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Bronze-level articleWar on Science

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The "War on Science," a part of the larger culture war, is an attempt by a vocal anti-science minority to indirectly attack science by attempting to regulate school curricula, and directly attack science by trying to discredit scientific methods and objectivity. In many cases, underneath the attacks is a basic fear and belief that science is actively trying to disprove and destroy religion, specifically Christianity in the United States and Europe, and science should be discredited as prevention against this.

Specific examples include attempts to ban the teaching of evolution, attempts to spread global warming denialism, and attempts to ban vaccines. There are people who actively distrust anything a scientist has to say, and who will go out of their way to discredit them.

The phrase "A War on Science" is also the title of a Horizon (BBC) episode documenting the Dover, PA trial the local attempts to discredit evolution and introduce intelligent design into classrooms.[1]


[edit] Perpetrators

The War on Science is carried out by several different groups, with largely different motives.

[edit] Religious fundamentalists

Most anti-science attacks come from conservative Christians who believe it is their moral duty to fight perceived evils that often include science researching areas that fundamentalist faith already has "answers" for. In this respect, the War on Science can be seen as an abusive form of the non-overlapping magisteria position, holding not only that science doesn't overlap with religion, but is actively not allowed to touch anything remotely religious, for fear of actually disproving it. The start of the modern era in this part of the anti-science movement was carried out in large part by George W. Bush, who was the first president to have a whole organization composed of Nobel laureates to campaign against him. It is possible that, with the installation of an apparently sane president in the US, many elements of the war will be canceled. Yeah, we're not at that point yet.

In this religious context, War on Science bears some similarities to the War on Christmas, in that the "war" term is only used by people fighting against it. Atheists, and secular humanists (no matter how much the thumpers want it) have never had a "war on Christmas" despite claims to the contrary by the Religious Right. Similarly, those fighting science's influence wouldn't call it a "war on science," but rather "defending their rights" to put their holy texts and beliefs above objective observation. The key difference between the two is the actual evidence of a war on science, namely strong opposition to medical research, climate research and so on as well as very active attempts to remove the ability of teachers to teach evolution. The War on Christmas, on the other hand, merely consists of an annual spree of blog posts and editorials about events that are either highly exaggerated (such as the "Winterval" festival,[2] which mentioned Christmas many, many times in the press release, and was only named Winterval because it also overlapped the New Year period and most of January) or just plain urban legend.

[edit] Pro-industry supporters

A second, smaller group is made up of the people around the world who are aligned with the fossil fuel industry, the thousands of factories that pump crap into our air, the automobile industry, etc. For these people, casting doubt on science is a double-edged sword, because while they are major benefactors of people that deny global warming and other environmental problems, they sell products using ScienceTM to convince buyers one car is safer than another, or that new products on the market are better at cleaning, killing, flying, keeping you thin, etc. Plus, if "X" environmental problem becomes a worst-case scenario, there will be a very specific target to blame.[3]

[edit] Greens

On the flip side, but still political, is a growing group of participants in the War on Science for reasons of being (supposedly) "green," as green is natural, it is healthy, it is better. Science is technology, therefore it pollutes, it destroys. Among this group are the anti-nuclear types, the anti-GMO types, and the all-around Luddites. They attempt to paint science as the enemy to nature, as if science itself is the same as the technology that comes out of it. They publicize situations where scientific experiments got out of hand and caused damage, where science failed to warn the consumer of dangers associated with new products, or where science is "inhumane" in its treatment of people or animals.

All three of these groups feed a growing generic distrust among lay people of science and scientists.

[edit] Postmodernists

Especially during the 1980s and the 1990s, a fashionable current in the so-called "Academic Left" commonly known as "postmodernism" denied objective reality in favour of more relativist positions, under such umbrellas as social constructionism or feminist epistemology[wp]. The postmodernists located their relativist positions on the political left wing, ranking the realist positions as belonging on the right wing. In the view of these postmodernists, science served the interests of "white males" — who are seen as destructive, oppressive, imperial, out of touch with nature, patriarchal, jaywalking and God knows what else. Curiously, Andrew Ross[wp] of Social Text claimed that this conflict was part of the so-called culture wars, with the natural science establishments of the world playing hardball for conservatism.

Actual scientists who themselves partook in the science wars reject this framing, however. Alan Sokal — a vocal member of the old left who embarassed postmodernist claims to being science in a splash known today as the Sokal affair — pointed out that the "one-to-one correspondence between epistemological and political views is a gross misrepresentation" and that there certainly weren't just two sides to the issue, anyhow.[4] Sokal's protest is evidently an exercise in truth, as one thing in particular that unites such disparate fringe groups as religious fundamentalists, pro-industry supporters, greens and postmodernists is their collective problem with the process of scientific inquiry proper.

In addition, Sokal and many other scientific realists who argued in the science wars are in fact both leftists and feminists — though just not radical to the point of utter confusion the postmodernists. Bruno Latour[wp] — previously to be found in the opposite, relativist camp — commented on the underbelly to the anti-science positions, stating that "dangerous extremists are using the very same argument of social construction to destroy hard-won evidence that could save our lives".[5]

[edit] Methods and efficacy

The most effective methods used by the War on Science crowd are not the direct attacks against science, such as open debates, or changing out textbooks. Rather, the most effective methods are subtle, almost indistinguishable from actual quality science writing, but which cast slight seeds of doubt. For example, stating that "evolution is a theory," which is correct, and then reminding the reader that all theories should be challenged, for this is how science works. Or casting science as unfeeling, and scientists as ruthless, especially when dealing with humanity. Or, "Science tries to tell us we are just animals; we are more than animals." This is simply a type of appeal to emotion. They exaggerate all the mistakes science has ever made, and remind readers endlessly of the most recent frauds in science, attempting to paint all science with the same brush of doubt.

