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Responsible Innovation, February 21 2012
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).
COMMENTS [extracted from multiple comments, a good number hostile]
Steven Hill says:
February 21, 2012 at 2:50 pm
Good stuff. I have always been troubled by the 'anti-science' label. While there are some groups/people who it might be fairly applied to, in the majority of cases it seems like lazy and potentially damaging short-hand.
The GM example is a really interesting one, in that the position adopted by Federoff and others in the plant science community is as much about defending the interests of that discipline as anything else (and I say that as a plant scientist who spent many years on research on and with GM crops). As the cliché goes when all you have is a hammer every problem looks like a nail, and there is a real issue with some in parts of the plant science community seeing GM crops as the only solution to food security questions. The reality is that there is an incredible range of scientific contributions to the issue of food security, many of which are pretty low tech, as well as lots of contributions from other spheres.
I think some of the reaction that your post has generated also speaks volumes about the issues that you raise.
Jack Stilgoe says:
February 21, 2012 at 2:51 pm
Wow. Thanks all. Really pleased to see this range of responses. I was perhaps a little strident in my original post. Many people have pointed to particular examples about which we might sensibly use the term anti-science. My post was about the lazy extension of this term to describe and magnify a phantom collective that too often includes reasonable people alongside the hypocrites and idiots.