Slandering science

One thing I have learned in a long life: that all our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike – and yet it is the most precious thing we have. – Albert Einstein

I think Einstein got that right. Knowledge is extremely important for our species and consequently I think those who set out to discredit or slander our knowledge are really acting against the interests of humanity.

But, a cynical or disparaging attitude towards knowledge is, unfortunately, quite common. And it’s not just fundamentalist religious believers who are guilty. This approach keeps coming up in the climate change debate. It’s also common with those who promote “alternative” health therapies such as crystals, homeopathy, etc.

These people often talk about of “big science,” the “science establishment,” “corruption in science,” “business links to science,” and so on.

Science is accused of being based on faith, a dogma, or even a religion.

Of course, these slanders are used in an opportunistic way. These same commentators are quite happy to use opinions of scientists to support their own arguments – even when those scientists are obviously connected with big business or are really presenting a religious viewpoint.

Scientists are human

Of course scientists are no better than the rest of us. They are capable of bias, prejudice and working for commercial, religious or political interests. In themselves, their opinions don’t have any special value. And scientists are also susceptible to the perfectly human frailty of using information selectively to support a pre-conceived theory or belief.

However, the scientific enterprise is wider than the activity or opinions of individual scientists. Three features of scientific knowledge and activity are important:

  • Knowledge is based on, and checked against, reality;
  • Science is very much a social activity;
  • It is a sceptical process and encourages scepticism.

This means that whatever the prejudices or desires of the individual practitioner, evidence is required to support ideas or theories and these are tested experientially. The social scientific environment requires this. Ideas, theories and supporting evidence are scrutinised by colleagues and other competing scientists. They must be submitted to peer review. Once incorporated into an accepted body of knowledge scientific theory is not immune to further investigation, testing, modification or rejection. Science is a dynamic process – nothing is set in stone. Reality, not authority or opinion, is the final arbiter.

As a body of knowledge, science has therefore much more validity and authority than the opinions or ideas of individuals.

Protection from political, commercial and religious pressures

pressureOf course science does come under political, commercial and religious pressure. The funding of scientific research by business interests is a current issue in New Zealand. It can be positive – after all it’s about time business helped finance research as they do benefit from new knowledge. (And really it is in the long-term interests of business to accept this knowledge even when it appears to conflict with their short-term interests). On the other hand, business will sometimes attempt to predetermine research results, or hide findings they are unhappy with.

It’s easy to find scientist who have prostituted themselves to commercial or religious interests. Consider scientists promoting products in advertisements or “intelligent design” in opinion articles.

But the best protection against this is the operation of the scientific method. Its reliance on objective evidence and testing against reality. The sceptical process which operates in the scientific community. And the fact that accepted knowledge is always open for review, further testing and modification.

Our knowledge must always be open to criticism and re-evaluation. But such scepticism must be based on consideration of evidence – not slander of existing knowledge and those involved in scientific investigation. When I find commentators supporting their arguments with slanderous attacks on science and knowledge I see it as a weakness.

Slander is never convincing.

*Acknowledgment for cartoon to Matthew Shultz & the Union of Concerned Scientists: Science Integrity Editorial Cartoon Contest.

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Intelligent design/creationism and climate change
Scientific dissent from . . . science?
Dissenters from Darwinism in context
Who are the “dissenters from Darwinism”?
Intelligent design and scientific method

11 responses to “Slandering science

  1. Hmmm, yes, I’ve been worrying about this issue a bit lately and wondering what went wrong that caused so many people to distrust science (I say ‘science’ because not many people are able to distinguish the Scientific Method from the newspaper articles they read).

    I recognise that many people will reject anything that goes against their existing beliefs and so you’ll always have people who reject aspects of science because of evolution or global warming.

    But it seems to me that there is a general distrust out there even among sensible people and I want to know what’s caused it. Is it that newspapers are continuously feeding us ‘conflicting’ scientific findings about what we can and can’t eat? Is it that ‘science’ gave us the nuclear bomb? What about Thalidomide? Is it that children’s cartoons always have the scientist as the crazy bad guy?

