On “anti-science” again

There’s something about the prefix “anti” that provokes all too many people, even some who consider themselves “skeptics,” to clutch at their pearls and feel faint. Antivaccine? Oh, no, you can’t say that! They’re not “antivaccine”? Who could be so nutty as to be “antivaccine”? Even members of the antivaccine movement don’t like the term because even they realize that to be antivaccine is akin to being “anti” Mom, apple pie, and America. So they come up with the defense that they are not “antivaccine” but rather “pro-safe vaccine.” They’ll come up with silly analogies about how being for safer cars doesn’t make one “anti-car.” It’s a silly analogy because it doesn’t fit. People who are pro-car safety still buy and use cars. People who are antivaccine will never, under any circumstances, vaccinate their children. Often, in order not to admit they are antivaccine, they’ll say they would vaccinate “if only.” After the “if only” will almost always follow safety standards that are, intentionally or unintentionally, impossible to meet, such as absolute guarantees of safety. As a result, if you try to pin an antivaccinationist down about what vaccines she considers safe and would use on her child, you’ll never get a straight answer. Instead, you’ll get excuses and the aforementioned impossible standards. I’ve written about these concepts before; so I won’t belabor the point (at least not more than I usually do).

The antivaccine movement is a subcategory of a larger movement, however. For want of a better word, let’s term it “anti-science.” It’s an imperfect term for people who reject well-established science. To get a flavor of what being “anti-science” means, take a look at people who reject evolution, reject anthropogenic global warming, reject vaccines, and reject scientific medicine in favor of quackery. I’ve written on many occasions about some of the common factors that tie such beliefs together, as have many others. So why bring it up again? First off, it’s in the news again, based on this news story about the recent meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science:

Most scientists, on achieving high office, keep their public remarks to the bland and reassuring. Last week Nina Fedoroff, the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), broke ranks in a spectacular manner.

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

“We are sliding back into a dark era,” she said. “And there seems little we can do about it. 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 have I. So, because it’s in the news again and because I haven’t written about it in a while, I figured, what the heck? Once more into the breach, particularly given that I’ve come across a couple of rather ticked off bloggers who really, really don’t like the term “anti-science.” These include Jack Stilgoe, who wrote a post entitled Anti-anti-science. It’s a title I find rather ironic, given that those of us who combat the anti-vaccine movement sometimes refer to ourselves as “anti-anti-vax.” Maybe Stilgoe is “anti-anti-science” as well. Not really, because he’s really annoyed at Federoff’s comment. So is Marya Zilberberg, who lambastes such language as The taxonomic laziness of “anti.” Both take a reasonable point and then go beyond it in such a way that it reveals how little they know about the anti-science movement, of which creationists, anti-vaccinationists, and AGW “skeptics” are but a part.

First, let’s take a look at Stilgoe’s point of view:

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.

There’s no doubt that the word “anti-science” can be inflammatory, but it is far from imaginary. Stilgoe is confusing motivation with actions and, surprisingly, comes close to the truth without actually reaching it. When he points out that climate denialists are “anti- a political view that considers environmental protection important,” he is correct, but he doesn’t take that observation one step further to realize that it is that particular “anti,” which is a political/ideological view, that drives AGW “skeptics” in the first place to be anti-science! The same is true of those who reject evolution, where it is almost always fundamentalist religion that drives the rejection of science. Stilgoe notes that creationists reject evolution because of their religion and because they don’t like the implications of a worldview that includes evolution. This is largely correct. It’s also the reason they become anti-science in the first place.

The antivaccine movement is a little different, but much of it is fundamentally the same. Basically, there are two main varieties of antivaccine activists. The first kind blames vaccines for injuring their children, usually causing autism. Even though it is a scientifically discredited notion that vaccines cause autism, this first sort of antivaccinationist is at least somewhat understandable because humans are pattern-seeking creatures who are quick to confuse correlation with causation. The second kind of antivaccinationist rejects vaccines from a world view that is antiscience to the core, often rejecting modern medicine, sometimes even germ theory itself. I’ve catalogued so many examples of the latter kind of antivaccine activist on this blog over the last seven years that I can’t even come close to remembering them all.

Interestingly, Stilgoe also seems to admit that he might be considered “anti-science” by some:

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.

Well, I suppose if Stilgoe’s into postmodernism I might suspect him of being anti-science. In fact, I view postmodernism as being at the root of a lot of anti-science views among some academics. After all, postmodernism seeks to diminish science to nothing more than just one among many competing narratives, all potentially equally valid. But let’s assume that Stilgoe isn’t a postmodernist, as I see no evidence that he is. Why does he think that being a social scientist leaves him open to spurious charges of being “anti-science”? One wonders what “difficult questions” he asks. Be that as it may, one suspects that Stilgoe is having trouble telling the difference between a critical examination of the scientific process and hostility to science itself. One is not “anti-science.” The other is. Stilgoe also reveals an astonishing apparent ignorance of how anti-science forces operate:

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.

