Against ‘Anti-science’ Tribalism

Science Is No Substitute for Politics

One of the more useful concepts to emerge from online discussions is Godwin’s Law, which holds that the longer that an online debate takes place the probability that someone invokes Hitler or the Nazis approaches 1.0. When discussions reach such a point of fantastic overstatement, the existence of Godwin’s Law enables its invocation, and often a conversation can be reset to good effect.

In discussions of science and politics, we need our own version of Godwin’s Law, one which holds that the longer an online discussion takes place the greater the likelihood that someone will characterize another point of view as “anti-science.” These days, some conversations even start by labeling others as “anti-science.” Whenever someone is arrogant enough to claim to be speaking for the whole of the Enlightenment, participants in the discussion need to be able to hit reset and say: Whoa there buddy, that is a mighty big hammer to swing to express your sense of disagreement.

Over the past week it has been both entertaining and informative to read the various back and forth on this excellent Guardian Political Science blog over the notion of whether or not Greens are “anti-science.” For the affirmative Robert Wilson argues that it is “obvious” that “many environmentalists hold anti-scientific positions.” Alice Bell counters with “Greens aren't anti-science, but who'd be dumb enough to be pro- the whole of science?” Both take the notion of an “anti-science” orientation far too seriously.

The phrase “anti-science” is generally used as cudgel in policy debates to express one’s disagreement with the substantive claims of another. For example, if you think that genetically modified agricultural products present environmental risks, then not only can I express my disagreement with your opinion by citing mainstream or consensus views, but I can rhetorically try to place the entire establishment of science on my side by saying that your views are “anti-science.”

To some, those who express doubt, skepticism, or even openness to alternatives are not only wrong, but “anti-science.” One does not even have to express views that are counter to a consensus to earn the label “anti-science.” For expressing my views on the lack of a demonstrable relationship between human-caused climate change and disasters – which are peer reviewed, highly mainstream and consensual – I have been accused of spreading “anti-scientific – and anti-scientist — disinformation.” In a highly politicized debate, it is far easier to try to label an opponent’s views as contrary to the very idea of science than to engage with data and argument.

The phrase “anti-science” is meant to be a trump card in political debates, one that ends the conversation and defines one’s opponent as illegitimate, similar to the invocations of Nazis that motivated the coining of Godwin’s Law.

A little while back Jack Stilgoe explained what is wrong with the concept:

‘Anti-science’ is a term that is imaginary and unhelpful. It describes almost nobody and it gets us nowhere. Climate deniers are not anti-science, they are anti- a political view that considers environmental protection as important. Creationists, too, have moral objections to the implications of an evolutionary worldview ... In both cases, these groups use science arguments as their vehicle because they are more sophisticated sociologists of science than the scientists themselves. Where scientists see their evidence as a solid stage on which the public drama of policy can take place, creationists, denialists, anti-vaccinationists and others see a precariously balanced house of cards. Yes, they are stupid and wrong, but calling them ‘anti-science’ doesn’t help. Hitting these people over the head with bigger and bigger science hammers will not win the argument; it will simply confirm their suspicions.

Is his effort to club Greens with the “anti-science” hammer, Wilson explained that “too many greens hold views indistinguishable from those of the Vatican” and that the UK Green party’s recent efforts to institute an EU-wide ban on stem cell research was “not merely anti-scientific, it is morally repugnant.” Wilson illustrates the argument of Dan Kahan that expressed views on science are often more about signaling group affinity and political identity.

Bell also plays into the “anti-science” critique by explaining in response to Wilson, “doubt can be dangerous.” Bell also offers this questionable claim: “It's also a lot easier for the GM lobby to play a game of ‘you are wrong on science’ rather than acknowledging that the bulk of the critique against them is economic and political.” Actually, much of the opposition to GM technologies is expressed not in terms of economics or politics, but rather very explicitly in terms of science.

Why is this? Because just about everyone loves science – especially GM activists, climate skeptics and stem cell research opponents. Partisans in political debates love science so much in fact that they are often willing to dress up their morality and values in scientific garb. That is not being “anti-science,” rather it is, as Peter Weingart has explained, scientizing politics.

In another provocative piece this week here at the Guardian Political Science blog, Warren Pearce reminds us in the context of debates over climate that all of this excessive love of science may be misguided from the start:

How can criticisms of skeptics as politically motivated be squared with science's commitment to findings always being provisional and open to challenge? At what point can we judge that a scientific question moves from a position of "doubt" to being "settled"?

Both climate change skeptics and advocates of climate policy see this question as important; sharing a faith that scientific evidence is the basis for public policy. However, such a faith omits the possibility that science is not suited to such a role, and that "solving" climate change does not flow linearly from agreement on the science. The attentions of skeptics may or may not be improving the practice and knowledge of climate science. However, if skeptics’ never-ending audit is really damaging policy, that may be more a reflection of an overly scientized policy process than a basis for denying them a voice in debate.

Just as there are indeed a few people who deserve to be equated with Nazis, there are probably a few who are truly anti-science. However, the overuse of the term in debates over science and politics diminishes our debates and subtracts from what we might learn from each other. As Bell helpfully concludes, “If you want to be clever about science, ask for evidence about particular claims and be prepared to change your mind when the evidence changes.” When you hear claims of “anti-science,” ask for a reset.