In Defense of Anti-Science
A version of this essay appeared in Skeptic Magazine, volume 21, number 2.
I went to the local farmer’s market at the public library today, and I was pretty sure that none of the fragrant, shining offerings were GMOs. In fact, that’s why I went to the farmer’s market, to avoid GMOs and pesticides, and to chat with the people who grew the food I’ll be eating tonight. I dropped a luscious-looking sample cherry (picked yesterday) on the asphalt under the table, and, as I’ve trained my kids to do, I blew it off ceremonially and popped that organic local cherry — probably laden with engine oil and brake fluid and who-knows-what — right in my mouth.
Now I’m sitting in the air-conditioned library full of printed, destructively editable knowledge, typing on my laptop and enjoying the fruits of Science. Some people from the community duck in here to seek a few hours worth of that most basic technology, shelter, while others immerse themselves in the lives of people from around the world in real time with just a library card and rudimentary computer skills. This library is a kind of museum dedicated to knowledge media, upgrading slowly in the digital age, still serving racks and racks of books and periodicals, and also boasting a photocopy center, a listening room full of disc media, and quaint analog clocks on the walls.
Is it audacious or foolhardy, then, for someone raised on Erector Sets and soldering kits, who still tinkers with arduinos and who writes code for money, to take a stance against Science? Am I going to sit here and type away on my notebook-thin computer and eat of the fruits of science while ungratefully pointing out that the roots of the tree are rotten? Yes I am, and I’m going to shudder to my core as I make common cause, if briefly, with anti-vaxxers and climate change deniers (or whatever the AP is calling them now); however wrong they are, their noses are keen to the stench of Science.
The word itself has become a kind of rejoinder lately, often as the object in a newly beknighted grammatical construction: “because Science.”
“Do you know why we are able to land a spacecraft on a comet?” “Because Science, that’s why.”
“Do you know how the doctor can tell you have a mild rash and not gonorrhea?” “Because Science.”
“Do you know why you are able to sit there on the Internet and look up misleading, completely false, or outright destructive ideas that completely warp your own view of Science itself?” “Because Science.”
For a lot of people, such a quasi-tautological irony sums it up, Q.E.D. We might call it a pro-Science argument, but that would be something different, such as arguing that NASA needs more funding and/or that our schools need more STEM focus, or even that we need a higher engineer-to-lawyer ratio among our legislators. The anti-anti-Science movement, rather, wants to shut the hand-biting mouths of armchair investigators and amateur bunkers and debunkers alike, and to call everyone to enjoy the ride of our accelerating technological chariot.
But how are we supposed to enjoy Climate Change? When pundits intimate that maybe an appropriate contingency for global warming is for everyone to just invest in Hudson Bay retirement property, they are extending, not subverting, the anti-anti-Science argument. Science, after all, brought us the carbon-burning orgy that created Climate Change, right before it brought us our current geologic walk of shame.
The anti-anti-Science voice says, “there has never been a greater engine than Science, for producing consistently greater and greater understanding over time.” This is just the sort of thing that anti-anti-Science advocates love to pat themselves on the back over, ignoring their own deep confirmation bias. It’s equally true, after all, that there has also been no greater engine for humans killing innocent humans than Science. That there has been no greater engine for the destruction of biodiversity and the environment.
And then out come the pitchforks and torches. Surely, say the voices, you don’t want to return to a world rife with infant mortality and kerosene, horse poop and mustard plasters, poison pewter dishes and scurvy on the high seas? A world where germ theory hadn’t even been discovered yet?
Of course not. But it might be instructive to return, just briefly, to the moment right before germ theory had been discovered, when an odd obstetrician observed that washing his hands before delivering babies seemed to somehow correlate to more surviving babies. What an asshole, is what everyone said when he shared his theory. Doctors were insulted by the suggestion that they wash their hands before surgery, that their bloody badge-of-honor surgical bibs were making patients sicker.
Anti-anti-Science folks will always retort that experimental rigor eventually found the right answer (nevermind the persecution of that obstetrician), that repeatability and falsification show the way: that this is what makes Science work. But they are wrong; or, at least, they are conflating means and ends: what they mean to say is that repeatability and falsification are what make the scientific method work. But the scientific method is and has always been the tape measure in the pocket of the contractor. We don’t judge the tool, we judge the work of those who wield it.
Back in pre-scientific days, being demonstrably correct about your ideas in a world of powerfully entrenched superstitions might get you served a hemlock mojito. This is the image of Science that we glorify in high school textbooks in order to make ourselves feel good about technological progress and to attract the imaginations of teenagers: look at that rebel Galileo and his star-eyed certainty. He didn’t sell out to the man, he got tossed in prison for his ideas, and continued to pursue his life’s work anyway. He was so punk rock.
