Is the Anti-Science Virus Spreading?

Hostility to science is bipartisan and nothing new.

Are the forces of ideology and irrationality thrusting science into a dark era? Nina Fedoroff, the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), seems to think so.

Commentary

In her remarks to this year’s AAAS conference in Vancouver, Federoff said: “I am profoundly depressed at just how difficult it has become merely to get a realistic conversation started on issues such as climate change or genetically modified organisms.”

As the Guardian reports Fedoroff’s gloomy outlook stems from a larger concern:

She confessed that she is now “scared to death” by the anti-science movement that was spreading, uncontrolled, across the U.S. and the rest of the western world.

Her remarks suggest that anti-science attitudes are going viral in the public sphere. With respect to the U.S. discourse on climate change, Fedoroff has good cause to be depressed. And there remains a stubborn opposition to biotechnology (particularly by greens) around the world that many experts feel is without scientific merit. (On this score, do watch Fedoroff’s opening address at the 2012 AAAS conference. She discusses what she sees as lingering and unfounded distrust of GMOs.) But in reality, it’s worth asking if people are, in fact, becoming more hostile to science today, or if it just seems that way because demagogues are louder and society hears far more about the campaigns waged by special interests?

It’s also not as if current suspicion of science materialized out of thin air. Naomi Oreskes, co-author with Erik Conway of the book Merchants of Doubt, tells the Guardian, “Our present crisis over the rise of anti-science has been coming for a long time and we should have seen it coming.” The same goes for today’s attacks on scientists. It’s deplorable but, alas, not a new phenomenon, as industry’s campaign against Rachel Carson and other scientists in decades past attests.

It’s also important to note that unscientific thinking on numerous issues clouds the minds of both liberals and conservatives. Because Republican leaders have associated themselves with noisy, influential constituencies that reject evolution and climate change, the GOP has found itself labeled as the anti-science party in the U.S. Some have suggested that the ideology of social and religious conservatives puts them in opposition to science.

However, as Mark Hoofnagle at Sciencblogs points out, “liberals are just as likely to disbelieve science that challenges their ideology, only the issues where liberals tend to deny aren’t quite as earth-shattering (although anti-vax is a serious public health problem) and not as much in the media spotlight. And recent cognitive studies on why people believe what they believe support the likelihood that all of us, liberal, conservative, or moderate, are poor rational actors in the evaluation of science.”

For example, Hoofnagle continues: “I’ve found liberals are far more likely to be interested in ‘greening our vaccines’ (note the liberal pull of the label ‘green’). There are conservative anti-vaxxers but they come to it ideologically as well from the ‘guv’mint can’t tell me to vaccinate’ standpoint. Liberals are far more likely to buy into altie-med, to believe ‘toxins’ cause all illness, to engage in ‘big pharma’ conspiracy-mongering, to express paranoid delusions about GMO foods or irradiation, to espouse insane theories about food in general ….”

In short, there’s plenty of irrational suspicion of science to go around. Whether it’s becoming more prevalent, or just more noticeable, because of high profile issues such as climate change, is hard to tell.

That said, today’s generations of scientists might take heart from Louis Pasteur, who once advised future scientists to “not let yourselves be tainted by apparent skepticism; nor discouraged by the sadness of certain hours that creep over nations. Do not become angry at your opponents, for no scientific theory has ever been accepted without opposition.”

Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a New York City-based freelance journalist who writes often about the environment and climate change.
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5 Responses to Is the Anti-Science Virus Spreading?

  1. Theo says:

    Healing the rift between spirituality and science will stop the spread of anti-science.

    The Institute for Noetic Sciences, IONS.org, is a great resource for front-line science for this healing. Oddly, the heavy quantum physics seems to back up a spiritual worldview, that the universe is intelligent, conscious, scientifically mystical designed for union in Oneness.

    For too long, many people felt forced to reject science to keep their spirituality.

    Now, we deeply need to get people to understand the Climate science and quickly.

    May this Intelligent Universe give rise to a human species with enough spiritual mojo to have decent stewardship over this fragile little planet.

    • Russ Stern says:

      Theo is dreaming. Science is all about proof. Science is truth. This gibbering about ‘spirituality’ is utter nonsense.

      There is a vast War by the dark-age’rs against science. It has always been that way. When Galileo showed the trash being peddled by the cult in Italy, the old man who their cult sheeple call ‘the pope’ – wanted Galileo burned to death ! This cultist was supposedly Galileo’s friend..

      Once – long ago, the United States was truly, an interplanetary society. Able to repeatedly visit our nearest solar-system neighbor – and not only walk around on the Moon, we DROVE around on the Moon !

      We humans are very capable of taking good care of ourselves.. and our planet too. Science is wonderful. We can CURE disease – not ‘treat’ disease with expensive and futile drugs or radiation – surgery.

      WAKE UP PEOPLE !!! Don’t be sucker’s for the huckster’s.

  2. hunter says:

    When skeptics of AGW start doing as opponents of gm food, or as true believers in AGW do, in committing criminal acts or defending them, we will have symmetry in the argument. Until then, this is simply another attempt to make equivalent things that are not.

  3. Jarmo says:

    I think people have always aligned their position on science according to how they see the world and what they believe in.

    What’s different now? In one word, communications.

    Just go back 40-50 years. Most people were reading the same magazines, watching the same tv shows and if they read different newspapers they nevertheless had much the same news. There was certain self-censorship among the media (just think about the sexual content on TV).

    Now audiences have fragmented because technology makes it possible to reach very small subgroups and customize the content according to their particular taste.

    The internet has made it possible for people with non-mainstream views to find similarly thinking people and feel accepted. All this amplifies and, to an extent, sharpens the differences between different groups.

    Add to that the increased information and ease of access on the internet, and, most importantly, a chance to comment on anything on the blogs, news etc.

    So, to sum it up, I don’t think people are more anti-science than before. The dissent is just out in the open and amplified by technology.

  4. Jack Hughes says:

    Fedoroff should look in the mirror. She is, herself, bringing disrepute to “science” with this partisan speech.

    Outside of a few flashpoint topics there is more public support for science than ever before.

    One of these controversial topics is “climate science”. This is a dysfunctional mess with no way to ever get back on track.

    She should be calling out the fakers, the tricksters, the hiders of declines, the bullies that make up the field. Instead she delivers some leftist boilerplate.