Bronze-level articleWar on Science

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♫ We're not listening ♫
Reason and science you despise,
The highest powers of the mind?
Hell's willing slave! With others of your kind,
you are the profits of my enterprise.
Satan, quoted in Karl Popper's In Search of a Better World[1]

The War on Science is an attempt by a vocal anti-science minority to directly or indirectly attack science through modified school curricula, uncertainty tactics, and discrediting of the scientific methods. Any person or organization that promotes their ideology over scientifically-verified evidence is a partisan in favor of the antiscience position in the War on Science. If a position or theory is pro-science (a.k.a. "science"), as opposed to antiscience, it will follow the scientific method, be potentially refutable, peer-reviewable, reproducible, and open to change if the position comes in conflict with observed fact. An antiscience position will violate one or more of these thresholds, in addition to likely being incoherent. In other words — "is it science?"

Antiscience positions are promoted especially when political ideology, moneyed interests (e.g. the petroleum industry), and/or religious dogma conflict with actual science. While it is highly likely that antiscience positions are the result of ideological positions, it is important to note that holding a particular ideological position does not automatically make an individual guilty of being antiscience, or vice versa. Specific examples include attempts to ban the teaching of evolution, attempts to spread global warming denialism, attempts to ban vaccines, attempts to label or ban GMOs, and attempts to promote or deregulate alternative medicine.

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.[2]


[edit] Perpetrators

There is something even more vital to science than intelligent methods; namely, the sincere desire to discover the truth, whatever it may be.
—Charles Sanders Peirce, pro-science[3]
It's scientifically impossible for the bumblebee to fly; but the bumblebee, being unaware of these scientific facts, flies anyways.
Mike Huckabee, anti-science[4]

The War on Science is carried out by several different groups, with largely different motives. All these groups feed a growing generic distrust among lay people of science and scientists.

[edit] Religious fundamentalists

If somewhere in the Bible, I were to find a passage that said two plus two equaled five, I wouldn’t question what I’m reading in the Bible. I would believe it, accept it as true, and then try my best to work it out and understand it.[5][6]
—Pastor Peter LaRuffa

Creationists often attack science because it contradicts a literal interpretation of the Bible on how old the Earth is, whether a global flood or massive-scale series of comet collisions occurred, how modern species were created instantaneously or designed intelligently, and pretty much everything else about creationism, while supporting radiometric dating, the law of conservation of mass and energy, the theory of evolution, the fossil record, the field of dendrochronology, the theory of relativity, and many other fields of science that blow holes in creationism.

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, the 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,[7] 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] Conservatives and fossil fuel industries

See the main article on this topic: Global warming denialism

Some conservatives attack the theory of global warming because it would be an argument for government regulation. Lobbyists of industries that would benefit from deregulation often abuse politics to ignore the advice of scientists. For example, business-associated appointees in the Food and Drug Administration, Environmental Protection Agency, and other regulatory agencies have made decisions in conflict with the recommendations of agency scientists.

A second, smaller group is made up of the people around the world who are aligned with the fossil fuel and manufacturing industries. 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 Science™ 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.

[edit] Liberals and 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.

[edit] Alties

See the main article on this topic: Alternative medicine

Promoters of "alternative medicine" often attack vaccines, "Big Pharma", "allopathics", and generally evidence-based medicine, in order to support the idea that their placebos are more effective.[8]

[edit] Bigots

See the main article on this topic: Bigotry

Racists, especially racialists, often attack science because science shows notions of any significant racial differences to be societal constructs rather than products of "human biodiversity" and racialist pseudosciences such as phrenology to be flawed. Similarly, sexists, MRAs, and TERFs attack science for showing widespread similarity between the genders.

[edit] Methods and efficacy

Get your facts first, and then you can distort them at your leisure.
Mark Twain[9]

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 that 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.[10] 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,"[11] 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] Examples of antiscience tactics

Antiscience proponents often attack science through:

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

See the main article on this topic: Impact of science

Science is pretty damn great. Antiscience attitudes and policies actively hurt science's ability to do great things. This obstruction can and has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, who otherwise could have been saved.