Our problem is that we think we’ve come a long way since then. Galileo didn’t rot in prison because he proved how wrong geocentricity was; he rotted in prison because he represented an affront to the authority of the pope. Since then, most intelligent and beneficent people assume, we have raided the theological armory and sprung its most fearsome weapon: the barb of heresy. We can factor out divine revelers and catatonic quakers and snake handlers and whirling dervishes and tongue speakers and fever dreamers, and follow the scientific method as our new guiding star. And anything that doesn’t conform to the scientific theory will be…wait, where did we put that liberated weapon?
For some reason, this leaves us not in the secure arms of a great technocracy, where a well-educated populace would intelligently weigh their choices (presumably while wearing futuristic, monochromatic clothing and gazing off, heads aloft, at ever brighter and brighter futures). Instead, it leaves us confused, living at the mercy of an army of technologists, schemers, regulators, investors, academics, and salesmen, to name a few. Is this the host we want guiding us into tomorrowland? Are these even the folks we imagine when we fatuously intone, “because Science”?
Okay, time to come clean: I’m a technologist, or so I consider myself. I’m a software engineer; I make my living using computers, and I have strong opinions about them and their use. I am fully aware that my particular living does not really exist without the scientific method or the dubious host described above. I “believe” in Science, generally. That is, if forced to take an onerous internet survey on the topic, I would click the problematically worded selections that, in the aggregate, would put my response squarely on the side of Science. This doesn’t, however, ameliorate my cultural tracking.
Demographically, I represent that very common leftist conundrum: I “believe” in Science. I worry about global warming (not “climate change”; let’s be accurate — if we can’t grasp the concept of an average, how are we ever going to save the planet?), and I detest those who advocate foot-dragging or, even worse, pragmatic defeatism on the issue. But more on that later. Here is the contradiction I live in: I fear global warming because of the Science, but I also absolutely abhor the prevalence of GMOs in our lives.
According to some sciencey pundits, this makes me an idiot, or maybe more similar than I think to those detestable climate deniers, or, at minimum, predictably, fallibly human. Leaving aside for a moment the question of what right the hoi polloi have to be so human about things, the realization of this conundrum is supposed to make me question myself, to feel some calling to better myself by adjusting my attitudes and allowing myself to fall, from the bough to which I cling, into the great sweeping wind of technological history.
But I will cling, with my stubborn hominid reflexes, to that tree. Allow me a brief digression that I hope will begin to explain why.
The year is 1999. No intelligent person is truly worried about the coming millennium, with all its biblical and aspirational hyperbole (although I do recall bringing a giant jug of water along on a late-December cabin stay, just in case). We are all intently focused, though, on what the next century will bring, technologically. We are still a good five years away from broadband. Napster is blowing our minds. Virtual reality seems like it might be pandemic at some point, or maybe freely accessible, depending on how you feel about it. Cable TV is still awesome, and you can have your very own satellite dish on your roof. The Matrix has just introduced cyberpunks to that feeling you get when your favorite indie band shows up on MTV. MTV is ceasing to be Music Television.
It is in this historical-technological context that I find myself at a neighborhood diner on a busy streetcorner in Chicago, chatting with a somewhat plump guy occupying the next stool at the counter. I just about dropped my fork into my eggs when he casually responded to my inquiry as to his job: “I’m a cybernetics researcher.” He gave me a look that suggested he thought I was going to ask him about T2, but I had something else in mind. I looked this guy up and down. He was wearing a faded sweatshirt and cheap glasses. He was either some basement-dwelling pretender, or else a real-life slovenly brainiac straight out of central casting.
“Who do you do research for,” I asked him.
“I’m doing work at Northwestern University.”
I decided to see what his opinion was worth, ready with my grain of salt. “I have a question for you,” I said, “something I’ve been wondering about for awhile.”
“We have all this new technology that’s coming out. Cloning, cybernetics, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, virtual reality. But who is it — really — who makes the decisions on all our behalves, on what gets studied, what gets funded, what do we research, where do we draw the lines, what do we say yes to and no to; I mean, someone is out there making those calls, right…who is it, for real?”
He stared at me. “You want me to tell you, or you want to sleep better at night?”
Instantly, adamantly: “tell me.” I was ready for any possibility, maybe DARPA, maybe a secret cabal of moneyed geniuses, maybe a classified working group reporting to Congress or the President, maybe a loose worldwide network of watchdog scientists?