What planet is this guy living on? Stable funding? Not here, not now. The NIH budget, for instance, doesn’t keep up with biomedical inflation anymore, and funding rates haven’t been this bad in at least 20 years. Some of my more senior colleagues claim it hasn’t been this bad in 35 years. Funding for science, thanks to the 2008 economic meltdown and other factors that preceded it, hasn’t been so tenuous in a long time. There are a lot of us out there who wonder how much longer we can keep our labs funded.

As for “astonishing privileges,” whatever privileges science might enjoy have been, I would argue, more than earned. One wonders, though, why Stilgoe chooses that word, “privilege.” It seems to bother him, as if science doesn’t deserve it. It is also a bit of a non sequitur to argue that somehow this privilege is a reason that complaints that science is under attack are overblown or otherwise not credible. The two are not mutually exclusive, and there’s no doubt that science is under attack on many fronts and in different ways. Moneyed interests are clearly attacking climate science. Religious extremists are attacking evolution. And ideologues who reject modern medicine are attacking science-based medicine, even succeeding at infiltrating their viewpoint into what should be bastions of science-based medicine, our medical schools and academic medical centers.

Stilgoe’s also attacking a bit of a straw man. No one I’m aware of who opposes anti-science argues that science is the be-all and end-all. There is wide consensus that science is not the whole conversation. Particularly in areas where science interfaces with politics, science can only inform politics; it is the politicians who end up making policy, hopefully based on good science, but not infrequently that’s not the case.

Not too surprisingly, given my previous sparring with her, during which she criticized science-based medicine on more than one occasion, Marya Zilberberg is very impressed, very impressed indeed, with Stilgoe’s arguments, so much so that she dismisses the use of the term “anti-science” in terms of her two children fighting about who’s being more “mean.” At least, that’s how she introduces her paean to Stilgoe’s post.

I will concede one point. Zilberberg is correct that it is possible to be too promiscuous with the use of the term “anti-science.” It can be lazily applied and applied where it’s not appropriate. That is a temptation to be resisted. Unfortunately, she goes wrong in two ways. First, she falls for the fallacy of, “Why can’t we all just get along?” in which she doesn’t like the use of the word “anti-science” because it pisses off those who are anti-science. (Yes, that’s exactly what one of her main objections boils down to.) Her second objection is this:

At another level, such labels give rise to a deeply flawed impression that science is precise. Indeed, those who fling these labels tend to fall on the old refrain of “look, I am the first one to admit that scientific knowledge is fungible.” However, in the instances of current confrontations, they somehow cannot imagine that our current knowledge is incomplete and that further questions are not only legitimate, but are indeed a scientific imperative.

Little does Zilberberg know it, but this is exactly the sort of argument that those who are anti-science make, with one crucial distinction. Scientists understand that science is provisional, which is why it’s so difficult for them to come to a consensus on issues. When they do come to such a consensus, whether it be a theory (as in the theory of evolution or the theory of relativity) or a consensus that is not referred to as a theory (as in anthropogenic global warming), it is usually based on overwhelming evidence. Certainly that is true of the aforementioned theories and consensus, and it’s certainly true about the safety and efficacy of vaccines. What “antiscience” does is, as it is commonly described, to sow fear, uncertainty, and doubt about well-established science. We aren’t talking about science on the fringes, where there is considerable disagreement among scientists. Rather, those who are “antiscience” attack science that is about as well supported as anything in science can be.

Now that I read her post again, it occurs to me that there is a third area in which Zilberberg takes a germ of a reasonable point and then goes right off the cliff with it:

I realize that it is tiresome to have to argue that creationism is not science, that evolution is more than just a theory, that vaccines have saved millions of lives. But to write off these arguments as beneath us and to throw insults at each other only works in Washington, and look how well that has been going. But even more importantly, if we are going to answer such deeply pragmatic scientific questions of our time as “what are the full implications of GM salmon,” we cannot shroud ourselves in the “sacredness” of science. Science can only stay beautiful and true if it steers clear of being dogmatic. It is time to take this discourse out of the boxing ring of childish insults and back into the civic society where if belongs.

Once again, as she has done in the past, Zilberberg indulges her penchant for straw men. Those of us who argue against pseudoscience such as antivaccinationism and creationism obviously don’t consider it “beneath us.” If we did, we wouldn’t do it. Does anyone think that I, for instance, would have spent the last seven years of my life writing Orac-ian deconstructions of pseudoscience multiple times a week if I thought that doing so was “beneath me.” No! We defend science against antiscience because we’re passionate about science and want to promote and defend good science.

One can’t help but note that both Stilgoe and Zilberberg–is that anything like Zager and Evans?–are also very indignant about opponents of genetically modified organisms being lumped in with anti-science. Indeed, one wonders whether that is one of the main things that bugs them about the word. While it is true that there can be legitimate criticisms of GMO (and, indeed, it was his relentless cheerleading for GMO that lowered my estimation of Michael Specter’s book on denialism), there are an awful lot of anti-GMO attacks that can be best described as, well, anti-scientific. Such attacks focus on GMOs being somehow “unnatural” and therefore dangerous, an affront against nature, rather than focusing on how GMOs are used, the latter of which, depending on the specific criticism, can be defensible.

