Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Anti-science

Clive Hamilton, the Greens candidate for the Higgins By-Election last year, has concluded a series of essays at The Drum concerning the anti-science nature of climate change denialism (that term being used for those who are against climate change on an ideological basis –rejecting all evidence for and embracing all evidence against – as opposed to those who are genuinely skeptical).

I could go further into the issue of climate change. I instead link to his articles, the website Skeptical Science, and the video channels for Potholer54 and Greenman 3610 which lay out all the issues for and against in excellent detail. In short, don’t believe the backlash: the issue is settled science, the scientific community has spoken. It’s up to the non-scientific community, and particularly the political community, to decide what to do about it; but simply denying the science is not a reasonable option.

I will instead broaden the discussion to include all anti-science brands out there. This trend is limited not only to the climate, but any area where science tells people that what they believe isn’t true. While certainly not the first example, the most famous is, of course, Galileo being forced to recant his findings in front of what was effectively an inquisitorial court. His reputed utterance ‘E pur si muovre’ proved to be more durable than his public statement and science won out in the end: the old Church model of the heavens as the perfect heavenly abode ended. It is important to note that in centuries prior, the Church had been the bastion of learning and research. Roger Bacon, one of the most-cited figures when discussing the origin of the scientific method, was a Franciscan. The Church supported research, copied books and extended as well as preserved knowledge. It was only once science began to show that certain church teachings were wrong that the power of Holy Mother Church was turned against the scientists.

So it is today with evolution. While the modern Catholic Church has no problem with evolution (as is true for most Christian churches around the world), there exists a surprisingly large fundamentalist, literalist backlash against the theory, both Christian and non-Christian; since while there is nothing stopping anyone from both accepting evolution and believing in a liberal interpretation of various holy texts, evolution does explicitly oppose strictly literal readings. We end up with public figures making fools out of themselves in their ignorance, showing their misunderstanding of radiometric dating, fossil records, thermodynamics and even the meaning of the word ‘theory’. They oppose evolution because they must; because to eliminate the cognitive dissonance they feel when their beliefs oppose reality, they decide to deny reality instead of adjusting their beliefs.

So it is also with homeopathy, along with much of the rest of alternative medicine. Homeopathy is focussed on specifically because it is to utterly anti-science, so opposed to scientific inquiry and rationality that it beggars belief. More on homeopathy can be found in this article and this video. The synopsis is that homeopathic remedies are simply water sold at enormous volume. Yet the defenders will insist that they work, based on anecdotal evidence and a lack of understanding of the placebo effect. When science tells them that they don’t work, that the benefits they feel have other explanations, they reject science. While homeopathy itself is rather harmless, it can lead to the sick not seeking competent medical care, or even rejecting it outright, as in the case of not only homeopathy but (more importantly) AIDS denialists or anti-vaccine campaigners. These two are deadly serious concerns, fuelled by general anti-science sentiment.

One simply cannot attack science on one of these issues without weakening it overall. The arguments used against science in each of the above areas (and others) are precisely the same: misrepresenting the state of the research, seeing debate as evidence of uncertainty instead of science’s greatest asset, dismissing science as not having all the answers, claims of conspiracy and suppression... to use any of these arguments against climate change is feeding into the arguments of those who oppose it on evolution. By opposing science on homeopathy, you give power to those who deny the link between HIV and AIDS.

If science is to have any place in the modern world, then we as thinking human beings must accept its findings regardless of whether or not they are convenient to our beliefs or ideologies. This is not to say that science is always right; but it is the institution with the greatest record of accuracy in the history of human inquiry. This is because it has no central organising theme or aim other than the search for truth. It does not ever claim to have found The Truth, either; science does not ever rest, even a ‘settled question’ (even climate change) is open for debate and will be overturned should new evidence contradict the dominant theories.

Most importantly, it is made up of people who advance their careers not by mindlessly repeating what luminaries in the field say, but by proving those luminaries wrong. If there is an angle to attack popular theories, they will be attacked. If they fail, they fail regardless of how popular they are or how well-regarded the scientists behind them: in science, theories are given prestige because they are right, not because they say something comforting.

We should follow that same ethos.

1 comment:

  1. Science!
    http://xkcd.com/54/
    It works, bitches.

    ReplyDelete