Science, anti-science, and values

Credit: William Kunze

A few years ago, a prominent anti-science website devoted to demonizing autistic people got into a brief Twitter exchange that presaged Elon Musk's attitudes by almost a decade. A tweeter had posted a link to a lis of the top 10 worst anti-science websites, specifically @ing the Twitter account for one of the sites. The response from the owner of that account? Simply, "BOO!"

It's not exactly the same as sending a poop emoji in response to media inquiries or finding white supremacists "interesting," but this near-nadir of discourse is a perfect example of why the anti-science movement in this country is so damaging. The resistance to critical thinking pointed at oneself, to altering conclusions as necessary based on new evidence, to budging from a pre-set notion regardless of information to the contrary – that "BOO!" sums it all up. It says, "We do not care that you think we're anti-science, and we have taken our ball and gone home." It says, "We are incapable of defending our position, as usual, and juvenile derision is all we have." It says, "We are childishly adherent to our cause, no matter its level of failure, no matter evidence to the contrary." It encapsulates the attitude and resources of those who promote anti-science values.

Yes, I said, "Values." Because the anti-science crowd operates together on a fundamental set of values, whether they're evangelizing against evolution, climate change, or vaccines. They place more emphasis on boastful "gotchas" than they do on getting it right. They use half-truths to get buyers for what they sell – and yes, they're selling something, even if its just their "brand" or "image" – and make people forget that the yin to a half-truth's yang is a half-lie. They value the power of emotion and testimony over method and evidence, and they use emotion and testimony cynically and unabashedly. But most of all, they value the opportunity to say "BOO!" to those who rely on the long-term, data-gathering process we call "science" to form conclusions.

Science, its fallible practitioners notwithstanding, operates on a system of values, too. Those values are rooted in a requirement for evidence. At the bottom of any critical thinker's thinking is that need for evidence. The greatest value science has to offer is that the practice of it ultimately leads to an accumulation of data that point to a specific conclusion. That signpost of evidence can shift, and it's the understanding of that possibility that forms another value of science. 

Scientists understand that new evidence can alter conclusions. Critical thinkers know that it's best in most circumstances to avoid saying "never" and "always" because nature has a way of proving you wrong. Nature is more mature than some on social media and does not say, "BOO!" when proving us wrong. But we know that those gaps in knowledge will continue to shrink with the passage of time and that as they do, we will probably be shifting conclusions. It's a value in science to understand that today's scientific understanding may end up in tomorrow's dead-hypothesis dustbin as new data come in. 

But another value of science is that we can draw conclusions based only on the evidence we have at present, and that evidence is what matters. One of the paramount scientific values is to not overinterpret, overextrapolate, or overspeculate. Scientific values demand that a critical thinker draw conclusions based on the evidence at hand, genuine evidence derived from the testing of well-formulated hypotheses, evidence that has undergone some poking and prodding from people who know what they're seeing. 

Science values also demand that all data be held to the light of many minds for critique and that a conclusion that the evidence supports requires consideration, no matter how counter to one's precious ideas it may be. This last value is directly contradictory to the anti-science value of holding the line and refusing to budge no matter what the evidence says.

This clash of values between science and anti-science intersects with every sphere of our lives. People turn to the anti-science practitioners and jeopardize their health and lives and their children's health and lives. People turn away from the conclusions of science based on available evidence and endanger everything from the food we eat and water we drink to the very balance of the biosphere. People turn away from educating our children in science, preferring the value of ignorance over the value of knowledge. People turn our nation away from being competitive by making a mockery of the value of knowledge and emphasizing instead the anti-science value of embracing half-truths and promoting scientific illiteracy. Some of We the People of this nation they are so proud in their emphatic and willful ignorance, and their pride may be what comes before our fall.

We live in a world in which, more than ever, critical thinking abilities and a broad and deep knowledge across the spheres of life and the rest of the physical world will be required tools for function and advancement. The anti-science emphasis on and exploitation of values of half-lies, ignorance, and illiteracy can only endanger us and the world around us, sometimes fatally, as the events of recent years have made only too painfully clear.


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