Both Stilgoe and Zilberberg also seem to base their criticism of the term “antiscience” on the premise that, as Martin Robbin points out, “all groups engaged in controversial scientific issues are all there because they care about the truth of the issue.” They don’t. In fact, part of what makes those described as “anti science” antiscience is that they think they already know the truth of the issue and that what science says about it is not that truth! Some of these people genuinely believe that science supports them; they are profoundly misguided by not antiscience per se. Others think they know the truth and don’t care what science says. These people can be fairly characterized as “antiscience” because they not only reject what science says but how science comes to know what it knows. Let’s just put it this way: If there’s no amount of scientific evidence that will persuade a person to change his mind, then that person has abandoned science to the point where one might accurately refer to him as “antiscience.”

Basically, Stilgoe and Zilberberg almost make a good point but ruin it through overreach and self-righteousness. The overreach is that neither of them seem to believe that there is such a thing as antiscience. About this there is no other way to put it:
they are, quite simply wrong, as some of Stilgoe’s commenters demonstrated and as I could demonstrate by burying them in antiscience quotes. Instead I’ll just point them to a an amazing antiscience video by Mike Adams in which he basically characterizes science as evil (complete, of course, with lots of references to Hitler). As evidence, he refers to modern medicine, vaccines, GMOs, pesticides, and many other things. He also claims that science is what allows us to commit genocide. It’s a version of the already hysterical message that Ben Stein promoted in his anti-evolution documentary Expelled!, which featured Stein visiting the ruins of Nazi death camps and using them as evidence of where science leads. Mike Adams, however, cranks up the hysteria to 11.

That looks pretty antiscience to me.

The self-righteousness comes when Stilgoe and Zilber lecture those of us out in the trenches for using the term “antiscience,” seemingly because they value civility über alles and find it horrible–horrible, I tell you!–that anyone would actually call it as he sees it. Of course, as was evident in the quote I cited above, that doesn’t stop Stilgoe, for instance, from characterizing creationists, denialists, antivaccinationists as not just wrong but “stupid and wrong,” which to me seems a bit more insulting than referring to them as just “anti science.” But then that’s just me. Stilgoe’s also–dare I say it?–wrong. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about various antiscience activists that I’ve encountered over the last seven or eight years, most of them are not stupid. In many, if not most, cases, they’re quite the contrary. In fact, right here I can’t help but point out that the stupid antiscience activists are the easy ones to deal with because they’re stupid. The more intelligent an antiscience activist is, the more able he or she is to cherry pick data to construct arguments that sound more plausible, do a Gish gallop defending nonsense, and just in general to be more of a pain to refute. Also, I can’t help but point out that Stilgoe’s willingness to label such people as “stupid” rather belies his invocation of civility as a reason not to be using the term “antiscience.” It suggests that he does’t mind incivility but just doesn’t like one particular variety of what he perceives as incivility, namely calling someone “antiscience.”

In actuality, there are at least two forms of science rejectionism, one that can be considered antiscience and one not as much. First, there’s the form of science rejectionism that results from science coming into conflict with deeply held ideological, political, or religious beliefs. People holding such views tend to reject specific findings of science that they don’t like but not science itself. They are thus usually (but not always) not antiscience per se, which is why I prefer the term “denialist” to describe them. AGW denialists are a good example of this group. Then there is a group that rejects the very core of science itself; i.e., the methods, peer review, the standards of evidence itself. Mike Adams is certainly just such a person.

So are a significant fraction of antivaccinationists. All you have to do is lurk a while on various antivaccine discussion groups to see a profound antipathy towards the scientific method itself in favor of anecdotal evidence and “mommy instinct.” Jenny McCarthy herself is an excellent example of this. She once said “Evan [her son] is my science” on The Oprah Winfrey Show and scoffed at all the science showing that vaccines do not cause autism because, well, she’s seen it herself. Indeed, the same hostility towards the scientific method and the fruits of that method that form the basis of scientific medicine is evident in huge swaths of the “alternative medicine” movement, where anecdote is valued over controlled studies, correlation is confused with causation even after science fails to find evidence of causation, and “personal experience” matters more than clinical trials or basic science. There is also considerable overlap between these two forms of science rejectionism. For example not all denialists are antiscience (just anti-specific science), although I’m hard pressed to think of examples of people who are anti science but not denialists. Being anti science usually leads to denialism in multiple areas, a phenomenon known as crank magnetism.

To the extent that Zilberberg and Stilgoe caution us as science communicators not to be too footloose and fancy free throwing around the term “antiscience,” they make a reasonable point. We as defenders of science need to be careful not to use the term inappropriately, lest it lose its meaning and become just an insult. Unfortunately, Stilgoe and Zilberberg couldn’t leave it at that. On the other hand, we should not shy away from using the term when it’s appropriate, because it is an excellent shorthand to describe a phenomenon that is, unfortunately, a serious problem. Just because the word offends some people ostensibly on “our side” is not a reason to abandon the use of such a useful and descriptive word.