Boris Karloff plays the mad scientist
THE ANTI-SCIENCE CANARD
August 9, 2013
Wesley J. Smith
I was involved in one of those heated internet dustups last week. It started when Hank Campbell, creator of the Science 2.0, accused me of being “anti-science” and “hating biology,” which he claimed I see as a “tool of Lucifer.”
“Anti-science”? “Hate biology”? Lucifer? What had I done to spark such emotive language?
I argued against the creation of “three-parent” IVF embryos on ethical and safety grounds. (The father of the child in three-parent IVF would be the man whose sperm fertilized a genetically modified egg containing substances from two women, who would both be biological mothers.) I might have ignored Campbell’s criticism. But it was posted at the popular website Real Clear Science, so I pushed back.
That tempest in a teapot got me thinking about the ubiquitous use of the “anti-science” epithet. The point of the slur is to avoid actual discourse by branding an intellectual opponent as irrational, theocratic, and/or reactionary, to the end that the adversary’s opinions be dismissed as antithetical to modernity.
But the term is inaccurate on several levels. “Science,” properly understood, is a powerful method for gaining and applying knowledge about the workings of the physical universe. Its tools are observation, careful measurement, testing, and the like. Is anyone really against these things? That’s what being “anti-science” would actually entail.
Debate adversaries are called “anti-science” most commonly during intense disagreements about the proper ethical parameters to establish over controversial areas of scientific inquiry. For example, the embryonic stem cell research (ESCR) debate isn’t primarily about stem cell science. Rather, the controversy surrounds the ethical propriety of destroying human embryos as if they were no more important than a corn crop. Throw the potential for developing non-contentious stem cell alternatives into the discussion—such as adult stem cells—and you have a real policy donnybrook.
Reasonable people fall on both sides of the embryonic stem cell divide. But it is no more “anti-science” to oppose ESCR based on ethical concerns than it is “anti-ethics” to support it.
Here’s another example of an ethical issue involving science. The National Institutes of Health recently announced that it will not fund new research using chimpanzees. Many applauded the new policy, citing the intelligence of chimps and their capacity to suffer as ethical reasons to stop the research. Others disagree—me included—citing the great human benefits that have come from using chimps in limited ways—the hepatitis vaccine is one—and the potential for future important breakthroughs, for example using chimps in the study of HIV.
So, why isn’t the NIH rule also “anti-science”? It could, after all, prevent us from learning valuable scientific facts and inhibit the ability of science to alleviate human suffering—the very reasons opponents of embryonic stem cell research are castigated.
The answer is simple: There is strong agreement within the scientific and bioethics communities for the moral view that led to the chimp policy, while most of these same advocates strongly oppose strict ethical limits on ESCR. In other words, whether one is deemed “anti-science” often depends on whose moral ox is being gored.
The anti-science label is also useful in stifling heterodox scientific research. Advocates for aggressive public policies to fight global warming, for example, accuse their political and scientist opponents of possessing an animus toward science for standing against the purported “scientific consensus.”
My colleagues at the Discovery Institute are routinely accused of being anti-science for promoting intelligent design (as they are in Campbell’s article), which ID opponents often mislabel as creationism. But ID is methodologically science. Its adherents are exploring the profoundly heterodox hypothesis that the natural world is better explained by a directing force than the almost universally accepted explanation of random causes and purposeless natural selection.
Intelligent design investigators may well be wrong about that. But questioning seemingly settled scientific orthodoxies and challenging consensuses is a difficult but necessary core function of the scientific method that keeps the sector from becoming sclerotic.
Thus, it is no more “anti-science” to explore the intelligent design hypothesis through experiment and evidentiary analysis—and indeed, articles friendly to ID or its insights have now appeared in a number of peer-reviewed or -edited science journals—than it was for scientists Robin Warren and Barry Marshall to propose that a bacterium causes peptic ulcers, a proposal for which they were ridiculed but which gained them a Nobel Prize in 2005.
Or take the case of Danny Schectman, who proposed the existence of quasi-crystals in the early 1980s and was widely scorned by fellow scientists. Yet thirty years later his persistence earned him a Nobel Prize in chemistry.
Advocates who castigate political adversaries or brand heterodox scientific approaches as “anti-science” intend their ad hominem ridicule to protect establishment views and policy agendas against those who would dare to challenge them. The point is to prevent discourse and protect orthodoxy. Ironically, if anything really is “anti-science,” that is.
Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism. He also consults for the Patients Rights Council and the Center for Bioethics and Culture. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.