    What concerns me is that there are some issues that require that we trust the scientific method so we can best act on the information we’ve gained. Take global warming for example; if anything kills us it’ll be the fact that we ignored scientific observations.

    This makes me a pessimist but I’m convinced that if astronomers were to detect star that was going to blast earth with a gamma ray burst in ten years’ time we’d have the same proportion of ‘gamma ray deniers’ as we do ‘global warming deniers’ and that it would quite possibly hobble our ability to act (assuming there was a way to protect earth from the burst).

    I’m convinced that if we don’t get over this hurdle of differentiating between conclusions drawn on the best method we know of for finding truth (the Scientific Method) and denial based on our fears and twisted beliefs that our greatest threat is ourselves.

    Here’s a philosophical sidetrack: would it be ethical to use force to overwhelm a person in a raft who is paddling toward a waterfall? And would it be ethical to overrule (even if it means imprisoning or suppressing) people who go against evidence of an impending global catastrophe? Heavy.

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  2. The “mad scientist” stereotype is a big problem. I have often thought it would help if we could have a TV soap set in a research institute, or university science department. Having worked in such environments I am sure one could be made with just as much human interests (intrigue, sex, violence, murder, altruism, humour, personal foibles, etc.) as any set in a hospital, police station or Coronation Street. However, if it could also include something about the way of doing science, about the personal experiences of doing this and sense of satisfaction and “doing good” that comes with it we might be able to educate the public. (I would be afraid that any soap proposal like this might be accepted and then the anti-science stereotypes would take over).

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  3. Damian,
    Not sure that it is distrust that people have in science, but rather its application, other than through technology, seems not to satisfy so many human longings such as belonging, peace, security, love, meaningfulness in life etc.

    What’s wrong with letting someone paddle toward a waterfall? How does it give rise to an ethical dilemma?

    Ken,
    Haven’t ideas of science being demonstrated in novels, such as Arthur Conan-Doyle’s ‘Sherlock Holmes”, and Agatha Christie’s ‘Hercule Peirot’, and maybe, one of a number of TV series, such as CSI? All the above have been broadcast as screenplays a number times over the decades. Have they been too ‘human interest’ oriented to establish the truth about science?
    However pertinent and important it is for folk to apprehend a proper understanding of science in society, the Fourth Estate is overwhelmingly controlled by directors seeking to satisfy readership and shareholder expectations.
    It’s probably best that science-sponsored publications and engaging communicators continue to spread the ‘good news’.

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  4. BC, I am aware that soaps have an important role in “educating” people and so I think we do develop a lot of our social conditioning this way.

    I must admit, I don’t watch most of the American series – they just don’t have a reality for me. The portrayal of science activity in some of the British programmes is better, but can still be way off or waky. Again, though, the science is usually an adjunct to a police/crime story – or more of a fantasy-science fiction type story which is not seen as reality.

    I think many of us do develop a perception of police and hospital activity from TV series. (I sometimes think that NZ police get into trouble because they sometimes “act out” what they have picked up from TV programmes).

    Yes, I agree that directors try to satisfy expectations and this would be a huge problem – perceived expectations (in reality stereotyping) probably would take over and just reinforce the damage.

    But, I guess the only way to change stereotypes is to persistently push the envelope. We have come a long way in gender and racial stereotyping in literature and TV.

    What I would like to see is a realistic portrayal – with a lot of human interest. But part of the human interest should relate to the emotions and feeling of scientific discovery and doing good for the community.

    Ironically, it is the science documentaries, especially the classic ones like Cosmos, and the attitudes of people like Sagan, Tyson, Porco, Dawkins, etc., in these documentaries who do convey this human interest value of science. If we could only get that message to the people who never watch documentaries.

