When you say you are pro-science, what do you mean you are in favor of?

In the last few weeks, with the March for Science coming up, there have been a few discussion of what being pro-science implies. I just want to ask

When you say you are pro-science, what do you mean you are in favor of?

Below, I present a few different answers.

Science as a set of empirically validated statements

Science can mean facts such as:

  • the world is steadily warming and will continue to do as CO2 concentrations go up
  • nuclear power is safe
  • vaccines are safe
  • GMOs are safe

This is the idea behind the there is no alternative to facts rhetoric. The four statements above can be quibbled with (there are some risks to some vaccines, GMO refers to a technique not a product so even calling it safe or unsafe is not the right discussion, nuclear accidents have happened, and there is a lot of uncertainty on both the amount of warming and its downstream effects), but, when understood in general terms, they are facts and those who deny them, deny reality.

When people say that science is not political, they mean that these facts are independent of one’s values. I’d add the Theory of Evolution to the above four, but evolution (like Quantum Mechanics or Relativity) is even more undeniable.

Science and technology as a positive force

The above were “value-less facts”; let’s slowly get into values.

The facts above do not have any consequences for policy or behaviour on their own. They do constrain the set of possible outcomes, but for a decision, you need a set of values on top.

It’s still perfectly consistent with the facts and claim the following: Vaccines are safe, but a person’s bodily autonomy cannot be breached in the name of utilitarianism. In the case of children, the parents’ autonomy should be paramount. This is a perfectly intellectually consistent libertarian position. As long as you are willing to accept that children will die as a consequence, then I cannot really say you are denying the scientific evidence. This may seem a shocking trade-off when said out loud but it also happens to be the de facto policy of the Western world for the 10-20 past years: vaccines are recommended, but most jurisdictions will not enforce them anymore.

Similar statements can be made about all of the above:

  • The world is getting warmer, but fossil fuels bring human beings wealth and so, are worth the price to the natural environment. The rest should be dealt with mitigation and geo-engineering. What is important is finding the lowest cost solution for people.
  • Nuclear power is safe, but storing nuclear waste destroys pristine environments and that is a cost not worth paying.
  • GMOs are safe, but messing with Nature/God’s work is immoral.

Empirical facts can provide us with the set of alternatives that are possible, but do not help us weigh alternatives against each other (note how often cost/benefit shows up in the above, but the costs are not all material costs). Still, often being pro-science is understood as being pro technological progress and, thus, anti-GMO or anti-nuclear activism is anti-science.

Science as a community and set of practices

This meaning of “being pro-Science”, science as the community of scientists, is also what leads to views such as being pro-Science means being pro-inclusive Science. Or, on the other side, bringing up Dr. Mengele.

Although it is true that empirically validated facts are shared across humanity, there are areas of knowledge that impact certain people more than others. If there is no effort to uncover the mechanisms underlying a particular disease that affect people in poorer parts of the world, then the efforts of scientists will have a differential impact in the world.

Progress in war is fueled by science as much as progress in any other area and scientists have certainly played (and continue to play) important roles in figuring out ways of killing more people faster and cheaper.

The scientific enterprise is embedded in the societies around it and has, indeed, in the past resorted to using slaves or prisoners. Even in the modern enlightened world, the scientific community has had its share of unethical behaviours, in ways both big and small.

To drive home the point: does supporting science mean supporting animal experiments? Obviously, yes, if you mean supporting the scientific enterprise as it exists. And, obviously, no, if it means supporting empirically validated statements!

The cluster of values that scientists typically share

Scientists tend to share a particular set of values (at least openly). We are pro-progress (in technological and social sense), socially liberal, cosmopolitan, and egalitarian. This is the view behind science is international and people sharing photos of their foreign colleagues on social media.

There is nothing empirically grounded of why these values would be better than others, except that they seem to be statistically more abundant in the minds of professional scientists. Some of this may really be explained by the fact that open minded people will both like science and share this type of values, but a lot of it is more arbitrary. Some of it is selection: given the fact that the career mandates travel and the English language, there is little appeal to individuals who prefer a more rooted life. Some of it is socialization (spend enough time in a community where these values are shared and you’ll start to share them). Some of it is preference falsification (in response to PC, people are afraid to come out and say what they really believe).

In any case, we must recognition that there is no objective sense in which these values are better than the alternative. Note that I do share them. If anything, their arbitrariness is often salient to me because I am even more cosmopolitan than the average scientist, so I see how the barrier between the “healthy nationalism” that is accepted and the toxic variety is a pretty arbitrary line in the sand.

What is funny too is that science is often funded exactly for the opposite reasons: It’s a prestige project for countries to show themselves superior to others, like funding the arts, or the Olympics team. (This is not the only reason to fund science, but it is certainly one of the reasons). You also hear it in Science is what made America great.

Science as an interest group

Science can be an interest group like any other: we want more subsidies & lower taxes (although there is little room for improvement there: most R&D is already tax-exempt). We want to get rid of pesky regulation, and the right to self-regulate (even though there is little evidence that self-regulation works). Science is an interest group.