8.9.2013 | 1:19am
The problem is that it is possible to prove that a bacterium causes peptic ulcers, while it is impossible to prove by scientific methods that the universe can only be explained by the existence of a supernatural “directing force.” I happen to believe in that force, but I don’t think for a minute that the methods of modern, rational, materialist science can prove its existence. The best that could be hoped for would be to pick flaws in current evolutionary theory and to demonstrate that it is inadequate.
To be effective, ID proponents need to give credit where credit is due and stop repeating discredited arguments. For example, the statement that scientists have no evidence for the step-by-step evolution of one species into a different species. That particular evidence was found in African lake beds, where fossil evidence showed a complete sequence of evolution from one species of snail into another species.
8.9.2013 | 3:16am
Bret Lythgoe says:
Excellent essay by Wesley Smith. Hank Campbell is entirely wrong to claim that Wesley Smith is against science. Mr. Smith is only against certain applications of science, that he has deemed to be ethically unacceptable. Whether one agrees with him or not, is obviously one’s right, but one has an ethical obligation not to distort his, or anyone’s views. If Mr. Campbell has a disagreement with Mr. Smith over the ethical legitimacy of IVF, he should present arguments to support his disagreement, not use disrespectful, and inaccurate language. I disagree with Mr. Smith about animal rights, but he has presented very good arguments for his view on this issue, and on every other issue. This is not hyperbole: every essay that I’ve seen of his, is presented in a rational, well argued way, even when I have disagreed.
Mr. Campbell seems to be upset by Wesley Smith’s association with the Discovery Institute, because the latter is made up of some who dispute the traditional account of evolution. In my opinion, evolution is rationally based, and likely not to be superceded. But, as with anything in science, it could be. And as long as the institute uses good arguments, and good empirical evidence to challange evolution, what’s the problem? Stephen Meyer, for example, has made a good case for Intelligent Design.
8.9.2013 | 7:57am
Steve Macdonald says:
I don’t believe that evidence demonstrating step by step evolution from one sort of snail into… another sort of snail fully addresses the critique in question. Now, that critique may still be wholly incorrect, but it remains the case that we lack clear fossil evidence showing one type of animal gradually transforming into a completely different type of animal. Again, I’m not saying whether or not this critique is legitimate, only that I don’t think that Snail(1a) –> Snail(1b) is a sufficient response.
8.9.2013 | 9:28am
Thomas R says:
I kind of understand the ID issue. Science is traditionally the study of repeatable natural phenomenon. St. Albert Magnus states, “In studying nature we have not to inquire how God the Creator may, as He freely wills, use His creatures to work miracles and thereby show forth His power: we have rather to inquire what Nature with its immanent causes can naturally bring to pass.” If God does intervene in evolution or the creation of species that’s not really an issue of science or at least would not be per my understanding. Science isn’t necessarily concerned with a total understanding of human, or even pre-human history, more with natural phenomenon.
From that some scientists go for an idea that only natural phenomenon exist. And for some science is the only way to really understand anything. Things that curtail that, and I think there are a great many scientists/science-lovers who would still deem restrictions on animal research “anti-science”, are against their ethic. Science (the advancing of knowledge of nature) is like their creed even if that’s not precisely what it’s intended as. I think if the chimp thing is more accepted it might be they feel, rightly or wrongly, we’ve about reached the limits of what experiments on chimps can teach us and that chimps are rarer than human embryos.
8.9.2013 | 10:48am
The idea that religion and science necessarily conflict is simply false. The “reasoning” used to “demonstrate” this is of so feeble a confection that scientists would rip it to pieces if such were used against science, and rightly so. I am a theist. I happen to accept virtually everything that science maintains using those methods proper to it (I speak as though science spoke with one voice, which it certainly does not), including evolution, though I do not believe that evolution has been proved with the rigor of quantum theory and relativity (which, incidentally, are contradictory in their current formulations–the Bell’s theorem anomaly–I think this will be resolved by a further penetration into the laws of nature). I do not accept the metaphysical assumptions of some scientists that mandate exclusive materialism. This hasn’t been proven and can’t be proven. My world view embraces authentic contemporary science, and quite comfortably at that.
As for intelligent design, I doubt it in the formulation of, say, Michael Behe, but think at the foundation of being it is almost certainly correct.
8.9.2013 | 1:42pm
I believe in Intelligent Design, also. However, the God I believe in would not create a ‘beta’ universe needing correction along the way. I believe my omnipotent God structured the Big Bang in such a way as to produce a pre-intended outcome, having, in His infinite capacities, the ability to allow for all necessary contingencies. Of course, He intervenes in human history in response to the results of our free will, and in answer to prayer. As he created the universe, He is by necessity not of it and is therefore undetectable by science. If a scientist thought he had discovered physical proof of God, he would simply be mistaken.