Some time ago, I described the mysterious mandates cropping up around the country demanding schools teach climate skeptic viewpoints as "anti-science". Yet some of my fellow TreeHuggers objected:
"'Anti-science' is kind of a lazy criticism. It tends to be used to discredit anyone you disagree with. Why not simply debate their position, not label them with a derogatory term."So ran the gist of the critique, as far as I could tell. But the trouble is that the position of those proposing these education measures was not just "climate skeptic", it was fundamentally anti-science. If you insist that elected politicians (funded by secretive vested interests) should dictate what is taught by science teachers, or if you believe that complex scientific topics can be reduced to a fundamentally two-sided format more akin to a high school debating contest, then you are turning your back on the value of expertise and you are undermining the role of science-based decision making in our society.
And that's something environmentalism should take a stand against.
Environmentalism is Not a Religion
Environmentalism is not a religion, but rather a practical application of common-sense thinking. But if we're going to deride right-wing extremists for rejecting scientific evidence on climate change, then we also have to an honest conversation about the role of anti-science, or at least less-than-rational, thinking in our own ranks.
Anti-Science Bias in Our Own Ranks?
From protesting small-scale experiments on iron seeding to continued refusal by some to believe the evidence on vaccines and autism, we greenies are not immune to our own cherry picking of data or simple distrust of those sinister scientists.
From homeopathy to the impact of moon cycles on growing crops, many environmentalists I know (myself included) embrace certain ideas that are at very least not backed up by mainstream science. Many of us also believe that a narrow focus on progress through scientific advancement has lead to incredible advances in technologies like fertilizers and pesticides, but sometimes at the expense of broader notions of ecological health or holistic land management which are also scientifically measurable, but perhaps less profitable.
And that's before we even get to the thorny topic of the pros and cons of GMOs or the relative merits of nuclear power. (There are, of course, many valid studies suggesting negative consequences of GMOs and legitimate questions about whether nuclear power can be part of our energy future.)
The trouble is that science never exists in a vacuum; it is rarely completely cut-and-dry; and science-based decision making will always be influenced by political and cultural influences. How scientists and scientific experts declare any monetary interests, for example, is a legitimate concern when we talk about the influence of science on public discourse.
Societal Oversight Still Needed
This post is intended as the beginning of a discussion, not a proposal for a solution. I don't really have an answer for how we balance respect for expertise and specialized knowledge with the legitimate need for societal oversight. But I do think we need to be aware of our own biases, and we need to be ready to question and challenge ideas—whether they come from our own ranks or those with a different agenda—which don't stand up to analysis or evidence-based enquiry.
Please share your thoughts below. (But be sure to cite your sources.) Oh, and here's a short video from comedian Tim Minchin on the battle between superstition and science. Enjoy.