Science Isn’t Your Cudgel

Do you want to understand how the material world works at the most fundamental level? Great! There’s a tool for that. Or a method. Or a collection of knowledge. “Science” is an amorphous concept, hard to pin down or put into a box. Is science the method of hypothesis generation and testing? Is it as Popper claimed, asking falsifiable questions and trying to refute your own theories? Is it inextricably entangled with the ream of statistical methods that have grown up in service of it? Or is it the body of knowledge that has emerged from the use of all of these intellectual tools?

I’m not sure what exactly science is. Whatever its definition, I feel like it helps me understand the world. Even still I have to remind myself that caring about science is like caring about a partner in a marriage. You need to be with it in good health and in bad, when it confirms things you’ve always wanted to believe, or when your favourite study fails to replicate or is retracted. It’s rank hypocrisy to shout the virtues of science when it confirms your beliefs and denigrate or ignore it when it doesn’t.

Unfortunately, it’s easy to collect examples of people who are selective about their support for science. Here’s three:

  1. Elizabeth May – and many other environmentalists – are really fond of the phrase “the science is clear” when talking about global warming or the dangers of pollution. In this they are entirely correct – the scientific consensus on global warming is incredibly clear. But when Elizabeth May says things like “Nuclear energy power generation has been proven to be harmful to the environment and hazardous to human health“, she isn’t speaking scientifically. Nuclear energy is one of the safest forms of power for both humans and the climate. Elizabeth May (and most of the environmental movement) are only fans of science when it fits with their fantasies of deindustrialization, not when it conflicts with them. See also the conflict between scientists on GMOs and environmentalists on GMOs.
  2. Hillary Clinton (who earned the support of most progressive Americans in the past election) is quite happy to applaud the March For Science and talk about how important science is, but she’s equally happy to peddle junk science (like the implicit association test) on the campaign trail.
  3. Unfortunately, this is a bipartisan phenomenon [1]. So called “race realists” belong on this list as well [2]. Race realists take research about racial variations in IQ (often done in America, with all of its gory history of repression along racial lines) and then claim that it maps directly onto observable racial characterises. Race realists ignore the fact that scientific attempts at racial clustering show strong continuity between populations and find that almost all genetic variance is individual, not between groups [3]. Race realists are fond of saying that people must accept the “unfortunate truth”, but are terrible at accepting that science is at least as unfortunate for their position as it is for blank slatism. The true scientific consensus lies somewhere in-between [4].

In all these cases, we see people who are enthusiastic defenders of “science” as long as the evidence suits the beliefs that they already hold. They are especially excited to use capital-S Science as a cudgel to bludgeon people who disagree with them and shallowly defend the validity of science out of concern for their cudgel. But actually caring about science requires an almost Kierkegaardian act of resignation. You have to give up on your biases, give up on what you want to be true, and accept the consensus of experts.

Caring about science enough to be unwilling to hold beliefs that aren’t supported by evidence is probably not for everyone. I’m not even sure I want it to be for everyone. Mike Alder says of a perfect empiricist:

It must also be said that, although one might much admire a genuine [empiricist] philosopher if such could found, it would be unwise to invite one to a dinner party. Unwilling to discuss anything unless he understood it to a depth that most people never attain on anything, he would be a notably poor conversationalist. We can safely say that he would have no opinions on religion or politics, and his views on sex would tend either to the very theoretical or to the decidedly empirical, thus more or less ruling out discussion on anything of general interest.

Science isn’t all there is. It would be much poorer world if it was. I love literature and video games, silly puns and recursive political jokes. I don’t try and make every statement I utter empirically correct. There’s a lot of value in having people haring off in weird directions or trying speculative modes of thought. And many questions cannot be answered though science.

But dammit, I have standards. This blog has codified epistemic statuses and I try and use them. I make public predictions and keep a record of how I do on them so that people can assess my accuracy as a predictor. I admit it when I’m wrong.

I don’t want to make it seem like you have to go that far to have a non-hypocritical respect for science.  Honestly, looking for a meta-analysis before posting something both factual and potentially controversial will get you 80% of the way there.

Science is more than a march and some funny Facebook memes. I’m glad to see so many people identifying so strongly with science. But for it to mean anything they have to be prepared to do the painful legwork of researching their views and admitting when they’re wrong. I have in the past hoped that loudly trumpeting support for science might be a gateway drug towards a deeper respect for science, but I don’t think I’ve seen any evidence for this. It’s my hope that over the next few years we’ll see more and more of the public facing science community take people to task for shallow support. If we make it low status to be a fair-weather friend of science, will we see more people actually putting in the work to properly support their views with empirical evidence?

This is an experiment I would like to try.


[1] The right, especially the religious right, is less likely to use “science” as a justification for anything, which is the main reason I don’t have complaints about them in this blog post. It is obviously terrible science to pretend that evolution didn’t happen or that global warming isn’t occurring, but it isn’t hypocritical if you don’t otherwise claim to be a fan of science. Crucially, this blog post is more about hypocrisy than bad science per se. ^

[2] My problems with race realists go beyond their questionable scientific claims. I also find them to be followers of a weird and twisted philosophy that equates intelligence with moral worth in a way I find repulsive. ^

[3] Taken together, these are damning for the idea that race can be easily inferred from skin colour. ^

[4] Yes, I know we aren’t supposed to trust Vox when it comes to scientific consensus. But Freddie de Boer backs it up and people I trust who have spent way more time than I have reading about IQ think that Freddie knows his stuff. ^

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