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Sunday, June 26, 2016


The topic of being wrong pops up more and more frequently in public discourse these days. Author Chuck Klosterman, maintains we are probably wrong about everything we think we know, including and maybe especially gravity. Meanwhile, we are chided for being “ant-science” if we disagree with the consensus of scientists. In a famous Last Week Tonight spot, Bill Nye (the Science Guy) leads a climate change “debate” that was no more than Bill with 96 white-coated people representing the 97% of the scientific consensus against 3 other people representing the 3% of the science community refusing to join the bandwagon. Case closed, apparently.

We all “know” that Republicans are the anti-science party, right? Except, according to Neil Degrasse Tyson, there is plenty of anti-science on the Liberal side of the aisle as well. Steven Novella, MD, a contributor to Neuroligica Blog, supports Dr. Tyson’s assertions with some survey results, concluding, “My synthesis of all this information, which is admittedly incomplete, is that people tend to be anti-science whenever science confronts their ideology.”

Dr. Novella elaborates,

I think it is more meaningful to understand these issues by breaking them down to specific ideologies and how they influence acceptance or rejection of science. Conservatives tend to value freedom, the sanctity of life, and the free market and they distrust government. Liberals value nature and the environment and distrust corporations. Individual issues are complicated because they can cut across multiple ideologies. In terms of the question of who is more anti-science, my approach is this – you don’t get credit for being pro science for accepting an issue that is compatible with your ideology (bold added). Liberals acceptance of manmade global warming does not mean they are necessarily pro science, because this issue is right in line with their ideology (pro nature, anti corporate). Conservatives don’t get credit for being pro nuclear for the same reason. Evidence for being pro science is when you accept a scientific consensus that conflicts with your ideology. You have to demonstrate that science comes before your ideology, (bold added).

The thing is the 3% of scientists who disagree with the 97% are not wrong simply because they are outnumbered, as Bill Nye implied. Science is not a majority-rules proposition. Throughout history, there have been scientists who have disagreed with mainstream science. Some suffered, at worst, outright scorn and ridicule, or at best, indifference, only to be found to have been right all along. One big reason why accusations of being “anti-science” carry no weight with either camp is because everybody knows that settled science is settled only until a scientist unsettles it.

“Anti-science” is the new heresy. There is nothing wrong with disagreeing with settled science. The problem is when disagree-ers (of any stripe) have no basis for the disagreement except ideology. That’s a problem that seriously impedes useful discourse on any issue.