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Wesley Smith on the "Anti-Science Canard"

Following his dustup with Hank Campbell of Science 2.0, our colleague Wesley Smith reflects on the exchange at First Things, offering a brilliant and incisive take on the "anti-science" label. Campbell had accused Smith of being anti-science for opposing so-called "three-parent" in vitro fertilization. I wrote about Campbell's tirade here.

Wesley observes that no one really opposes "science" if the word is taken to be synonymous with the scientific method. Instead, people are said to be "anti-science" for basically one of two reasons: either for taking an ethical position (in a scientific or medical arena) that someone (like Hank Campbell) doesn't like, or because, in employing the scientific method, they reach conclusions about the natural world (e.g., that it reflects purpose and design) that, again, someone doesn't like.

Wesley concludes:

The anti-science label is ... 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.

The "anti-science" label is shorthand for "Shut up, I don't want to hear what you say." It's essentially reactionary, a mindless demand that people who challenge certain favored majority views should stop doing so, on pain of being ostracized, immediately. Anyone who uses it has thereby given evidence of being unwilling to have his ideas on scientific issues rationally scrutinized:

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.

Read the rest at First Things. Congratulations to Wesley Smith.