Why is science a target for mindless mockery?

If I say something you don’t like, I hope that you’ll be civil enough to engage the point of disagreement directly, without undue derision or invective. You would be right to expect the same graciousness from me.

But that isn’t always what happens when science encounters resistance from an audience that is, for one reason or another, biased against it.

My observations are prompted by a dispiriting, if unsurprising, reaction in the online version of the local broadsheet daily to Nature‘s publication of an article titled “Approaching a state shift in Earth’s biosystem” (Nature, June 6, 2012).

The Nature article states that “localized ecological systems are known to shift abruptly and irreversibly from one state to another when they are forced across critical thresholds.” The authors speculate that what holds for a local ecosystem may also hold for the global system, and that human alteration of the biosphere may be causing a “tipping-point” at which the entire planet’s systems will shift irreversibly.

They point out that recent natural climate change has been driven by a cycle in which successive ice ages have been separated by periods of milder climate, such as the period in which we live, and in which all of our modern human civilization has occurred. However, the current trend is in a new and unpredictable direction altogether.

The natural cycle has been distorted by human activity, and the planet now seems clearly headed toward a period of higher temperatures, a climate change unprecedented in modern human history.  There’s no way to predict with any accuracy what changes this spike in temperature will cause, but it’s clear that they will be significant.

That the Nature article was co-authored by a local scientist gave the story some prominence in yesterday’s edition of the Vancouver Sun.

It’s not the newspaper’s story but the online comments that sparked this article.

One of the greatest strengths of a scientific approach to understanding the world is science’s culture of informed debate. You’re not going to get very far in the scientific community with an incorrect conclusion based on an erroneous thesis. Someone, often lots of people, will be happy to point out your errors. Indeed, searching out and correcting errors is a major part of the scientific enterprise. But it’s the errors that are the target, not the scientists who make them. At least, that’s the way it’s supposed to work. Most of the time, it does.

In the wishful world of global warming deniers, there’s little evidence of a similar decorum.

Here are the first six comments readers posted online in response to the Sun‘s article:

Waskesiu T
Next, we’ll be declaring continent drift an emergency.

Just incase these scientists hadn’t noticed, erosion is a state of nature.  Look arround where you live, everything is being eroded.

Stumps R us
Chicken Little lives, has tenure and is and living very well off of research grants at major universities around the world

What a bunch of Goofs, was Susuki there?


Wonder if some of these scientists are escapees from the doomsday cults who pop up predicting the end of the world and make off with people’s savings that they gave them for passage into a better world?

And, after a couple of welcome but woefully short tsk-tsk rebuttals, there was this gem:

… And, just who are these 18 “scientists?” They are the radical leftists no doubt but the Sun doesn’t want to report that for fear it might undermine their dogma.

At this point, I stopped reading, and I haven’t been back to see if anyone with more time to waste on closed minds has mounted a spirited counter-attack. I’m going to confine my reaction to this article. My blog may not attract the most readers online, but as a consequence of its modesty it has been generally free of the 140-character crazies who troll the web looking to skewer with their pointless wits anything that appears to have serious intent.

To put the question in the title again: Why is science a target for mindless mockery?

The reasons that come easily to mind include political and religious ideologies, intellectual insecurity or intimidation, and miscomprehension of what science does (and doesn’t do). There are other reasons, such as direct economic self-interest, but these three general types will be sufficient for my purposes — not to mention my target word count.

Political ideologies that are generally hostile to science include both free market capitalism and its frequent compatriot, libertarianism. Both worldviews distrust social or moral constraint, and it’s easy to see how science that warns of the excesses of resource extraction or posits limits to personal freedoms is unpopular with them.

How can I maximize my company’s profits, or improve my nation’s share of world markets, if I have to pay attention to calls for restraint and social responsibility? As a dedicated capitalist, I don’t accept easily any restraints on my pursuit of profit.

