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19Jun 2013

Anti-Science Label Has Become a Cliché

I recently came across this term yet again after writing a Tracker item obliquely related to water fluoridation. After it ran, someone sent me a blog post by Keith Kloor on the some subject. His post was more focused on tooth decay, however, and my interest was on decay of the media. I was concerned to see that alternative medicine enthusiast Joseph Mercola had his own festering abscess of a blog on the Huffington Post. (The whole site could use a good scraping and some serious flossing.)

But I was struck by Kloor’s headline, “Is Portland Anti-science?” What does he mean by anti-science?

It would make sense to use the term if there were real people out there who proclaimed themselves anti-science, the way some people are anti-abortion or anti-animal research or anti-gun control. But that wasn’t the case in this piece. Kloor doesn't appear to have talked to any Portlanders himself, but infers from someone else's reporting in Slate that they "fetishize" the natural enviroment. It's not clear what this means. It it really anti-science? What does science say now about the cost/benefit ratio here? 

We may know there was a benefit in the mid-20th century, but it would be interesting to know the consequences for 21st century communities that have stopped fluoridating water. Have places that stopped seen a huge rise in tooth decay? If so, who is being affected? Or if not, is the ubiquitous fluoride in tooth paste sufficient these days, at least for people who brush their teeth?    

The way it’s being used, the term anti-science seems to apply to anyone a writer disagrees with. The label is slapped on people who distrust scientists, or who trust the wrong scientists, people who trust Jenny McCarthy because she’s hot, people who like the precautionary principle and people who distrust the government or the human race in general to use nuclear power without screwing up. It’s never, as far as I have seen, used to label people who go around saying that the scientific method is a bad idea or that people shouldn’t do scientific research.

Around the last election writers were applying the A-word to Republicans, as in a prominent Scientific American piece by Shawn Lawrence Otto. Then we saw it aimed the other way, with columns like this one in Environment 360 arguing that the liberals or democrats are the ones who are  anti-science, and this one in Scientific American, which takes it a step further to declare liberals at “war” with science.

Of course they are. Anyone can label anyone as anti-science because the term doesn’t mean anything.


It would be absurd to deny Rep. Lamar Smith, Chairman of the House Science Committee, the descriptive tag: Anti-Science; a government chair of the science committee, he questions global warming and does not think the concept of evolution as described by Darwin is correct or appropriate for educating youth.

The terms 'Science' or 'scientific fact' are often mis-applied, but that does not make them cliché; it points more to the wielder of the description as lacking an understanding of the topic.

The example given from collide-a-scape is vintage yellow-dog journalism: spray a jaundiced tone over an entire concept (flouride, GMO, global warming, etc) and you need not be concerned with details of accuracy plus you invoke righteous indignation. I would not expect a too rigorous thesis to be presented here.

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