More “Antiscience” Barbs, and the Backlash From Scientific American’s Swipe at Republicans

Tony Auth illustrates science vs. religion

Antiscience accusations seem to be in the air, along with a lot of moisture here on the East Coast. Last week I examined a piece in Scientific American in which the author, Shawn Lawrence Otto, decried antiscience stances he saw creeping into politics. Otto stated that the Republican brand was more dangerous than the Democrat variety. Read the original post here.

One problem with the piece was that Otto only cited so-called antiscientific sentiments from Republicans. He never showed us any examples of the allegedly less dangerous version coming from Democrats. Several astute readers pointed out that while Otto connected the anti-vaccine movement with Democrats, he offered no evidence that this connection existed. Indeed, it could be nonpartisan antiscience.

I noted that Otto never clearly defines what he means by antiscience, and this leaves his arguments feeling vague. The same term is used in a different way by journalist Fred Pearce in Environment 360, a publication associated with Yale University. Pearce lobs the antiscience word not at conservative but at environmentalists, in a piece headlined, Why Are Environmentalists Taking Anti-Science Positions?

He includes himself in the environmentalist category, and by using the pronoun “we” he seems to be offering a reprimand to his allies. By environmentalists, he points to Greenpeace, the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth, and finds antiscientific thinking in those groups’ opposition to nuclear power, genetically modified crops, and shale gas development – aka fracking.

Pearce is in the UK, and it should be noted that these issues are viewed a little differently across the pond. Opposition to genetically modified foods is reported to be much stronger in the UK and Europe.  

In all three cases, Pearce argues that public good can come from these technologies, but environmentalists deny the possible benefits. He writes that anyone who realizes the gravity of climate change shouldn’t be opposed to nuclear power. Fracking too, could help, he argues, since natural gas is not as damaging as coal.

Is antiscience the right way to describe what sounds like rigidity or adherence to an extreme, black-or-white view? All those technologies pose potential benefits and potential harm, and most reasonable people expect some level of oversight and regulation, especially in the case of nuclear power. Is it antiscience to worry about Iran building a nuclear power plant? What about the possibility that Iran would use the spent fuel to make nuclear weapons?

The other piece of interest is by Wesley J. Smith. It ran in the National Review and was titled, Be Liberal or Be Branded Antiscienfitic. I’m not picking this as an example of journalism – it’s more of a rant, but it serves as a prime example of a politically conservative person’s view of science and reaction to Otto’s piece. 

Smith claims he likes science, but he doesn’t like what he calls the “scientific establishment”. 

If any group around today seeks to stifle diverse thinking it is the Science Establishment, which not only refuses to countenance counter arguments to its beliefs and convictions–but actively seeks to stifle them–to the point that they (in my view) are undermining the public’s trust in science by conflating it with policy or ideology; the very phenomenon they bemoan.

Some see it that way. Others see scientists taking a stand against fringe ideas and pseudoscience. What kind of non-establishment science does Smith like? He starts with “Intelligent Design” as an alternative to evolution.

ID has been thoroughly discredited, especially when the “scientific establishment” took a stand in the Dover trial in 2005. ID is mostly an exercise in pointing to biological features allegedly not adequately explained by evolutionary theory, and then inserting God (or aliens) into the gaps.

Smith did make an interesting point  – he sees the controversy over stem cell research as an ethical rather than a scientific issue. He’s right in a sense, but he relies on dubious science to make an argument against using zygotes for research purposes. He claims that a genome endows individuality and personhood at conception. (Reality Check: After conception an embryo can divide into two distinct twins or combine with a genetically distinct embryo to become a single being – a chimera.)

It’s interesting that in Scientific American, Otto takes people to task for believing in fringe views, while Smith seems to consider only fringe views to be valid. If it’s well accepted, it must be the big bad scientific establishment.

We could also divide people into pro or anti-science depending on what sacrifices we approve for the sake of knowledge. Some people don’t want to see experiments done on embryonic stem cells. Some people disapprove of experiments that inflict pain on our fellow primates.  Some say monkeys are okay but draw the line at great apes. Some of us get uncomfortable at the idea of painful experiments using cats and dogs.

Most of us disapprove of experiments in which human subjects – ones that are already born – are harmed or killed. What about the Tuskegee syphilis experiment? Nazi experiments on concentration camp victims? We all draw the line somewhere. Maybe instead of dividing the world into pro-science and anti-science camps, we would be better off just striving to be well-informed and rational.

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