And if I’m a libertarian to boot (I’ve yet to meet a libertarian who’s not also a free market capitalist), the idea that my freedom to thrive economically might be constrainable by consideration for the welfare of others is anathema. That way lies such evils as laws and governments!

Religious ideologies can be even more strictly anti-science. There are two clear and dramatic examples in today’s world. First, there is the general rejection of science, both its methodologies and its outcomes, among fundamentalist Muslims.

Some countries run according to a conservative interpretation of Islam actively discourage the study of science. Nations like Saudi Arabia, for just one example, are happy to import technology and the engineers and scientists who run the machinery that makes the oil sheiks rich. At the same time, the government bans science teaching in the country’s schools. The most recent world-class university course on science taught in the fundamentalist parts of the Middle East convened in the Middle Ages.

The Western equivalent is the Millenialist wing of fundamental Christianity. Scientific warnings to ease up on the Earth are rejected on one or both of two core grounds. First is the notion that the planet was created for our use, that we are not Earth’s stewards but its masters. Over all of this shall ye have dominion, and that sort of thing. If God didn’t want us to burn all the coal and oil we can, He wouldn’t have given it to us in the first place.

The second stance is even more disgraceful. In the worldview of many Millenialists, the sooner we wreck the planet, the sooner the Rapture comes. This  is a serious theo-political position, and it informs the laissez-faire approach to global warming among many fundamentalists. In one version, by ruining the planet more quickly, we bring the Rapture closer. In another version, since the Rapture is coming soon, we don’t have to worry about the long-term viability of the planet’s biosphere. Both positions are indefensibly selfish, and their moral callousness is immense.

It’s not easy to discuss the next category without appearing either smug or elitist. Many people feel insecure around scientists or are intimidated by the complexities of science. It’s not because they are necessarily less intelligent or less well educated than scientists, although both are often true. If science is not well taught in the schools, which it certainly is not in the United States (often for religious reasons that are not directly relevant to this discussion), then ignorance of science and its methodologies will be rampant.

We have a tendency to discredit, to downgrade, that which we don’t understand. If we don’t get it, it must not be very important to get. And it doesn’t help that scientists are seen as authority figures. Who doesn’t enjoy bringing those smart guys down a few pegs?

The third identified reason for the scorning of science is more technical. Even if the general audience doesn’t feel ideologically opposed to science or its outcomes, and even if there remains a level of respect (at the least, indifference) to the pronouncements of scientists, there is not a sufficient understanding that science is not weak or wrong when it is provisional or speculative. On the contrary. As many others have pointed out, it’s the provisional and speculative qualities of scientific methodology that generates growth in our knowledge of the world.

So when a group of scientists publish a study that concludes that the ways that local ecosystems are affected by changing local conditions “may” be the same kind of dynamic that operates on the planet-wide biosystem, that kind of speculation is not just a shot in the dark by a group of clueless guessers. This kind of scientific speculation is the best guess based on the present evidence, and it calls for not a conclusion but further investigation. In other words, scientific extrapolation of this sort is not a prediction of specific events but rather an indication of a potentially fruitful direction for study.

So rather than bleating that this or that specific prediction hasn’t come precisely true — “You said that it might rain today, but it snowed, so meteorology is bogus!” — a more reasoned and more reasonable response would be to consider the experimental data and any conclusions that are drawn from it, then move ahead to as empirical an investigation as possible of their validity.

But then, that might reduce your profits, or restrain your inalienable personal freedom, or educate your people in Godlessness, or delay the long-awaited Rapture, or … .

2 thoughts on “Why is science a target for mindless mockery?

  1. The issue here may not be the mocking of science but the style of discourse used by those not trained in science, when engaging with scientific ideas or indeed with any other ideas that they may disagree with.

    We all know that scientists generally use logic to discredit their opponents (though they may not necessarily be above pouring scorn on their opponents). On the other hand politicians, religious fundamentalists and other “non-scientists’ use sarcasm, ridicule and scorn to discredit their opponents (though they sometimes use logical arguments)

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