The scary science scenario – science portrayed as evil.
|Can scientists be trusted to tell you when they detect a red flag?|
How to recognise this tactic
This tactic is easy to spot. The perpetrators try to convince you that scientific knowledge has resulted in overwhelmingly more harm than good. They identify environmental disasters, accidents, human tragedies, hazards, weapons and uncomfortable ideas that have some link to scientific discoveries and claim that science must be blamed for the any damage they cause. They may even go so far as claiming that scientists themselves are generally cold, unfeeling people who enjoy causing harm.
I have been asked whether I would agree that the tragedy of the scientist is that he is able to bring about great advances in our knowledge, which mankind may then proceed to use for purposes of destruction. My answer is that this is not the tragedy of the scientist; it is the tragedy of mankind.
Leo Szilard, Hungarian-American physicist and biologist
Letter to the editor, Sunshine Coast Daily, 14 July 2011.
Why do people use this tactic?
People use this tactic to try to persuade you to ignore scientific evidence, because, they say, it can’t be trusted. They want you to believe that anything to do with science is tainted. This is usually because they are making claims that are not supported by any evidence at all, and they would like you to accept the claims without questioning them.
What’s wrong with this tactic
This tactic attempts to persuade you to dismiss scientific evidence for a completely fallacious reason. Science is a collective enterprise: its methods and models have been built up by contributions from generations of scientists. Scientific knowledge is neither good nor evil – it merely describes the nature of reality. And like any knowledge, it can be put to use for good - or for evil. Certainly, some scientific discoveries have been used for purposes that have harmful consequences or side-effects, and some research done in the name of science has been conducted in unethical ways, but it is absurd to claim that all scientific endeavour is evil.
If scientific evidence is rejected, it should only be on the grounds that is defective for some reason – errors of measurement, faulty analysis, inappropriate application etc -not because of some alleged contamination by association with evil.
What to do when confronted by this tactic
Treat all evidence on its merits, not on the basis some supposed personality disorder possessed by those presenting it. If the evidence is derived via rigorous methods from the real world, it deserves your consideration. Don’t be tempted to accept the unsupported claims of a person simply because that person insists all opposing evidence is the product of an evil system.
Update 2013/08/28: A recent study by University of California Santa Barbara researchers has revealed that thinking in a scientific frame of mind actually makes people more moral in their judgements. So presumably, scientists would be less evil than the general population.
Variations and related tactics
This tactic is an example of a more general strategy known as poisoning the well, in which the perpetrator tries to poison your attitude toward some evidence by denigrating the person(s) submitting it. It’s closely related to ad hominem, in which the perpetrator attacks his opponent rather than the opponent’s argument. One common form of poisoning the well is described by Godwin’s Law – in any discussion, someone eventually compares the initiator to Hitler and/or the Nazis.
The “science is evil” tactic often incorporates conspiracy theories, in which groups of scientists supposedly connive to develop devious outcomes. It also comes in a less hysterical form as “scientists are arrogant”.
- Promoters of pseudoscience have a vested interest in poisoning our attitudes towards science. Here is a completely over-the-top rant against science on a website that sells ‘alternative’ remedies. It includes such irrational gems of nonsense as:
And yet it’s not difficult to realize science is not the answer to our questions. Science has no real answers. It only has the mathematics to pretend that it knows something, but underneath the math it is devoid of understanding.
The history of “science” is replete with accounts of insanely evil madmen who carried out crimes against humanity as part of their “scientific” advancement.
David Gorski analyses the absurdity of the article at Respectful Insolence, here.
- Climate deniers narrow down this tactic and apply it exclusively to climate scientists. A frequent claim is that climate scientists are conspiring to exaggerate the effects of global warming so that they will receive more funding for their research. The “Climategate” incident is still promoted by climate deniers as evidence of the corruption of climate science, long after numerous independent inquiries have found no evidence of wrong-doing.
- Godwin’s Law is often used to poison people’s attitudes towards Charles Darwin and the biological evolutionary model (see here and here). There is in fact no connection between the policies of the Nazi era and Darwin’s model. A good debunking of the argument can be found here.