One of the reasons attacks on science, especially of the more subtle kind, is so effective is that science is complex, hard to understand, and therefore scary for many people.[6] In a sense, building on the fact that many kids simply dreaded their science classes, there is the very human tendency to fear what you cannot understand. And when you look out into the world, things that are dangerous seem to start and end with "science." Most humans are able to deal with that (slight) fear, but the fact that it is there at all, leaves a breeding ground for anti-science types to jump in.

Sadly, their methods are working. In another Horizon special, "Science Under Attack,"[7] Paul Nurse, the President of the Royal Society, shows that the trend to generally distrust science, and think they are "trying to get something past you" has managed to grow in the UK. He speculates that it's equally high or much higher in the US. Nuclear energy, genetically-modified foods, and global warming are all targets in the UK, where religion and evolution itself are less of an issue. But the War on Science is in full swing there.

[edit] Tangible consequences of the War on Science in the United States

Sadly, the United States has seen a very tangible effect of the War on Science, which goes far beyond the classrooms.[8]

  • NASA's budget has been cut consistently over the last 40 years[9] with few far-reaching projects planned and financed. That's why the Shuttle stopped flying without plans to replace it (directly, or with something totally new) while the private sector has begun to catch up.
  • The Tevatron at Fermilab, partially government-sponsored, shut its doors in 2011, unable to compete with the LHC. In and of itself, not an issue, except that the plans to replace it have come across issues with federal funding in the "do we really want to pay money for something we can't understand" era of modern politics.[10] In the 1980s, construction began in Texas on a particle accelerator even larger than the LHC, called the Superconducting Supercollider; it, too, lost funding and was never completed. (Tax cuts, dear boy.[11])
  • The top telescopes on land[12] no longer belong to the US.
  • Fermilab's new project, NoVA had its budget slashed by 52 million dollars (1/3 of the cost of building it), putting the project almost 2 years behind schedule, and pushing other projects off Fermilab's "to do" list.[13] It is now up and running.
  • The "Best and the Brightest" no longer come to US universities to study or do research,[citation needed] because there is simply too little funding of the sciences,[citation needed] and too many religious-based restrictions on what can be studied (like stem cell research).[citation needed]

Other nations have similar funding issues. While individual scientists have always had to beg for money for their pet studies, the idea that heads of science institutes at large were having to go out of their way to convince their governments to fund science is a recent development.[14] In 2011, the UK Conservative-Liberal coalition government demanded a 25% cut to science funding.[15]

[edit] Examples

[edit] Strategic defense initiatives (pun intended)

This all leaves a question about how one will fight this war, and keep (or return) science in its place as "the primary way to find answers for natural phenomena," and those answers as "worthwhile just for the sake of knowledge."

One of the best answers was started by Carl Sagan and continued by David Attenborough, Brian Cox, Jim Al-Khalili, Marcus Du Sautoy as well as Michio Kaku, Bill Nye, and Neil deGrasse Tyson in the US: make science popular by making it fun, exciting and understandable. Modern computer graphics, which help to bring scientific concepts to life visually, are a great help.

On a more pedantic but no less critical front, the National Center for Science Education, along with plenty of parents and concerned citizens, needs to remain diligent in school districts, taking measures to ensure that science is important, highlighted, and taught well.

It is also important to remind people that investment in science, be it financial or the personal choice to become a scientist, can lead one to unknown places; and yes, it really can lead to amazing and profitable inventions like, for example, the MRI as an offshoot of the study of quantum physics (specifically nuclear magnetic resonance).

[edit] See also

[edit] External links

[edit] Footnotes

  1. A War On Science, Horizon
  2. The Disinformed - The Winterval Myth
  3. "Our shares! NOOOOO"
  4. What the Social Text Affair Does and Does Not Prove, Alan Sokal, 1997
  5. Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern, Bruno Latour (University of Chicago, 2004)
  6. Measuring the Marigolds, TV Tropes
  7. Science Under Attack, Horizon
  8. Federal Spending on Academic Research Continued Downward Trend in 2007, Chronicle of Higher Education
  9. The numbers are based on the percentage of the federal budget their dollars represent. See Budget of NASA[wp] for the OEOB numbers.
  10. Tevatron Machine Will Smash Particles No More, NPR
  11. Apparently Reagan really wanted it[wp]. You reap what you sow.
  12. Both in terms of size, and in terms of new technologies
  13. See the Wikipedia article on NOνA.
  14. The same "Science Under Attack" episode shows several prominent UK scientists attempting to both explain and justify why projects like John Southerland's research into amino acids were worth funding.
  15. This is part of a general trend in which research is viewed in short-term cost/benefit and commodification terms. Witness the former Danish Danish Minister of Science, Technology and Development, Helge Sander[wp], who invented this pithy slogan during his time in charge of Danish research policy: "From research to receipt" or "From idea to invoice" ("Fra forskning til faktura", literally: "From research to invoice"). This approach tends to favour applied (especially technical and biomedical) research, conducted in partnership with private businesses which can then sell the results (products, techniques etc.). F U Jonas Salk[wp] or Albert Einstein
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