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The Crisis of Scientific Authority

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.

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.”