(Practically) Nobody is Anti-Science

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  A version of this piece appeared on the Genetic Literacy Project in September of 2014. As I was at the Portland, OR March for Science today, I walked past a woman who had cornered me at a March Against Monsanto rally a few years back. She had very misinformed, conspiratorial views about biotech in agriculture and when she spied my I ♥ GMOs sticker on my shirt today, she gave me a side eye and I could see her trying to decide whether to challenge me again. It was a little jarring, but not at all surprising to bump into someone who I knew rejected the scientific consensus on more than one issue at a March for Science. The essay looks at why that’s the case and how to process that fact and try to put it to some productive use.

The essay has been lightly edited, rewritten and extended for republication. 


A while back, Discover science blogger Keith Kloor made a few excellent points about the increasingly frequent use of the phrase “anti-science”,  citing a tweet made by the Genetic Literacy Project as an example of how the phrase has become part of the public discourse.

Kloor noted that GLP’s Jon Entine had not used the term “anti-science” in his remarks, but instead had explained that those who aggressively argue that GE crops are harmful, and don’t present other viewpoints, are engaging in ideology and politics rather than science, and that a Harvard panel on climate change had situated climate change denial similarly.

The underpinnings of the anti-climate change movement have given it political resonance, [Naomi] Oreskes said, because of ties to cultural traditions of independence, self-reliance, and small government.

“It becomes an argument about big government,” Oreskes said. “For Republicans in Congress and elsewhere, it’s not about climate change, it’s definitely not about science, it’s about government.”

Kloor maintained that denialist impulses are shaped more by cultural values rather than by an attitude towards the scientific method, including a respect for the weight of evidence:

So it goes with tarring someone as anti-science. Why poison the well even more? I ponder this as I continue to write about GMOs and other hot button topics. It’s relatively easy to debunk urban myths, call out false balance, shake my fist at agenda-driven fear-mongers. (I’m sure I’ll continue doing that.) But I see diminishing returns with this approach. It seems more fruitful to engage in a debate about the socio-cultural values that underlie opposition to GMOs and that inform strong views on related sustainability issues.

Along these lines, I don’t see how characterizing a person’s beliefs, a political party, or an NGO as “anti-science” is helpful. I’m sure it’s good for scoring points and sharpening the lines in a debate, but beyond that, I’m not seeing much value.

Kloor had introduced the topic by noting that the environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who believes that vaccines are dangerous, was stung the most by being labeled “anti-science”. Kennedy insisted he was not. However, I’m sure that Kennedy sees his views on vaccines as being informed by science as he understands his environmental stances to be.

I would agree with Kloor that no one sees themselves as being “anti-science”.  The charge is rooted in the word science being used in an imprecise way. If you tell someone she is “anti-science” she will likely hear different meanings of the words and it’s unlikely that the charge will ring true or result in that person changing their viewpoint.

NASA photo: Hubble Monitors Supernova In Nearby Galaxy M82 – What’s not to fucking love about that?

When people hear the word “science” they may think of the wonders of the natural world as brought to their attention by scientists. “I love pictures of galaxies and learning about the migratory patterns of birds. How can I be “anti-science”?

Or perhaps the charge of being “anti-science” comes bundled with a charge of Luddism, sweetened with an insinuation of hypocrisy that a denialist rant has been typed out on an iPhone. But there is nothing inherently “anti-science” or hypocritical about believing that the costs of a specific technology outweigh the benefits.The Facebook page I Fucking Love Science has garnered over 25 million “likes”. Sexy photos of sciencey stuff get thousands of shares and tens of thousands of “likes”. But any post affirming the scientific consensus on a politically charged issue like GMOs brings out hundreds of angry, paranoid people who fucking love science, yet are wildly, even willfully misinformed on the issue.

What is really being referred to in the context of the charge of “anti-science”? The person is being told that they are “anti-scientific method”.

As we learned in seventh grade, the scientific method starts with a question. Information is gathered and a hypothesis, or educated guess, is formed. We then test the hypothesis by doing an experiment. The experiment should be constructed in such a way that our hypothesis can be disproved. We analyze our observations and communicate the results. Ideally results are replicated to confirm or disprove our observations. So far, so good.

Where people go astray is understanding the broader, more social process of forming a scientific consensus on larger issues that can’t be resolved by single experiments.

This goes beyond designing an experiment and testing a hypothesis. While the scientific method helps us separate the signal from the noise to answer a very specific question, the scientific community also takes steps to separate the signal from the noise regarding the state of the knowledge on broader topics like climate change or the safety of biotech crops. Instead of relying on single studies that confirm our beliefs, they try to look at the scientific literature in it’s totality. A scientific consensus is said to exist when the overwhelming majority of scientists in the relevant field stop arguing over something and move on to other questions. Astrophysicist Ethan Seigal put it this way:

When we talk about science being settled, we’re not talking about “scientific consensus” as the final answer, but rather as the starting point that everyone agrees on. Future research is usually not based on trying to find alternatives that work better (although we’re always open to it), but rather on how to refine and better understand what’s going on.

Researchers go beyond single experiments and conduct systematic reviews of all the studies on a topic and organize them into literature reviews. They group the data from like experiments into meta-analyses to gain greater statistical power. They form committees to draft consensus reports. From this larger, social process a scientific consensus forms when the evidence convincingly points in a single direction. That does not lock in that conclusion for eternity, as theories are always open to new evidence. However, as a consensus takes holds,  outlier studies are reasonably held up to greater scrutiny. If that study is small, has noisy results or is weak in design and methodology, it’s not given very much weight within the scientific community or by anyone seriously trying to separate the signal from the noise. On any given topic, there are almost always a few outlier studies knocking around that people with an agenda can cherry pick and cling to, but to reject the weight of evidence based on one or even a few weak outliers makes no sense. That’s not science.