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  5. Sorry BC, I wasn’t very clear in my waterfall scenario:

    Imagine a situation where there are a group of you on a raft and the raft is drifting toward a waterfall. If you go over the waterfall you all die. There is one person on the raft who thinks that this is not the case and continues to paddle toward the waterfall.

    The ethical dilemma (which doesn’t seem such a dilemma in this case) is whether the others on the raft should overpower this paddler to ensure their survival. The reason I used this analogy is that some people are saying that the evidence is pointing toward our human contributions as being a major factor in the increase of global warming. My question is; will there come a time when the evidence is so clear (as it is for the people in the raft) that those who continue to dissent will have to be ‘overpowered’ in some way? And would this be ethical?

    In this sense the word “overpowered” may mean making it a crime to produce over a certain level of carbon emissions.

    I don’t think we’re at a stage where it’s as clear-cut as the raft scenario but from the reading I’ve done it’s far more clear-cut than many of the global warming deniers would have us believe. I’ve just come back from a weekend camping with a couple of guys who would fit the typical stereotype of a global warming denier and I have to say I’m alarmed at the additional pseudoscientific baggage that they also carry: Egyptian links to aliens and/or a super civilisation, free energy that’s being suppressed by the CIA, Al Gore is the anti-Christ but Oprah would make a good president (I kid you not), the face on mars, moon landing hoaxes… the list goes on and on.

    These are clever, ordinary guys too. There comes a point where you are so steeped in a type of anti-scientific mode of belief that I worry that we may find ourselves in a situation where these beliefs will be genuinely harmful.

    Perhaps this is needless scaremongering. All the same it’s an interesting prospect to think about; at what stage does ‘scientific evidence’ become strong enough to justify the use of force (or at least, the law) to restrict the actions of the deniers? Do we admit that there will always be deniers regardless of the evidence?

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  6. Damian,
    I guess my question to that scenario of the raft would be, ‘What were they thinking they were doing in a raft on that river in the first place?’
    The evidence that would be strong enough to convince people that global warming is true, would be the evidence of a dead loved one. However, even the death from cancer by smoking is not strong enough evidence to deter people from such a destructive lifestyle.
    Even without the possibility of global warming, there are pretty strong arguments of ethical status highlighting that our selfish and affluent western lifestyle is killing ourselves and those from whom we plunder the resources to sustain such a lifestyle. We need to overpower ourselves to redirect our energies away from a destructive lifestyle to something more sustainable and in effect more creative.
    Unfortunately, most of us in the West still think we are on the right path to effect the salvation of the world, a modern day intellectual colonialism together with the myth of progress.

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  7. I guess my question to that scenario of the raft would be, ‘What were they thinking they were doing in a raft on that river in the first place?’

    Hmmm, you seem to be struggling a bit with my analogy. The raft is the world, the flow that is drawing us to the waterfall is our previous actions and the lone paddler are the global warming deniers. Does that make sense now? If not I guess analogies are off the board for future conversations 😉

    The evidence that would be strong enough to convince people that global warming is true, would be the evidence of a dead loved one.

    I disagree. And I would say that the ‘death of a loved one’ shouldn’t be what convinces someone of global warming because the correlation would be pretty weak. If someone I loved died in a flood I wouldn’t be justified to immediately jump to the conclusion that global warming caused it. And even if the cause was clearly global warming I’m sure it would be a breeze for a denier to shrug it off. Never underestimate the power of our beliefs.

    We need to overpower ourselves to redirect our energies away from a destructive lifestyle to something more sustainable and in effect more creative.

    I agree but we need to be careful not to take an over-simplistic approach. We must trade, we must alter our environment, we must use energy and so on and so on. There is nothing at all wrong with carbon emissions per se but there is a problem when we emit too much carbon. There is nothing wrong with altering our environment but there is a problem when we do it to the detriment of the diversity of life (and, consequentially, our own lives). Some people would have us move back to the dark ages and I suspect this is because they have a romantic view of what life was like back then.

    Unfortunately, most of us in the West still think we are on the right path to effect the salvation of the world, a modern day intellectual colonialism together with the myth of progress.

