Feature Science in Politics

How to Defend Science in a Post-Truth Era

The Scopes Monkey Trial seemed ridiculous when I first learned about it in school. How could the majority of the educated adults involved blindly deny what scientists showed evidence for? I don’t think I would have found their naivety unfathomable if I were in school in 2019. Anti-science hacks and quacks are given a megaphone these days, so the “bad science” of climate change deniers, anti-vaxxers, and flatearthers catches like fire in a dry brush of ignorance.

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My favorite spokesperson for anti-anti-science is Ben Goldacre, whose book Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks, and Big Pharma Flacks came out in 2010 (in the U.S.). Though a decade old, the specific references are not as dated as you might expect: Holistic nutritionist Gillian McKeith has almost 80,000 Instagram followers today, but at least she finally stopped referring to herself as a doctor (Goldacre was able to obtain the same certificate of membership for his dead cat); Brain Gym continues to be touted in the U.S. news as a way for students to increase creativity and focus through little self-administered taps and massages; And the MMR Hoax chapter is particularly relevant, as the anti-vaccination movement brought measles back to my home city of New York last month.

For people who are already scientifically minded, sorting the science from the pseudoscience shouldn’t be that hard. There are certain standards to test: Has the study been published in a science journal? Is it peer reviewed? Has the experiment been replicated with similar results? Where is the bias?

However, in the post-truth era, it can be difficult for people who are not already “on the side of science” to decide whether they should believe the science reports or believe the hacks and quacks who preach that “scientists don’t know everything.” (They don’t. That’s kind of the point.)

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New Book by Lee McIntyre

In the new book The Scientific Attitude: Defending Science from Denial, Fraud, and Pseudoscience (May 7), scholar and philosopher Lee McIntyre suggests that the best way to defend science isn’t to defend the evidence itself (McIntyre says, “You cannot convince someone who does not believe in evidence by showing them more evidence”) but to defend the scientific attitude. Contrary to the instinct of the denier, whose standard of truth is absolute certainty, the scientific attitude thrives on being able to shift understanding based on new evidence. Non-scientifically minded people may see this as a weakness, and indeed many scientists are embarrassed about this uncertainty, aware that deniers will use it as support for the flimsiness of science as a discipline. This is not helpful. McIntyre claims scientists need to embrace the attitude of uncertainty—that nothing can ever be proven for certain—in order for deniers to stop using it as a weapon against them.

The second element of the scientific attitude is the importance of evidence and the scale of “wrongness.” The idea that the Earth is a perfect sphere turned out to be wrong, but it isn’t as wrong as the idea that the Earth is flat. Once science deniers accept that uncertainty is not a weakness, it is important that they see that the quality of the evidence is essential in informing what you should believe about how the world works. Just because scientists are uncertain about the nature of dark matter and yet believe it exists doesn’t mean there’s an open door to all kinds of other uncertain ideas. There is evidence for dark matter. There is not evidence for curing illnesses through substances diluted in water. (In fact, there is strong evidence that the dilution used in homeopathic medicine causes the molecules of the substance to be completely broken and therefor be of no value.) One of these ideas is uncertain, and the other is wrong. It’s evidence that shows the difference.

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