On December 7—a date presumably chosen because it is Pearl Harbor Day and thus resonates with general alarm—the American Association of University Professors issued a thirteen-page statement, “National Security, the Assault on Science, and Academic Freedom.” The aim of the statement is to call out President Trump in particular and conservatives in general for their “anti-science” attitudes and policies. In Part 1 of this three-part essay, I gave the historical background to the popular leftist attack on conservatives for their “anti-science” positions. In Part 2, I take a closer look at what “anti-science” really means.
Passions and Padlocks
In principle, science padlocks political passions in a cage from which they cannot escape to disrupt experiments or analysis. But that principle is often violated, and it also turns out not even to be all that good as a principle.
Sometimes those political passions protect science from running off the rails. Our rules that prevent involuntary human experimentation, for example, are grounded in respect for human life and dignity, not in science. Science pursued entirely as a quest for knowledge has no capacity to distinguish right from wrong. Curing a disease and creating a new disease are indistinguishable as far as the ends of science go. We rely on our human passions and non-scientific human reasoning to prevent science from going off in malign directions, and we rely on politics to give organization and force to those positive passions.
But once having granted the legitimacy of some non-scientific principles to govern the aims and uses of science, where do we stop? This is the deep question lurking behind most of the political contention over science.
Fracking. There is scant evidence that hydraulic fracturing is dangerous to humans or to the environment, yet politicians in some blue states, including New York, have banned it. Their position is “anti-science” plain and simple, though few would openly use that term. The opponents of fracking act on an irrational fear—though again, few would own up to its irrationality. Instead they would spin a web of “what ifs” and “maybes.” Is this this a case where an irrational fear should be given weight in light of a larger non-scientific principle? It is hard to say what that principle would be. Some prominent members of the movement avow their hostility to the extraction of any hydrocarbons from the earth on the grounds that growing concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere pose a danger to health and safety. This indeed is a principle but one that stands on conjectures, hypotheses, and models that have not been treated kindly by the accumulating facts.
Nuclear energy. By a long margin, nuclear power is among the cleanest, safest, and most abundant sources of energy over which humans have control. Yet the United States has been paralyzed for nearly half a century in building new nuclear power plants. The problem is fear of radiation from accidents and spent radioactive materials. This fear is wildly disproportionate to the danger and therefore irrational. Opposition to nuclear energy is also “anti-science” plain and simple. Is there a valid non-scientific principle that should take precedence over exploiting nuclear energy? It is very difficult to find anyone who gets beyond repeating the fear that something could go wrong. The fear is justified: things can go wrong, and sometimes have gone very wrong indeed. But the fact remains that nuclear power is far safer than the alternatives that are either proposed or already in use.
Vaccination. Vaccines vary in the dangers they pose to recipients, but most vaccines pose some minor risk of serious side effects. Some parents hold wildly exaggerated ideas about the risks of childhood vaccinations; some hold fears plainly at odds with the facts; and still others object to vaccinations on religious grounds. But failure to vaccinate poses a danger to the whole community. Scientific reasoning would argue strongly that vaccination ought to be mandatory for all. Making exceptions is “anti-science.” Are there valid ground for letting irrational fear or religious freedom outweigh public health?
Global warming. A body of established scientists argue that man-made and potentially catastrophic global warming is upon us. A separate body of scientists disagree, many of them over the amount of global warming that has already taken place, and some on other issues, such as whether the warming is part of a natural cycle and not significantly the result of human activity. Still others disagree on whether the warming is likely to be catastrophic. Some believe increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will, to the contrary, be beneficial. All sides of this debate claim the authority of science for their positions. The effort to characterize the dissenters from global warming orthodoxy as “anti-science” is polemical rhetoric, not a scientific judgment. When scientists disagree with one another on both the legitimacy of the data and the proper analysis of the data, is there any warrant for granting either side the power to call the other “anti-science?”
Creationism. This one is especially difficult to write about. Belief in evolution as a thoroughly established and adequate principle to explain biological diversity is plainly an article of faith for many Americans. So let me preface my comment by saying that I am an anthropologist who finds evolution an indispensable intellectual tool of immense explanatory value. And yet…
Every known religion has a narrative of how the world began. So does contemporary science. In fact, most religions have multiple stories about origins, some explaining the birth of the cosmos, others explaining human origins. Science likewise has multiple origin stories: the Big Bang theory and human evolution. The “science” in both cases is substantial but far from complete. The Big Bang theory offers a cogent picture of the beginning of space, time, and matter but it is a theory with many loose ends and as yet unanswerable questions. The theory of human evolution is also rich and compelling but it too is very far from complete. New scientific research is constantly modifying our understanding of it. Only in the last few years have we learned that non-African humans are partially descended from Neanderthals, and in some cases from another species as well, the Denisovans, whose ghostly genetic afterlife wasn’t discovered until 2010.
As it happens, one of the five-member committee that wrote the AAUP report, Mary Jane West-Eberhard, is well-known for her contributions to evolutionary biology that, as historian of science James Barham puts it, “turn mainstream Darwinism on its head.” He adds: “West-Eberhard’s work helps to upend that project [Darwinian elimination of purpose from evolution] by showing how purposiveness (or target-directedness) lies at the heart of any realistic explanatory framework in evolutionary biology. In other words, her contribution consists in demonstrating that, far from eliminating purpose from nature, evolution in fact presupposes it.”
The deeper questions of how we came to be fully human are thus still matters of conjecture and intense debate. Is it “anti-science” for some people to believe that the emergence of humans reflects the will of God? It is definitely “non-science,” but hardly anti-science. But there are parties on both sides of this debate who carry their positions to extremes that subvert scientific inquiry. The evolutionists include a faction who dogmatically pretend the theory is far more settled than it really is. In one generation we have moved from a theory of straight-line evolution, with one species of proto-humans supplanting another, to a theory of several (or perhaps many) species hybridizing over long periods. We are still without a convincing explanation of where human language came from. And we don’t really know how the resiliency of individuals (what West-Eberhard calls “phenotypical plasticity”) plays into human evolution.
Pretending to scientific knowledge we don’t yet have is as unscientific as invoking supernatural explanations. We should be careful in drawing the lines.
Other matters. This list of controversies could easily be extended. I’ve left aside abortion, fetal tissue research, human cloning, end-of-life decisions, and many other hotly debated matters. But just the four examples sketched above point to the danger of caricature and ideological extremism. Neither the political left nor the political right has valid authority to say of itself that it speaks for science and that the other side is anti-science. When it comes to fracking and nuclear power, it is the left that tends to be “anti-science.” When it comes to global warming, there is a Mexican stand-off. On creationism, the political right is more prone to fall into a doctrinaire anti-science position, but the left has a doctrinaire un-scientific position of its own that is in play.
We need a robust practice in the sciences of keeping ordinary political passions locked out, but nonetheless allowing principles from outside the sciences back in to give moral and intellectual direction to scientific inquiry. The balance is important but plainly difficult, since it requires judgment—based on what?—over the when, where, and how these interventions should take place. We have a political system that puts the power to do that in the hands of elected legislators and executives as well as jurists. And we have freedom of speech that allows the rest of us to voice our views. But that is just a way of acknowledging that scientific inquiry often has a rough road in our republic. It is surrounded by the cacti of prickly politics and acrimonious opinion.
Continue reading this series with Part 3.