Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The taxonomic laziness of "anti"

Sometimes I hear my kids arguing somewhere in the house, and I can almost predict what is coming next: my daughter will come to me and complain that her brother is being mean, and her brother will follow shortly and say that no, she is the one being mean. This is when I have to take a deep breath and ask what it is exactly they mean by "mean." What I am talking about here is an inference that they have made based on some behavior that they disliked in the other. Furthermore, this inference has morphed into a sledgehammer term "mean" that is now coloring their entire discussion. Deconstruction is always the order of the day.    

I observed a similar phenomenon, this time among my professional peers, when I published my paper a few years ago on how there is no evidence that VAP bundles do anything to prevent VAP: even some people whom I consider to possess equanimity decided that I must be "anti-quality." Are you serious? How can anyone be anti-quality? I am merely against spinning our wheels just so that we look like we are doing something. But this is not what this post is about.

Earlier today I came upon this remarkably intelligent post from Jack Stigloe, a blogger who is new to me. The post is aptly titled "Anti-anti-science," and takes the nuanced position that it is way too lazy and reductionist to call any dissenters with anything that remotely resembles a scientific idea "anti-science" (my words, not his). Indeed, Jack states,
My over-riding impression is that ‘anti-science’ is a term that is imaginary and unhelpful. It describes almost nobody and it gets us nowhere. Climate deniers are not anti-science, they are anti- a political view that considers environmental protection as important. Creationists, too, have moral objections to the implications of an evolutionary worldview (John Evans is very good on this). In both cases, these groups use science arguments as their vehicle because they are more sophisticated sociologists of science than the scientists themselves. Where scientists see their evidence as a solid stage on which the public drama of policy can take place, creationists, denialists, anti-vaccinationists and others see a precariously balanced house of cards. Yes, they are stupid and wrong, but calling them ‘anti-science’ doesn’t help. Hitting these people over the head with bigger and bigger science hammers will not win the argument, it will simply confirm their suspicions.
And I do completely agree -- denying the evidence for evolution is simply blind, but to lump this faction together with people who oppose GMO foods is just lazy and destructive to a civil discourse.

The author then goes on to make a poignant confession that
One reason the term ‘anti-science’ raises my hackles is that I think the big beasts of science who use it might be talking about a group that includes me. We social scientists and policy folk have been known to ask difficult questions of science that have been interpreted as attacks.
And then he says that the term "anti-science" represents a "privatization of the idea of progress that is dangerous for science and society." The implication is that those calling everyone else "anti-science" have some sort of a monopoly on scientific ideas and discourse. What is crystal clear is that scientific ideas belong to everyone and should not be subject to "us vs. them" schoolyard brawls. Science demands precision in its taxonomies. So to start calling people who argue out of ignorance anything other than ignorant, or those who argue out of political expediency anything other than politically expedient is imprecise and, well, unscientific.

But there is an even more important and subtle reason why such taxonomic laziness is pernicious. This reason is that anyone who disagrees with us can easily become "anti-science," an insulting waste basket connoting ignorance. Why is this so bad? At one level, an overt insult thrown at an individual or a group generally raises their hackles, and, for the most part, eliminates any chance for a civilized discussion of idea. In this way the groups become even more polarized and entrenched without any way to get to any common ground. At another level, such labels give rise to a deeply flawed impression that science is precise. Indeed, those who fling these labels tend to fall on the old refrain of "look, I am the first one to admit that scientific knowledge is fungible." However, in the instances of current confrontations, they somehow cannot imagine that our current knowledge is incomplete and that further questions are not only legitimate, but are indeed a scientific imperative.

So, what is the take-home? Simple: respect dissent and use correct terminology. In other words debate from a place of thirst for knowledge. I realize that it is tiresome to have to argue that creationism is not science, that evolution is more than just a theory, that vaccines have saved millions of lives. But to write off these arguments as beneath us and to throw insults at each other only works in Washington, and look how well that has been going. But even more importantly, if we are going to answer such deeply pragmatic scientific questions of our time as "what are the full implications of GM salmon," we cannot shroud ourselves in the "sacredness" of science. Science can only stay beautiful and true if it steers clear of being dogmatic. It is time to take this discourse out of the boxing ring of childish insults and back into the civic society where if belongs.   


  1. This post is a move in a helpful direction. I wonder if there is more accurate terminology for his comment: "Yes, they are stupid..." I doubt that calling people stupid generates helpful dialog. Even "anti-science" sounds warmer than stupid. Just a thought.
    We may need more social linguists such as Deborah Tannen, PhD author of books such as The Argument Culture, You Just Don't Understand and others to help people with science oriented discourse.