Recent Writings

The attack on science

Part II of a six-part, bi-weekly series on post-truth

Skepticism, a philosophical school in ancient Greece, derives its name from skepsis, meaning investigation. Modern skepticism has evolved but retains the Greeks’ core value of investigating phenomena to discover their causes or roots.

Merriam-Webster defines skepticism as “an attitude of doubt or a disposition to incredulity either in general or toward a particular object.”

Scientists are skeptics by nature as they take nothing on faith and diligently work to disprove hypotheses. It’s called peer review with scientists being each other’s most critical critics.

Critic is defined by Merriam-Webster as “one who expresses a reasoned opinion on any matter especially involving a judgment of its value, truth, righteousness, beauty, or technique.”

The key operating word there is reasoned, a “rational, sufficient ground of explanation or of logical defense.”

The negative connotation of a critic is “one given to harsh or captious judgment.” Captious: “calculated to confuse, entrap, or entangle in argument.”

Climate-change deniers parody themselves as skeptics, but they ignore evidence amassed by thoroughly vetted, peer-reviewed studies. Rather than skeptics, deniers are captious critics.

In “Post-Truth,” Lee McIntyre introduces the chapter about science denial with a statement from the 20th century’s most influential economist, John Maynard Keynes. “When facts change,” said Keynes, “I change my mind. What do you do?”

Climate deniers change facts or cherry-pick isolated anomalies to “prove” their case, but here is no debate on climate change.

Deniers’ strategy rests on discrediting science by implanting doubt. But there’s a polar distinction between reasonable doubt, as in law and science, and creating doubt by casting aspersions, “criticizing harshly or unfairly.” Doubting verified facts is not reasoned thought.

Deniers claim that they’re about being open, commandeering science’s descriptor for inquiry. But since their mission is to advance a point regardless of facts, they’re not open. They claim as well that they want to be fair, which implies science is not fair. Fair is a value judgment. Facts are never fair; they just are.

“It is quite common for those who oppose particular scientific findings,” McIntyre writes, “to be quite comfortable applying their own ideological litmus test to an area of inquiry under the guise of ‘openness’ or ‘fairness.’ The goal is a cynical attempt to undercut the idea that science is fair and raise doubts that any empirical inquiry can really be value neutral. Once this is established, it seems a small step to make the case for consideration of ‘other’ theories.”

The essential difference between science and religion is that science, after accumulating evidence, offers theories while religion is based on a mental-gymnastic leap called faith. In religion, God/gods, ghosts, and angels are not theoretical. For science, gravity, electro-magnetism, and quantum physics are not acts of faith.

Merriam-Webster defines theory, in context of science, as “a scientifically acceptable general principle or body of principles offered to explain phenomena.”

“Until a theory is absolutely proven,” says McIntyre, “they believe a competing theory could always be true.”

McIntyre traces the roots of this dis-intellectual phenomenon to the growing evidence that smoking can be lethal. In response, the tobacco industry went into full protection mode. Its strategy rested on implanting doubt on the fact-finding methodology.

“Ever since the infamous internal memo written by a tobacco executive in 1969 which said that ‘doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the “body of fact” that exists in the minds of the general public,’ it has been clear what needs to be done. Find and fund your own experts, use this to suggest to the media that there are two sides to the story, push your side through public relations and governmental lobbying, and capitalize on the resulting public confusion to question whatever scientific result you wish to dispute.”

The outcome has been, as McIntyre notes, that facts have become subordinate to opinions.

In 1998, the American Petroleum Institute, becoming alarmed about responses to global warming, took a page from Big Tobacco’s playbook. Since then, earth’s climate has been going up in smoke.

The new normal is that the planet will continue to heat up, upwards of nine degrees Fahrenheit by 2100 inducing more extreme conditions. And that’s a fact.

In two weeks, Part III: The roots of cognitive bias


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