War on Science
|Style over substance|
|Not just a river in Egypt|
|♫ We're not listening ♫|
“”One of the problems we face in the United States is that unfortunately, there is a combination of an anti-science bias that people are—for reasons that sometimes are, you know, inconceivable and not understandable—they just don't believe science
|—Dr. Anthony Fauci|
“”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|
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 method. 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?"
War on Science is a misnomer because antiscience activism rarely means a philosophically argued rejection of all science. It almost always is limited to very specific fields of science and scientific findings that the activist doesn't like: anti-GMO, anti-global warming, anti-intelligence research, anti-vaccine etc. Naturally, the science is rejected only if it produces worldview-inconsistent results, not if it supports a favoured worldview. Extremists of all major ideologies reject the parts of science they don't like: religious, left-wing, and right-wing. The tactics of anti-science activism include attribution of ideological motivations to scientists, guilt by association, and defamation of scientists. For example, evolution is an atheist dogma, climate scientists are corrupt, and the scientific study of sex differences is sexist. The activist will then define these disliked sciences as pseudoscience or ideology. 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 insert Creationism into school curriculum, 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.
“”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|
“”It's scientifically impossible for the bumblebee to fly; but the bumblebee, being unaware of these scientific facts, flies anyways.
|—Mike Huckabee, anti-science|
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.
|—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, 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.
Conservatives and fossil fuel industries
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.
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 those groups are the anti-nuclear types, the anti-GMO types, the anti-vaccination 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.
Some leftists and communists have claimed based on mostly motivated reasoning that certain theories or even fields are a capitalist pseudoscience or other antiscientific right wing propoganda, while themselves being antiscientific in their outlook. Fields subject to this treatment have included human variation, Darwinian evolution and the (non) heritability of acquired traits, cybernetics, evolutionary psychology, and more. Scientists are fallible and just as capable of being bigoted or having their research misused or falsifying data as anyone else. So the fear that for example, someone, not necessarily but possibly a scientist, could abuse evolutionary psychology or Darwin's theory of selection for misogynistic, racist, or conservative, capitalistic ends is entirely warranted. This is likely driven by the fact that the leftists making these proclamations overcorrect against that biases and abuses they see on the right with their own biases and abuses, simply denying the validity of whatever legitimate scientific field is being abused instead of debunking the abuse itself.
Then again, much like those on the right-wing it's a double-edged sword, as they often have to use legitimate scientific claims such as global warming to claim that government regulation is needed.
Racists, especially racialists, often attack science because science shows that race is a societal construct rather than the product of "human biodiversity" and shows racialist pseudosciences such as phrenology to be flawed. Similarly, sexists, MRAs, and TERFs attack science for showing widespread similarity between the genders. Often these groups tend to have a view of the opposing gender that is so wrong that it ends up describing an actual mental disorder.
Methods and efficacy
“”Get your facts first, and then you can distort them at your leisure.
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 writing, almost indistinguishable from actual quality science writing, which casts slight seeds of doubt. For example, stating that "evolution is a theory", which is technically correct (as it is a scientific theory, which is different from the usual meaning of the term), and then reminding the reader that all theories should be challenged, for this is how science works (except that challenges must be evaluated by experts based on the evidence, not by the general public using intuitive or emotional reasoning). 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, are so effective is that science is complex, hard to understand, and therefore scary for many people. 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", 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, and he's probably right. 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.
Examples of antiscience tactics
Antiscience proponents often attack science through:
- Attempts to discredit the scientists themselves. Examples include claims that Galileo was a heretic and that Charles Darwin was a racist.
- Attempts to discredit scientific objectivity by claiming that the motivation to research a subject is biased. Examples include claims that evolution is a religion and that global warming/COVID-19 research is motivated by a desire for more government regulation/control.
- Attempts to discredit scientific results because it's imagined they have bad consequences. Examples include claims that the theory of relativity will lead to moral relativism and that Darwinism led to Social Darwinism and Hitler.
- Attempts to use flawed arguments, such as argumentum ad populum, to "prove" a position correct or incorrect regardless of its scientific basis or lack therof. Examples include the Oregon Petition and A Scientific Dissent From Darwinism.
- Attempts to replace science backed by evidence (a.k.a. "science") with pseudoscience. Examples include creation science and Lysenkoism.
- Attempts to label scientific ideas as conspiracy theories. An example is the idea that global warming is a conspiracy theory.
- Attempts to couch antiscience positions in reassuring code words in order to appear less distortive of science. Examples include "intelligent design" or "alternative medicine".
- Attempts to cut funding to science agencies so they lack resources to fight against the antiscience proponents.
- Outright denial — because if you can't disprove something, just deny that it exists. Examples include germ theory denialism, HIV denial, or discounting transitional forms.