He took a long breath, and then poured out his answer: no one is making those calls for us; lots of people are making those calls for us; it’s a chaotic mess; no one is at the rudder; there is no rudder. Given a certain technology, someone, somewhere, will explore it. I vaguely recall him mentioning something about the military, the Germans doing this, the Chinese doing that, individual parties with enough resources doing whatever they want.
Now, maybe this guy was not a cybernetic researcher; maybe he was an amiable weirdo with delusions of grandeur who delighted in spooking wide-eyed kids like me. But here’s the thing: in the many years since then, nothing I have seen or read has convinced me this guy was wrong. Are we for or against human genetic experimentation? Doesn’t matter: the Chinese are creating supersmart babies. Do we think that human memory prosthetics are a good idea? Doesn’t matter. What about the ability to read and record the subconscious images at play in our minds? Doesn’t matter. Neural switching? Doesn’t matter. Do you want nanobots in your bloodstream? How would you ever know? After all, we’re only now getting around to deciding whether to ban microbeads.
It would be dangerous enough if this ostensible cybernetics researcher were correct, and we were living in a super-technological wild west, as many in Silicon Valley seem to imagine. Such a wild west might conceivably result in a techno-topia of some kind; after all, the dice may roll for us or against us. But if we examine this more closely, we see the dirty smudge of the human fingerprint on the crystal ball, and the reason is the same in the wild west future as it was in the wild west past: it’s less a free-flowing jumble of opportunity and enterprise as it is a rampant exploitation driven by prerogative, property rights, and money.
As always, money is the ultimate self-aggrandizer. It’s telling that both pro-GMO and anti-GMO pontificators accuse the other side of waving around suspect science that is sponsored by interested parties. Then there’s the well-reported cases of giant multinationals hiring scientists to conjure up reports that are quite conveniently in line with their current marketing campaigns, not to mention the now-hilarious image of the doctor in a lab coat smoking a cigarette.
But does the fact that someone is footing the bill for scientific study actually skew the results? If Science can’t be Science while awash in a propitious flood of dollars, what good is it? Scientists have their own doubts, it seems.
What if the economic-ethical wormhole is not undue influence but instead opportunity cost, or shareholder value, or legal liability? The examples of such perfidy are legion, but here’s a good example: DuPont knowingly poisoned people for years, perhaps decades. Not just some people, but potentially all the people. Forever. Did all of DuPont’s scientists realize what they had done, and walk out of their laboratories straight into the offices of their local newspaper or prosecutor’s office? Of course not. And this doesn’t make them bad people, necessarily. Like an umpire standing in front of 50,000 humans, the psychological pressure to be right in a pleasing way can be intense. And this is part of the problem: if the scientific method is truly effective in correcting for all these human biases, why do they keep proving so perniciously difficult to eradicate?
And then there’s pure human creepiness and horror. It seems that we love conducting experiments on one another, in the name of science. Lest we think that the ubiquitously reviled Tuskeegee Experiments amounted to “that one time we — oops — experimented on humans”, here are some more examples: Johns Hopkins University. Forced sterilization in California that lasted until 1979. The CIA has a long history with this, but why dwell on the past when we have such recent examples? And these are just notable examples from one country, since World War II.
Given its history of insularity, its repeatable tendency to let monsters out of boxes, and its vulnerability to fashionable thinking, economic influence, and good old human wretchedness, maybe we should think twice before retorting to an anti-vaxxer: “because Science”. Otherwise, we could just stand there, trading barbs about Monstanto and the FDA.
This nihilistic view doesn’t help me reconcile my “belief” in climate science with my absolute distrust of GMOs, though. Perhaps there is some unifying thread, a kind of preservationist bent, a certain ecological conservatism at heart in these views? Even if I could fabricate such a reasonable rationalization for these beliefs, I have to admit that one of them fails the following litmus: “in accordance with accepted science on the subject”. If I’m going to completely abandon that criteria, what have I to say to a climate-change denier? Nobody can prove anything, and we all go on kicking styrofoam around the public parks. “What do you mean, it never degrades — I can break it down with my fingers right here.”
Indeed, public endeavors of any sort become impossible in such a solipsistic world, and we verge not towards a technologic dystopia, but towards a technophobic one. Ironically, technology runs off its leash in both scenarios.
Recently, there has been something of a debate about whether or to what degree science has a “PR problem”. As Carl Sagan famously quipped, “We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.” The idea is that if we had more of the most current science information beamed in our faces every day, the people would eventually bow to the overwhelming propaganda pressure. Not only does this bad idea originate from a place of dubious respect for the public mind, but it would take us exactly back to where we used to be, with adverts proclaiming the amazing breakthroughs of asbestos and DDT.