Sadly, the United States has seen a very tangible effect of the War on Science, which goes far beyond the classrooms.[15]

  • NASA's budget has been cut consistently over the last 40 years[16] 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.[17] 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.[18])
  • The top telescopes on land[19] no longer belong to the US.
  • Fermilab's new project, NOνA 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.[20] 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.[21] In 2011, the UK Conservative-Liberal coalition government demanded a 25% cut to science funding.[22]

[edit] Examples

[edit] How to fight back

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] What it is not

The phrase does not mean:

  • Being anti-consensus: Having a scientifically testable and potentially falsifiable hypothesis which is opposed to the paradigm currently dominant in the scientific community. In this case, Einstein, Darwin, Pasteur, Galileo, and Copernicus would also meet the definition of fighting smaller wars on science.
  • Science getting things wrong: If so, every hypothesis that is ultimately proven false would meet the definition of having a war on science. It is simply the nature of scientific theories to be overturned or updated once new evidence is found, often with technologies not present previously. On the other hand, even pseudoscientific or non-scientific claims can accidentally go right.

[edit] Past wars on science

[edit] Hippie antiscience

This modern usage of the term "antiscience" should not be confused with the antiscience movement in the 1960s and 1970s, which, similar to but less violent than the Luddites, was mostly concerned with the potential dehumanization that uncontrolled scientific and technological advancement could cause.[23] While this skepticism of unchecked change meets the dictionary definition of classic conservatism, it falls far short of the anti-intellectual thrust of modern political conservatism.

[edit] Postmodernist relativism

See the main article on this topic: Postmodernism

During the 1980-1990s, the ideology of postmodernism became popular among some left-wing academics. This postmodernism denied (unrealistic) assertions that science could determine objective reality. Instead, these postmodernists argued in favor of very relativist positions, such as social constructionism or feminist epistemologyWikipedia's W.svg. Some postmodernists asserted that relativism was a left-wing position, while the opposite "realism" was right-wing. Scientist and leftist Alan Sokal — creator of well-known the Sokal affair — instead argued that the "one-to-one correspondence between epistemological and political views is a gross misrepresentation" and that there weren't just two sides to the issue.[24]

[edit] See also

[edit] External links

[edit] References

  1. In Search of a Better World: Lectures and Essays from Thirty Years by Karl Raimund Popper (1995). Routledge, revised ed. ISBN 0415135486. p. 41.
  2. A War On Science, Horizon
  3. Peirce, Charles S. 1997. Pragmatism as a Principle of Right Thinking. State University of New York Press. Lectures originally delivered in 1903.
  4. Goldenberg, Suzanne. "Huckabee, the bumblebee, rises to the top on a wing and a prayer." Guardian News and Media Limited. 05 December 2007. Web. 17 May 2014.
  5. "Watch Creationists Talking About Creationism"
  6. "Questioning Darwin". (Creationist)
  7. The Disinformed — The Winterval Myth
  8. Smithsonian Magazine: "Alternative Medicine is a $34 Billion Industry, But Only One-Third of The Treatments Have Been Tested"
  9. Kipling, Rudyard. From Sea to Sea, Chapter 37.
  10. Measuring the Marigolds, TV Tropes
  11. Science Under Attack, Horizon
  12. For an example, see Evolution is Religion by Ken Ham.
  13. Conservapedia:Conservapedian relativity
  14. Tim Ball
  15. Federal Spending on Academic Research Continued Downward Trend in 2007, Chronicle of Higher Education
  16. The numbers are based on the percentage of the federal budget their dollars represent. See Budget of NASAWikipedia's W.svg for the OEOB numbers.
  17. Tevatron Machine Will Smash Particles No More, NPR
  18. Apparently Reagan really wanted it.Wikipedia's W.svg You reap what you sow.
  19. Both in terms of size, and in terms of new technologies
  20. See the Wikipedia article on NOνA.
  21. 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.
  22. This is part of a general trend in which research is viewed in short-term cost/benefit and commodification terms. Witness the former Danish Minister of Science, Technology and Development, Helge Sander,Wikipedia's W.svg 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 SalkWikipedia's W.svg or Albert Einstein
  23. "Antiscience of the 1960s and 1970s."
  24. What the Social Text Affair Does and Does Not Prove, Alan Sokal, 1997
  25. 25.0 25.1 Obama’s science diaspora prepares for a fight by Dave Levitan (March 24, 2017) The Washington Post.
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