On the record about a source of irritation

I need to go on the record about a source of mild irritation that seems to resurface in periodic fashion: the recent Current Affairs article about the “dangerous populist science of Yuval Noah Harari”. It’s an excellent article; however, I’m irritated by the fact that it awakened so many more people (at least in my circles) to the superficiality of Harari’s books, especially Homo Deus and Sapiens, than several other articles published many years ago appear to have managed. These books are seven and 11 years old, respectively – sufficient time for these books to become popular as well as for their problems to have become noticeable. I myself have known for at least seven years that Harari’s history books are full of red flags that signal a lack of engagement with the finer but crucial themes of the topics on which he pontificates. Anyone who has been trained in science or has engaged continuously with matters of science (like science journalists) should have been able to pick up on these red flags. Why didn’t they? Yet the Current Affairs article elicited the sort of response from many people that suggested they were glad to have been alerted to his nonsense.

To me, this has all been baffling – and symptomatic of the difficult problem of determining who it is that we can learn about good science from without such determination devolving into bad gatekeeping. There are many simple solutions to this difficult problem, of course, but their stake to simplicity is in turn made disingenuous by the fact that the people at large don’t adopt them. So it is that thousands pick up Homo Deus and believe they’re been enlightened science-wise and then, years later, marvel at a reality-check. Some of these solutions: familiarise yourself with the ‘index of evidence’; apply ad verecundiam: trust experts on the specific topic more than, say, a theoretical physicist writing about mRNA vaccines; attribute all claims openly to their firsthand sources; take even mild conflicts of interest very, very seriously (red-flag #2435: Silicon Valley techbros swooned over Harari’s books; the CoI here is that they’re technoptimists, a technocratic ideology that refuses to admit the precepts of basic sociology and thus focuses on dog-whistles); and always act in good faith.

All such habits of good science, but especially the last one, need to be instilled among all people (and not just scientists and science journalists) over time, so that everyone can communicate good science well. But even then you might not learn that you shouldn’t get your science from Harari or Steven Pinker or others of their ilk, so please remember it now don’t make this mistake again. And I, in turn, will try to stop making the mistake of assuming timeous reader interest on a topic is entirely predictable.

Featured image: Modified photos of Yuval Noah Harari, March 2017. Credit (original): Daniel Naber/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.