- And the all-time favorite, attempts to obfuscate observed facts.
Tangible consequences of the War on Science in the United States
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 thousands of people who otherwise could have been saved.
- NASA's budget has been cut consistently over the last 40 years 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 don't understand" era of modern politics. 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.[note 1])
- The top telescopes on land 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. It is now up and running.
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.[note 2] In 2011, the UK Conservative-Liberal coalition government demanded a 25% cut to science funding.[note 3]
- The blind support of abstinence programs for sex education, even though they have been proven to be a dismal failure compared to conventional teaching methods, and it has a measurable effect on teen pregnancy rates (guess which direction).
- Until recently, complete disregard for worldwide concern and efforts to reduce anthropogenic components of global warming.
- Demonization of evolutionary biology and the teaching of evolution in public schools. Advocating teaching creationism alongside, or in place of, evolution. Stickers placed in Texas school books that remind children "Evolution is only a theory" and "All of science should be
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 of nuclear magnetic resonance).
What it is not
The phrase "War on science" does not mean:
- Being anti-consensus - having a scientifically testable and potentially falsifiable hypothesis at odds with some paradigm currently dominant in the scientific community. Otherwise, Einstein, Semmelweis 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 warred 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.
- Being anti-realist: Scientific realism and anti-realism are epistemological positions which by definition don't make scientific claims. The question whether or not scientific entities such as atoms actually exist does not have an impact on science itself. So don't just assume that someone is anti-science just for expressing the idea that atoms don't exist.
Past wars on science
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. 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.
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 epistemology. Some postmodernists asserted that relativism was a left-wing position, while the opposite "realism" was right-wing. Scientist and leftist Alan Sokal — creator of the well-known 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.
- The War on Science, AsapScience
- Top 10 Worst Antiscience Websites
- Americans And Scientists Agree More On Vaccines Than On Other Hot Button Issues, 538
- Apparently Reagan really wanted it. You reap what you sow.
- 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.
- 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, 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 or Albert Einstein
- "Fauci warns of 'anti-science bias' being a problem in US" by Jacqueline Howard and Veronica Stracqualursi, CNN, 2020 June 18
- In Search of a Better World: Lectures and Essays from Thirty Years by Karl Raimund Popper (1995). Routledge, revised ed. ISBN 0415135486. p. 41.
- Washburn, Anthony N. and Skitka, Linda J. 2017. Science denial across the political divide: Liberals and conservatives are similarly motivated to deny attitude-inconsistent science. Social Psychological and Personality Science 9(8): 972-980. http://faculty.bennington.edu/~sherman/alternative%20facts/Science%20Denial%20Across%20the%20Political%20Divide-%20Liberals%20and%20Conservatives%20Are%20Similarly%20Motivated%20to%20Deny%20Attitude-Inconsistent%20Science.pdf
- Hannikainen, Ivar R. 1997. Ideology between the lines: Lay inferences about scientists' values and motives. Social Psychological and Personality Science, DOI: 10.1177/1948550618790230. https://www.gwern.net/docs/genetics/heritable/2018-hannikainen.pdf
- A War On Science, Horizon
- Peirce, Charles S. 1997. Pragmatism as a Principle of Right Thinking. State University of New York Press. Lectures originally delivered in 1903.
- 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.
- "Watch Creationists Talking About Creationism"
- "Questioning Darwin". (Creationist)
- The Disinformed — The Winterval Myth
- what this looks like when Col 2:8 is thrown at the educated. The model in the photo said, "religion and controversy sells. Almost as much sex does."The biggest misinformer is Ken Ham. He decided to claim jihad on academia pressing the issue of The Bible in public schools.
- Smithsonian Magazine: "Alternative Medicine is a $34 Billion Industry, But Only One-Third of The Treatments Have Been Tested"
- Kipling, Rudyard. From Sea to Sea, Chapter 37.
- Measuring the Marigolds, TV Tropes
- Science Under Attack, Horizon
- For an example, see Evolution is Religion by Ken Ham.
- Conservapedia:Conservapedian relativity
- Tim Ball
- Federal Spending on Academic Research Continued Downward Trend in 2007, Chronicle of Higher Education
- The numbers are based on the percentage of the federal budget their dollars represent. See Budget of NASA for the OEOB numbers.
- Tevatron Machine Will Smash Particles No More, NPR
- Both in terms of size, and in terms of new technologies
- See the Wikipedia article on NOνA.
- "Antiscience of the 1960s and 1970s."
- What the Social Text Affair Does and Does Not Prove, Alan Sokal, 1997
- Obama’s science diaspora prepares for a fight by Dave Levitan (March 24, 2017) The Washington Post.