Postmodernism and the “merchants of doubt”

Posted: 23 November 2011 in Uncategorized
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Mark Tansey, "Doubting Thomas" (c. 1985)

Having raised the issue of postmodernism earlier today, the question is: is postmodern relativism responsible for the ability of the “merchants of doubt” to challenge the scientific evidence concerning such issues as tobacco smoke and global warming?

Yann Giraud thinks not. His view is that the distinction between Science (which is “published in leading, peer-reviewed scientific journals” and “carefully researched by devoted—meaning, disinterested—scholars”) and “science” (which is “published in the New York Times or in the Wall Street Journal” and “conceived during business meetings by resentful, outdated researchers”) is problematic. Why? Because “forces and networks are what are responsible for the stabilization of knowledge in any field, not only facts and evidences.”

A better story would have investigated the various networks through which not only businesses try to affect scientific research to sell their products but also, in return, the equally powerful networks scientists can create to respond to these attacks. Also, a more satisfying narrative would show that the “bad” scientists who promote cigarette smoking and polluting industries also use the rhetoric of scientific evidence in order to convince. After all, is this “merchants of doubt” phraseology really different from the Popperian perspective, which asserts that we can never fully prove anything and that the only thing that can be done is to reject scientific ideas? Is it relativism that really hurts here or its philosophical counterpart? Is that “merchant of doubt” ideology the skeleton in the positivist closet? Can we talk about those dangerous modernists, now?


  1. […] been over this epistemological terrain before (e.g., here, here, and here). But it seems, in the current conjuncture, mainstream liberals—in their zeal to […]

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