Lots of coverage at the weekend from the AAAS meeting in Vancouver, including this piece from the Observer. I’m sure such meetings are dripping with excellent ideas and thoughtful discussions, which is why it is so annoying that, from thousands of miles away, we get the impression that they are a love-in.
Particularly depressing was Nina Fedoroff’s invocation of the mythical anti-science brigade, once beloved of Tony Blair and countless British Chief Scientific Advisers. I once came across someone who was anti-science. It was in a review of an academic paper. This unnamed person thought that all of human progress since the invention of agriculture was a massive collective error. Thankfully, few would agree.
My over-riding impression is that ‘anti-science’ is a term that is imaginary and unhelpful. It describes almost nobody and it gets us nowhere. Climate deniers are not anti-science, they are anti- a political view that considers environmental protection as important. Creationists, too, have moral objections to the implications of an evolutionary worldview (John Evans is very good on this). In both cases, these groups use science arguments as their vehicle because they are more sophisticated sociologists of science than the scientists themselves. Where scientists see their evidence as a solid stage on which the public drama of policy can take place, creationists, denialists, anti-vaccinationists and others see a precariously balanced house of cards. Yes, they are stupid and wrong, but calling them ‘anti-science’ doesn’t help. Hitting these people over the head with bigger and bigger science hammers will not win the argument, it will simply confirm their suspicions.
One reason the term ‘anti-science’ raises my hackles is that I think the big beasts of science who use it might be talking about a group that includes me. We social scientists and policy folk have been known to ask difficult questions of science that have been interpreted as attacks. The Science Wars, if they ever took place, helped no-one. Sociologists were left looking petty, and scientists were overly defensive.
The use of the term ‘Anti-science’ reflects a privatisation of the idea of progress that is dangerous for science and society. As soon as science is seen as inseparably wedded to one particular trajectory, particularly when that trajectory is Fedoroff’s favourite topic of GM crops, debate becomes impossible. I know dozens of scientists who are anti-GM, or anti- a particular sort of GM. Are they anti-science?
I find it worrying that, at a time when science enjoys astonishing privileges, political support and stable funding when so many other areas are in turmoil, scientists talk, as Fedoroff did, about it being ‘under attack’. Paul Nurse was guilty of this in his recent Horizon programme and John Beddington provided some thoughtless remarks about intolerance (see this post). Both men have said sensible things about science and policy, but their reasoned arguments are undone by the Manichean retreat to us-vs-them. In democratic societies, science is part of the conversation. Dissent, challenge and scepticism are inevitable. Science has to learn to talk about alternatives, to talk about possibilities, to talk about diverse, desirable and undesirable futures. As Andy Stirling has described, calling someone ‘anti-science’ is as dumb as calling someone ‘anti-education’ if they want to talk about the best way to run our children’s schools (see this piece for a recent version of his argument).