We avoid putting political and cultural biases ahead of science by committing to use the scientific method and respecting (but not blindly following) the scientific consensus first and then applying our values to what we learn, rather the letting our values dictate what we are willing to learn. That’s how we use a scientific consensus as individuals, but it also should inform our dialogue. Instead of asking loaded questions of those we disagree with, “Why are you against science? Why do you want children to go blind by opposing Golden Rice?”, we should be asking, “Why do you see a handful of poorly conducted studies as the signal and the hundreds if not thousands of well conducted studies summarized in literature reviews and meta-analyses as the noise?” Following science means we do not cherry-pick studies that reflect our predetermined values.

The problem is that people are not anti-science. It’s that they just haven’t been trained to think through how science works beyond what we were all taught in the 7th grade. And that didn’t include how consensus emerges in science. In fact, I’ve talked to PhDs, and people who study science communication and science of philosophy; and they’ve affirmed that the way this process works isn’t generally covered formally even in pursing a STEM Master’s degree. When I first wrote this piece in 2014, it was hard to find a good, succinct explanation of the concept of scientific consensus for a lay reader. I have a hard time seeing how not having a working understanding of how scientific consensus emerges makes one “anti-science”. It may make you bad at science, or confused about science. It may lead you to “anti-science” opinions.

Most of us haven’t worked out a system for avoiding bias when it comes sorting out politically contested science. The vast majority of people have a Choose Your Own Adventure approach when it comes to figuring out what we feel like believing. The work by Dan Kahan in cultural cognition shows that as scientific literacy and numeracy increases, people just get better at rationalizing why they believe what they want to believe. It’s actually people who are less educated who are more likely just to take the scientist’s word for it. The greater people’s facility with scientific concepts, the more likely they are to believe whatever their political tribe believes, whether or not that puts them in denial of the scientific consensus.

If having more science education makes it more likely for you to take issue with the scientific consensus on GMOs, fluoride, vaccines, climate change, alternative medicine, homeopathy, etc; I don’t see how “anti-science” is quite the right word for what’s going on. But the semantics aside, I think there is a more practical reason for avoiding polarizing epithets and insulting language. It makes people defensive and less receptive. Instead of short circuiting the conversation, we can hopefully open a new avenue for understanding. Kloor wrote:

Now I’m not suggesting that we sugarcoat denialism of any sort, but I do think the disparaging language that takes hold in a public discourse can be off-putting to those who perhaps identify with a certain tribe but not necessarily buy into all its positions.

I would also suggest that the term “anti-GMO” is not always helpful and that “GMO critic” is a more accurate and less alienating term for those who do not embrace biotechnology in agriculture, but who are not denialist by temperament. I’m talking about those who may be inclined towards anti-corporate and naturalistic viewpoints, but who are persuaded by evidence when it is presented to them. This is a different dialogue partner than a classic “Anti” who is conspiratorial by nature, cannot be persuaded by evidence and generally buys into an entire suite of denialist beliefs. Most GMO critics are not “anti-science”, they just haven’t committed to following all the evidence where it leads. They haven’t put any checks in place to push back against confirmation bias and motivated reasoning.

Calling someone an “Anti” defines them by their opposition to something. Identities harden over time. The identity of “Critic” is be defined by critical thinking and that should be the place where we can find common ground and challenge each other to think more critically.

Likewise, our friends at Fluoride Exposed have pledged never to call anyone who has questions and concerns about fluoride “anti-science”:

In particular, we have read and listened to people who are tired of arrogance from scientists and science supporters. They are tired of science supporters who call other people names. They are tired of science supporters who act like jerks. They are tired of science supporters who heap scorn on other people’s beliefs and opinions. You know who else was tired of arrogance from scientists and science supporters? Carl Sagan. Twenty years ago. We give you more words from Sagan when he was speaking to science supporters:

“People are not stupid. They believe things for a reason.”
“The least effective way … to get the attention of these bright, curious, interested people is to belittle, or condescend, or show arrogance toward their beliefs.”

We couldn’t agree more. There is no room here for insults, rudeness, or put downs.

Sagan himself had an incredible amount of success in bringing science to the people. How? With empathy and confidence in people’s smarts. So we’re gonna do our best to follow Sagan’s lead. We won’t talk down to people here. We won’t belittle anyone’s beliefs at Fluoride Exposed.

We are going to double down on respect, understanding, and kindness. The kind of respect and understanding that science communication depends on. And that’s why we won’t be calling anyone stupid here. We won’t be calling anyone selfish. We won’t be debunking people or referring to anyone as a woo-woo or a nut or a quack … In other words, it’s the reason why we won’t be calling anyone anti-science here.

 

Afterword

There are people on the extreme fringes who are anti-science. These aren’t people who are pro-science but just haven’t been exposed to evidence and analysis, or have a political bias against a certain politically inconvenient fact like climate change. True Antis (with a capital A) are people who have been exposed to good evidence and analysis and they don’t just persist, they actively develop sophisticated rationalization and conspiracies for maintaining their disagreements with science. They almost invariably are committed to an entire raft of Anti views which are anti-science in regards to biotech, vaccines, homeopathy, fluoride, and the rest. They often even have word salad critiques of the scientific method, “scientism”, and Western Thinking™. So, yes. There are committed pseudoscientists and proponents of pseudoscience. But dealing with the Vandana Shiva, the Mike Adams, and Foodbabes of the world is a whole other ball of wax than dealing with the every day science denial that the average person falls into more through benign neglect, than active rejection of “science”.


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