In my last post I argued that responses to the march tell us about how our peers (in and outside of science) view science, and highlight both the deliberate and accidental misunderstandings we must confront. Consequently, these observations lead to prescriptions about our future actions. What surprised me most were claims that the march simply fetishized science and enabled a group of ignorant zombie ideologues to chant “Science is gud” without really knowing why. This claim not only surprised, but it also irritated me beyond measure, mostly because the aim of the march was the exact opposite.
This criticism, like others, stems from fundamental confusions about what it means to be scientifically literate, and what support actually entails. As I have argued, advocating for science does not require blind faith in an all-powerful science god, or obeisance to a scientific priesthood. In fact, my experience has been that those who draw similarities between “believing” in science and religion have a poor understanding of both these ways of knowing. When reporters challenged Ben Carson (current director of HUD) on his grasp of basic principles of evolution and cosmology, his response was the following: “I’m not going to denigrate you because of your faith, and you shouldn’t denigrate me for mine.”
Science worship vs. science literacy
Let’s dispense with the first canard that the M4S encourages science “worship” because it was not a seminar on scientific literacy. It’s hard for me to overstate how silly this idea actually is. Do we suppose that the march itself is deficient because participants were not required to pass an entrance exam? Clearly, one of the goals of the M4S organizers was to promote an understanding of the scientific process. Such understanding is essential for determining the validity of claims made by experts. Obviously, protest signs are not the way forward here. But clearly, drawing attention to the importance of science can lead to a better dialog between those that do science and the public.
Anyone who doubts how the M4S facilitates science literacy should visit any number of threads on the M4S Facebook page discussing the scientific method. Fostering basic knowledge of science practice is of great concern since confusion here encourages us to accept bad science and reject valid studies. Claims about the efficacy of drugs or dietary supplements hawked by trumped up carnival barkers use faulty reasoning designed to swindle the unwary. Similarly, climate change deniers use all manner of invalid forms of reasoning to support their claims. Does this mean the public needs to know about what a p-value actually means? Probably not, claims to the contrary. But, it does suggest the public should know how scientists draw inferences, parse information, and make conclusions. Accordingly, we must be careful spokespersons and render accurate assessments of what the science says regardless of our ideology.
Science is not an end in itself
The second charge is that the M4S encourages the uncritical acceptance of science as an end in itself. This isn’t absurd so much as it is dishonest and hypocritical. The essence of this “argument” seems to be that [gasp!] people are people! That is, we have a tendency to accept ideas we like and reject those we don’t. People will question the legitimacy of peer review or financial COI only under some circumstances and not others, Therefore, (so it goes), an activity that accepts bias among its supporters only feeds blind acceptance.
To this, I say quite seriously, WTF? I mean, confirmation bias, dishonestly in the peer review process or other failings sadly are part of the scientific process because scientists are people. According to the logic above, shouldn’t we suspend NSF and NIH from funding science because this also supports a flawed process? Funny, but I don’t hear people making this argument. The M4S, by encouraging dialog about these issues, increases awareness that science is a process that must be, but not always is, performed properly.
Intellectual honesty is essential
Concerns about science worship make plain that we must be intellectually honest and encourage those we interact with to be the same. Accept the facts when appropriate and be cognizant of the limitations regardless of the conclusions. Nothing in the march itself or its aftermath is inconsistent with this goal.
But, I’ve already commented on the difference between factual analysis and advocacy. In my view, the trick is to not let the latter dictate the former, or let others confuse the two for their own ends. By example, many criticized the M4S is because some of those supporting it are anti-GMO. Now, the science says there is no evidence that GMOs are unsafe for consumption. But, it also says that effects on productivity are at best marginal (especially in the developed world), and some crops actually may increase herbicide use. Moreover, there are social and political reasons why some look unfavorably on GMOs. Reasonable people can disagree about whether to support this technology. But, we should make sure all the facts are on the table. Further, we should reject simplistic claims that (deliberately or not) confuse what we know for what should be done.