvious in politics and likely to get painful this year. But it is not confined to the political realm. In nutrition and obesity research, we find that people are often ready to take personal issue with people when they might disagree. But they are less ready to dig into data and reasoning.

So we see a steady stream of people who use ad hominem arguments. A common expression of this is a claim that a researcher cannot be credible because they disclose funding from a pharmaceutical company. Ironically, this often comes from a person making a living from selling books, schemes, and programs in the wellness industry. But that is hardly the only form this animus takes.

Social scientists have a name for this phenomenon.

Affective Polarization

Recently, Joel Achenbach described it for the Washington Post:

“This country, though politically fractious since its founding, is more polarized than ever, the rhetoric more inflammatory, the rage more likely to curdle into hate. It’s ugly out there.

“One theme emerges in much of the research: Our politics tend be more emotional now. Policy preferences are increasingly likely to be entangled with a visceral dislike of the opposition. The newly embraced academic term for this is affective polarization.”

Spilling into Science, Nutrition, and Obesity

Obesity medicine physician Mike Albert recently described how the intersection of nutrition and health can arouse so much animus:

“People become irrational when they associate with a tribe. When the tribe represents a specific health identity, it can have devastating consequences since you only get one shot at life.”

As we watch Kevin Hall and David Ludwig sparring about the validity of different ways to think about models for obesity, we cannot help but wonder how much of this is about interpersonal conflict and how much of it is really about scientific merit.

Turning Science into a Slogan

The memory has hardly faded from a time when science became a political slogan. Did liberals help when they put signs proclaiming “Science Is Real” into their yards? Or was it a thinly veiled expression of the contempt that crowds out curiosity and reason in public discourse. People of all political persuasions contribute to this.

We don’t need it.

Click here and here for more about affective polarization and here for more about science becoming a political slogan.

Cats Fighting, painting by Francisco Goya / WikiArt

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January 28, 2024

5 Responses to “The Rise of Contempt Above Curiosity and Reason”

  1. January 28, 2024 at 7:32 am, David Sweanor said:

    The rise of illiberalism on public health issues is an enormous barrier to progress. Among much of the field of nicotine policy it is now pathological and undoubtedly resulting in much unnecessary death and disease. As you point out, this same issue is widespread on other issues that should be focused on science, reason and humanism. Correcting this; getting back to Enlightenment principles should be a priority for public health in general. Then, maybe, those lessons can be applied to global politics.

  2. January 28, 2024 at 7:27 pm, Incensed Doc said:

    Best example of this was the once in our life time Covid Pandemic.It killed about a million people in the US. The death tolls in the UK were also high.(both countries have a two party system-though the UK is parliamentary and has other minor political parties). Excess deaths that could have been prevented (many countries in the world that swiftly took actions had very low death rates) happened mainly due to the policies, decisions and rhetoric of the rulers of these two countries. Add to that the post truth age that we live in, where half baked facts, disinformation, fake news, conspiracy theories and snake oil salesman flourish.

  3. January 29, 2024 at 10:12 am, David Brown said:

    Ah, science, reason, and humanism. The big political conflict is between humanism and belief in Deity (illiberalism). Humanists deride Christians for their failure to embrace climate change doctrine, the idea that the biological continuation of the human race is in peril if action isn’t taken to drastically reduce fossil fuel use. They also want humans to stop raising ungulates because the critters burp methane gas.

    • January 30, 2024 at 8:26 am, Ted said:

      I am cautious about making generalizations regarding the views of humanists or Christians. Experience tells me their views are quite diverse.

  4. January 31, 2024 at 1:51 pm, David Beckemeyer said:

    It’s disheartening to see how curiosity and reason can be overshadowed by contempt, not just in politics but also in fields like nutrition and obesity research.

    I completely agree with the point about ad hominem attacks and the irony of dismissing research based on funding sources, often while promoting personal agendas. The term “affective polarization” perfectly captures this phenomenon, and I appreciate you sharing Joel Achenbach’s description.

    I discuss these issues quite often on my podcast, Outrage Overload, with scientists, researchers, authors, etc. We explore the impact of affective polarization on various aspects of society, including science and health.