Regardless of the chosen subject, from climate to fluoride, the anti-science community pose themselves as a credible counter-weight in the public debate. In one regard, they are correct, but certainly not how they would like you to believe them to be.
There are obvious stepping stones between science and mainstream media, each having a valuable position in public discourse.
- The first stepping stone is clearly the peer-reviewed scientific method itself. This happens among experts on a given subject well trained to critique and re-evaluate methods and data to test their merits and thus the confidence that can be drawn to a given conclusion.
- The next stepping stone is a passive form of science communication. This form of communication demands some level of understanding of the science and the capacity to simply convert findings into a language that can be understood to a wider audience.
- The final stepping stone converts that information into answers responding to the question, “What does it mean to us?”This stepping stone in science communication is the least expert on the topic of science, but is valuable because such individuals are likely to have good understanding on related subjects, such as policies and politics and can place this understanding, drawn from the science into a much broader context.
Where Does Anti-Science come into it?
The anti-science community sits on this third stepping stone, dressing itself up as the middle step which they want their readers to believe actually challenges the first one!
Take for instance Chris Monckton; he talks almost exclusively about what the subject means to us. In his world view, it means a resurgence of a hidden communist party out to take over the world and kill off six people out of seven. This message he dresses with graphs that are supposed to come from the peer-review process (suggesting that he represents the second stepping stone) and somehow challenge the standing confidence in basic principles within the climate science community.
Look at Merilyn Haines; she too speaks of values. She may refer to the odd science paper, which in itself would be an ill-fitting argument, but then wraps it up in anecdotal evidence, fear propagation and inaccuracies (such as the claim that fluoridated water is toxic or that the studies have not been done). It is entirely about what fluoridation means to us, but she pretends to accurately relay the science without bias and then suggests that it somehow challenges the standing conclusions in the body of science on public health.
Take any given anti-science communicator and you will find the same thing. Values – such as control / freedom, family health, prosperity etc – dressed up with unfounded assertions about the reality of scientific understanding. This begs the reader to be convinced of the validity of a counter-conclusion – one that avoids the scrutiny of expert peer-review completely!
Challenging the Denier
For those who choose to respond, it’s a doomed action. How can one prove that Monckton’s invisible enemies do not exist? How can one prove Merilyn’s sister did not get a skin condition from washing in the fluoridated water of Townsville?
Without first proving the invisible to simply not exist at all, how can you reply to the inaccuracies of the full package, which includes their “scientific” argument, in such a way that supporters of this anti-science would re-think their position?
This is why the creationism movement has persisted for so long; because the proof of a god will remain as elusive as the orbiting teapot – how can you prove it wrong? Clever anti-scientists have realised this and so market their message on their own imaginary threat or friend and in doing so render all counter-measures mute.
What we need to remember is that their fundamental argument is not on either of the stepping stones they pretend it to be. It does not challenge the science, because it avoids the scientific process like the plague. It is not the second passive form of science communication, because it is devout to desired values and clearly does not represent the science (it means to challenge the science and so obviously cannot).
It is the third step and based on, you guessed it, anti-science; a counter-argument to unfavourable conclusions drawn within the scientific method, devoid of the same level of scrutiny.
As a movement, it has no legs. It doesn’t draw upon reasonable sources of reliable information. It is untenable, beyond all doubt. Acknowledgement of these anti-science movements for what they are is the only method to respond. We must stop thinking it’s reasonable to see fairies at the bottom of the garden when human ingenuity has all but removed any possibility of such fantasy.