I have listed Michael Shermer’s evidence to date for a “War on Science” alongside the evidence I used to claim the right was engaged in a War so people could see if they find them equivalent. Then I gave the definition Chris Mooney and I used when we called something an “abuse of science” ([A]ny attempt to inappropriately undermine, alter, or otherwise interfere with the scientific process, or scientific conclusions, for political or ideological reasons.) Now I’d like to go through some of Shermer’s examples and see how they jibe with those definitions.
First of all, let’s look at Shermer’s examples 3-6 :
· Liberals are antinuclear because of the waste-disposal problem
· Liberals are antihydroelectric because dams disrupt river ecosystems
· Liberals are anti–wind power because of avian fatalities.
Does opposing nuclear power “undermine, alter or otherwise interfere” with science? It’s hard to see how. In fact, all four are factually true: nuclear power does create nuclear waste, fossil fuels cause global warming, dams do disrupt ecosystems and birds probably due run into wind turbines. Facts do not alter or interfere – though they might undermine (as they say, figures don’t lie, but liars can figure) established theories. Now number 4 is clearly stupid – opposing wind power because birds fly into them is a case of letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.
But all of these are policy decisions. For this to be anti-science, the need to build nuclear power plants would have to be a scientific “fact” like evolution. At best, it’s a “fact” like claiming we need to regulate CO2 emissions. Most scientists probably believe that. Science does certainly suggests grave consequences for the planet if we do nothing – but it is not a scientific question. If one, say, believes humans are warming the Earth and that it would be worse to act, or ought to concentrate on how to deal with the fallout rather than stemming the effects, that person is not abusing science. They are engaging in misguided policy, perhaps, but not anti science.
Now consider these:
· Though he can name no one, he “underlying current” is “everything natural is good” and “everything unnatural is bad.”
· A religious fervor over the purity and sanctity of air, water and especially food.
This is worse. Here, Shermer is declaring a certain value system to be a scientific “fact,” and that to value the purity and sanctity of air and water, or to value old growth forests, “anti-science.”
Take, for example, a pro-life person, and an animal liberator. Most of the time, what these people claim (abortion causing breast cancer not withstanding) is not unscientific. One can state when the human heart starts to beat and fingers form, and the unenviable process a pig goes through to become bacon without misstating facts. What is life, however, enters the realm of the spiritual – what has a soul, what is alive… these are not questions proven as scientific certainty. When something becomes “human” is a value judgment.
Likewise, I can value national parks the same way I value an old home. It may be a fact it costs more to keep an old home going, it might even hinder development – I don’t need to make up facts to contradict that in order to believe old houses are still worth preserving.
Think about what Shermer is doing here – he has opened up science abuse to be defined as anything he personally doesn’t like or value, or that doesn’t agree with his politics. If you don’t share Shermer’s beliefs, you are abusing science. That does meet one of Mooney's categories of abuse of science: "Dressing up values in scientific clothing."
So the only "abuse" documented here, is that on the part of Shermer.
Next, we’ll look at the examples that come closer to meeting Mooney’s definition. One of them might actually qualify.