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The scary science scenario – science portrayed as evil.

January 30, 2013
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

Science not so innocent

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”.

Examples

  • 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.

and

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.
You can add to the list of examples by leaving a comment.

Leo Szilard’s quote is from S. R. Weart and G. W. Sallard (eds.), Leo Szilard: His Version of the Facts (1978), p229

This is one of ScienceOrNot’s Science red flags. See them all here.
12 Comments
  1. Jeshyr permalink

    Ohhh I came across one of these folks just yesterday!!

    Lovely little rant here: http://www.ukskeptics.com/forum/showthread.php/4357-Graviola-Tree-Cures-Everything?p=80519&viewfull=1#post80519

    Crop yeilds are no better now than they ewere before the chemical agri input, the monocrops they produce are so dependant on artificial systems its incredibly fragile. Listing a load of chemical fixes for poor eating (insulin), flouridation (thyroxine therapy), and other fixes for the consequences of modern nature messing is not good enough. Selective breeding in sheep leads to loads of wierd outputs, dolly the sheep as a solution to world hunger is nuts.

    He does try to stuff pretty much every logical fallacy under the sun into one paragraph, but “scary science wrecks everything” seems to be the overriding thought in as much as I can make sense of it at all …

  2. Very nicely argued. And I agree.

    Science is nothing more than an effort to understand the natural world through careful, open-minded, observation and experimentation. That pursuit of knowledge is (I believe) inherently benign. It’s what people do with scientific knowledge that potentially causes problems. Most of the evils attributed to “science” are actually the fault of technology – the application of scientific discoveries. And even there, we would be in less trouble if it were not for the worst aspect of capitalism, America’s sacred cow, in which people exploit technological advances with the sole aim of making themselves rich in the here-and-now and without regard for the environment and for future generations.

    Adverse climate change is a result of our technologically advanced lifestyle exacerbated by our numbers. The explosion of the human population has been made possible by advances in medicine, sanitation, and food production which were based in part on scientific discoveries, but science also gives us means to understand and address the problem through knowledge of human development, sexual behavior, and contraception. The fact that we have resisted putting our knowledge to good use is not the fault of science.

  3. Your blog is a breath of fresh air. There’s at least one other blogger on WP whose pseudoscientific posts have been annoying me recently – climate-change denial in particular – and I’m undecided about whether to stop following that blog. Nothing personal against the blogger, of course.

    • Thanks argylesock. If your pseudoscientific blogger doesn’t respond well to reasoned argument, perhaps it’s best to stop.

      • Yes. I realised how rude I’d been about per in my comment above, and hence realised that I should stop following per blog. So I clicked ‘Unfollow’.

  4. ulaa permalink

    The issue is not about science, the issue is about the service…the question would be: who/what is the master; does the human scientist works as a slave to the science or does the science serve all Life as it should be. Hope ‘the breath of fresh air’ will try to entertain itself with this worthy question…

    • I think you’ll find there are as many answers to your sweeping question as there are scientists, ulaa. There is no such animal as “the scientist”. There are simply lots of human beings who are scientists, and their motivations, aspirations, etc are all different, as with all human beings.

  5. ulaa permalink

    When it comes to experimentation it would be worthy to make the experimenters the starting point of their experiments, so whatever they want to expose others to in the name of the experiment, they do it on themselves, so for example, they should be the first to be fertilized by the rats or pigs and see how it goes from there…the end result would open multidimensional perspective: reason we already have and psyche as the 2nd dimension would immediately open itself to them; this way many a scientist would have multidimensional epiphany…from one-dimensional creature of reason it would become two dimensional (hopefully). Eureka!

    • As I believe I have clarified in my reply to your previous comment, ulaa, I reject your premise that scientists are “one-dimensional creature(s) of reason”. I’m sad to say that this is one of the more common stereotypes used to denigrate scientists.

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