Being pro-science

All these views of “What do I mean when I am pro-science?” interact and blend into each other: a lot of the resistance to things like GMOs does come from an empirically wrong view of the world and correcting this view thus assuage concerns about GMOs. Similarly, if you accept that science generally results in good things, you will be more in favor of funding it.

Sometimes, though, they diverge. The libertarian view that mixes a strong empiricism and defense of empirically validated facts with an opposition to public funding of science is a minority overall, but over-represented in certain intellectual circles.

On the other hand, I have met many people who support science as a force for progress and as an interest group, but who end up defending all sorts of pseudo-scientific nonsense and rejecting the consensus on the safety of nuclear power or GMOs. This is why I work at a major science institution whose health insurance covers homeopathy: the non-scientific staff will say they are pro-science, but will cherish their homeopathic “remedies”. I also suspect that many people declare themselves as pro-science because they see it as their side versus the religious views they disagree with, even though you can perfectly well be religious and pro-science in accepting the scientific facts.  I would never claim that Amish people are pro-progress and I hazard no guess on their views on public-science funding, but many are happy to grow GMOs as they accept the empirical fact of their safety. In that sense, they are more pro-science than your typical Brooklyn hipster.

Sometimes, these meanings of being pro-science blend into each other by motivated reasoning. So, instead of saying that vaccines are so overwhelmingly safe and that herd immunity is so important that I support mandating them (my view), I can be tempted to say “there is zero risk from vaccines” (which is not true for every vaccine, but I sure wish it were). I can be tempted to downplay the uncertainty about the harder-to-disentangle areas of economic policy and cite the empirical studies that agree with my ideology, and to call those who disagree “anti-scientific.” I might deny that values even come into play at all. We like to pretend there are no trade-offs. This is why anti-GMO groups often start by discussing intellectual property and land-use issues and end up trying to shut down high-school science biology classes.

In an ideal world, we’d reserve the opprobrium of “being anti-science” for those who deny empirical facts and well-validated theories, while discussing all the other issues as part of the traditional political debates (is it worth investing public money in science or should we invest more in education and new public housing? or lowering taxes?). In the real world, we often borrow credibility from empiricism to support other values. The risk, however, is that, what we borrow, we often have to pay back with interest.

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2 thoughts on “When you say you are pro-science, what do you mean you are in favor of?

  1. I think you make entirely valid points: claiming science has no ideology is not a good way to go. The scientific method is, of course, apolitical, but those who decide what to research, what to fund, how to publish and how to divulge are entirely human, with all the consequences that that brings.

    What many of these anti-science groups do is to capture the ideological side of the scientific community and demonise it, mostly in the form of conspiracy theories. Science (or part of it’s community) has it’s fair share of misdeeds to contribute to this, e.g. the alliance with the tobacco industry.

    It’s interesting how much anti-science is based on a pseudo-science of sorts: while the rejection of science is there, the need for some framework that appears scientific is quite an interesting behaviour.

    Another aspect I think is worth mentioning is that the anti-science movement is part of a wider malaise (yes, this is a charged word, I know) – the classical anti-science reasons are being aligned with other phenomena that are emerging in the world, such as the anti-PC stance, the “patriotic nationalistic economics” and the mostly generic anti-globalisation movement.

    One final consideration I’d like to make is the hypothesis that anti-science is a first-world luxury resulting of a combination of bad long(mid?)-term memory and lack of major problems. I don’t have any data to back any of this, but I’m assuming that modern anti-vaccination is coming from “idle minds” that live comfortably, and would rapidly change their stance if the Ebola epidemic had become more dramatic. The way science is discarded by anti-science people is utterly mind-blowing in the fact that they don’t reject it universally, but only when it suits them.

    PS: I’ve heard some (unsubstantiated) claims that the coverage of homeopathic “therapies” may be economically advantageous as if functions as placebo. I have no clue if this is true – insurance companies tend to be good at evaluating risk and making money out of it, but I’m sure there can be multiple reasons for this, ranging from political to lobbying. Buy the way, it’s not just the non-scientific staff that cherishes homeopathic remedies: famously, one Nobel Prize winner does too (Luc Montagnier) and undeniably smart people like Linus Pauling also dabbed into incredible pseudo-scientific “medicine”.

    • > Another aspect I think is worth mentioning is that the anti-science movement is part of a wider malaise (yes, this is a charged word, I know) – the classical anti-science reasons are being aligned with other phenomena that are emerging in the world, such as the anti-PC stance, the “patriotic nationalistic economics” and the mostly generic anti-globalisation movement.

      I like this formulation as it applies to both the left and the right.

      >PS: I’ve heard some (unsubstantiated) claims that the coverage of homeopathic “therapies” may be economically advantageous as if functions as placebo. I have no clue if this is true – insurance companies tend to be good at evaluating risk and making money out of it, but I’m sure there can be multiple reasons for this.

      I’ve heard this too and I can believe it, but I have also not seen any data.

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