    “Salvation”? Salvation from what?

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  8. Re the ethical dilemma of the waterfall and the raft:

    Don’t we often have this situation? We have laws to restrain people in all sorts of situation – although of course we don’t have laws about belief.

    We have people who belief it is OK, even beneficial, to have sex with children. It’s only when they actually do i that they break the law and are restrained.

    I can envisage that some time in the not too distant future there will be laws controlling people’s behaviour regarding fossil fuels, carbon footprint, etc. We will still have people who refuse to accept the scientific evidence – and they won’t be restrained for that – although if they break the law they will.

    However, we could draw some conclusions about the ethics or morality of beliefs (while accepting that we can’t legislate). Most non-Muslims would accept that it is immoral to believe that apostates should be stoned to death. We might even go as far as saying that preaching this should be illegal (hate crime?).

    Perhaps some rejection of reason and science is also immoral. Unfortunately some superstition is probably going to be with this species for a very long time. And it would be immoral (and unscientific)to deny healthy scepticism.

    On the climate change issue I think scientific scepticism about the current consensus is healthy and welcome. However, I do feel that a lot of the deniers are not motivated by scientific scepticism. They often have deeper, anti-science agendas. I think that is immoral.

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  9. The issues of how to respect science (and in what way), including implications like the example of the waterfall/raft analogy are, in my (philosophical) opinion, follow on from (or rests on) the issue we’ve been discussing in various ways recently – that of the distinction between (and nature of relationship between) things philosophical and things scientific…

    I’m not a fan of linking to a post I wrote in a comment, but I recently did write a which I think deals (however conclusively or inconclusively) with this issue…

    Would be interested in your perspective.

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  10. durn-it… the code didn’t work…
    the URL is http://fruitfulfaith.wordpress.com/2008/04/03/overlapping-magisteria/

    (Ken, feel free to ‘clean up my code-mess’ if you wish)

    🙂

    -d-

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  11. Damian,
    I pretty much got the analogy. Although the evidence seems to point to the fact that the lone paddler is the one trying, in vain, to paddle away from the waterfall. Even though a substantial number of influential thinkers have spent a great deal of energy proclaiming the global warming gospel, the inertia of our social and economic system outweighs any observable, effective action where the ‘rubber meets the road’.
    How is it that have we made the world into a vulnerable raft and created the ‘flow’ of which has turned out to be the ‘river’ of our ignorance, arrogance and slavery to greed, away from which intellectual and socio-economic movements, such as the Enlightenment, were supposedly taking us?
    I was thus, extending the meaning somewhat, (artist’s licence) by inferring that now some have woken up to contraindications that our previous actions were correct, even though others still maintain that those actions are so, that maybe we have gone down the wrong fork on the river system.
    Maybe, as you well point out, it’s not a matter of saying we shouldn’t be in a raft or on the river, just that we seem to have ended up in the wrong place, and if we’d known what we know now, we would never have intended to be where we are now.
    True, people can look at death, for whatever reason, and shrug it off. But when people wake up to the reality of a situation it’s often too late to do anything about it. When you have to apply the brakes in an accident, it’s often too little, too late. As you point out, we can, even in spite of strong beliefs, do the obvious foolish thing in the face of the evidence.
    I don’t advocate a return to the ‘dark ages’ or the lifestyle thereof, not the least because of the dynamics of scale and population densities in modern urban environments, as well as the inertia of the western mindset. But there still needs to be a radical change in our affluent and effluent lifestyle. There is still only a small percentage of the well educated western population that effectively put into practice any change towards a sustainable lifestyle. The rest of the western world and the developing countries seem set to paddle in the same direction that your analogy indicates.
    Not sure that the use of the word ‘salvation’ is questionable, since global warming evangelists use salvational language in their pleas to government and the general population about the plight of the world; from the lips of Al Gore in ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, “Our ability to live, is what is at stake”.
    The meaning of salvation could not be clearer.

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