Even if this plan were to fall into place, with enough softening up the marks that the laiety would tolerate or even expect reversals and conflicts in the public scientific debate, the central problem would not be solved, which is that, as we have noted, the scientific method may not be up for the highest bidders, but Science sure is. Saying that the problem can be fixed by PR is shoddy board-room thinking. It’s insulting, in its broad insinuation that Science itself is the most important thing, and that your problem is that you don’t know enough about it. It leads to a recursive kind of loop: “More Science will surely Science us out of this Science mess”.
Instead, I would posit that, rather than Science having a public relations problem, the public has a Science relations problem.
GMO advocates and vaccine purveyors are essentially saying the same thing: “don’t be concerned with what’s going into your children’s bodies. Instead, trust us”. The problem is that, even while producing legion health benefits and creature comforts, Science has in its wake the utter destruction of the ecosphere, and in its future an array of horrifying dystopias.
A recent television commercial is illustrative. With his office building surrounded by a flock of menacing drones, a businessman calmly walks past his panicking coworkers to his luxury car, where he voice-commands his next destination (beach house!), and cruises off with a self-assured smirk. The tagline: “Advanced technology doesn’t have to be intimidating”. Leaving aside for a moment the many luxury-brand tropes on display, consider that the commercial is playing not only on a public fear of rampant technology — which it is — but also on the public’s ignorance of that technology. The public knows we use drones to kill people from the sky, and they overwhelmingly hate it. They also mostly have very little idea how advanced networked swarm technology has gotten, not to mention targeting AI. In a reality not trying to prey on your psychology to sell you a car, if you saw a fleet of kill-bots swarming outside your building, your chances of surviving that parking-lot dash would be very, very low.
Where is the feedback mechanism for this public anxiety? Where is that Science relations communications channel? Before whom can we kneel and intone, “please stop with the targeting AI and the flying death-bots, we don’t like that down here. I mean, we know you’d never use that stuff on us, right? But still….”
There is almost no one to turn to, but Science actually does have some well-developed PR already. People who cherish Science and who post pointed memes on social media featuring Bill Nye or NdGT should take a moment and consider that “because Science” is not merely a haughty slap-down of the ignorant, it’s also a completely fatuous cloak for the enfeebling distance we must keep from the machinations that control very large portions of our lives. There is no official organ to which an angry or fearful public can protest, and this is a great problem for humanity.
No one wants Climate Change. But lots of people very badly want to continue to use fossil fuels (for the time being), or to hold fast to their fierce skepticism of global treaties (often worthy of mistrust as they are). Do we have a way to address this? Most of our public institutions belong to industry, and while we (errantly) celebrate Bill Gates’s garage for giving us the personal computer, we’re pretty sure that the guy working on “free energy” in his basement is a kook. We just muddle along, which inevitably leads to a crisis in which the next technology that will fix up the last technology is proffered. A casual glance at the stupefying range of geoengineering “solutions” is enough to sink one’s heart. Maybe we are just monkeys with terrible toys. Maybe we are in over our heads. The fact that relocating the human race to Mars is seriously discussed in public should be proof not of Science’s triumph, but that Science has utterly failed us.
The central problems are exceedingly human: greed, short-sightedness, arrogance. The solutions — one can hope — are also human: compassion, organization, rebellion. The next time someone’s “crazy uncle” on Facebook posts about vaccines leading to autism, don’t unfriend them. Don’t answer “science” they barely understand with “science” you only sort of understand. You could do your own research and “educate yourself,” but wait a minute — isn’t this just what the anti-vaxxers have been doing? In yet another proof of the insidious march of Science, the filter bubble descended over us before we even knew it existed. Go tell Google or Facebook that you don’t want your content tailored to your existing beliefs; I’m sure their advertisers will love that.
Once upon a time, scientists called themselves “natural philosophers”. We tend to think of that self-ascription as a quaint moniker from a muck-soaked era we’ve gladly stepped out from, but I’m not sure either “natural” or “philosopher” applies to some of the Science on order right now, let alone those eagerly prodding for the results. Maybe we need a return to the liberal arts era of education, where librarians took phys ed and engineers studied ethics. Maybe we need a technological bill of rights, or maybe we need to empower our makers and DIY folks to give us more locavore tech. Maybe we need to stop looking at climate deniers as harmful idiots; they may be wrong about global warming, but if we are to carefully examine the reasons why, we end up digging out a putrid path that ends up in only one place: “because Science.”