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The Case for Science Denial
Even science doesn't "follow the science"
When I was a boy, I would help my aunt with the shopping. Once home, her first task was to rescue any purchased food products from their plastic packaging. Only glass could be trusted. Even metal could betray you. We had argued, standing in the kitchen, about the ‘safety’ of canned goods. I, having not grown up in the time of rampant lead poisoning, viewed metal as a culinary ally. I had also viewed plastic as an ally, but I was not about to start that debate again. Regardless, my aunt had shown me a thin, semi-transparent film around the inside lid of an empty can. That, she claimed, was some kind of plastic or other unnatural compound that could contaminate the food. Naturally, out came the Mason jars.
Now, were the finer points of her aversion to plastic justified? Hard to say. However, this was decades before a study commissioned by the WWF revealed that we might be ingesting as much as a credit card’s worth of plastic every week. My aunt had not had the research per se, but she had possessed the correct instinct. It was the same instinct that had seen her covering the laptop webcam with a thumb of Blu Tack, earning bewilderment from the rest of us. Just as with the plastic, however, years later, iOS14 exposed Instagram for accessing the user’s camera even when not in use. Once again, she was right. While perhaps hit-or-miss on the finer details, the instinct had proved itself as a North Star to orient around. This ‘instinct’ had seen both my aunt and uncle derided as crackpot tree-huggers three decades ago, and as neo-Nazi science deniers today.
They were folks just standing still, the Overton pendulum washing over.
This evolution of pejoratives, from tree-hugger to neo-Nazi, is crucial. If we don’t change the terms we use, we risk comparing the current day to history. In other words, we risk realising our own hypocrisy, for as we celebrate the rebels of yesterday, we condemn the rebels of today. We’re desperate to define today’s rebels as new and different to those we mistakenly ignored in the past. The anti-war folk of yesterday were unpatriotic, but the anti-war folk of today are unempathetic. What will they be tomorrow? Cowardly? Xenophobic? The actual political position will stay the same, true, but the adjective will change and therefore our perception too.
For it is not enough to dismiss the past, we must also tirelessly update our definition of today’s reality. This happens daily. Once quietly confessed to by the establishment, conspiracies become common sense. That which was obnoxious speculation yesterday is obvious today. We catch ourselves saying, of course our phones spy on us – duh! – forgetting how we had scorned a friend for claiming the same thing just a few years ago. Fiction becomes fact overnight. This is how we never learn. If we were never wrong in the past, why would we ever be wrong in the future?
Old arrogance is refreshed with new arrogance.
In this way, we relegate the mistakes of the past to the sole domain of our bigoted ancestors. Witch hunts, crusades, lobotomies, and electroshock therapy – how barbaric, how unthinkable. We in the modern age are beyond such things. Unless, as Stanley Milgram demonstrated in his infamous experiments on obedience to authority, a stoic gentleman in a white lab coat calmly assures us that in fact we must obey, and that all responsibility is theirs. Perhaps then, in that moment we will turn up the voltage on our fellow participant because, “in the interest of science… one goes through with it”.
The philosopher and essayist George Santayana said that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. But let us offer an addendum. To resign the past to simply a time of bigotry, is to condemn yourself to repetition just the same – but with a self-satisfied twinkle.
Let us then take stock of our own pathology, as described above.
The people deemed ‘wrong’ today are unlike the people deemed ‘wrong’ yesterday.
Claims made by such ‘wrong’ people, once verified, were plainly obvious all along.
This whole business of being ‘wrong’ is a bit of an old-world problem anyway.
In short, to us, you’re either insane or annoying.
We therefore never grant kudos to those possessing a little more wisdom, a little better instinct, or a little more forethought than ourselves. They were insane yesterday, they’re annoying today, and they’ll be insane again tomorrow. All that said, seeing as we’ve safely relegated these folks to the sidelines, perhaps we can examine them at a safe distance. What exactly is the case for their abandonment of consensus, anyway? What is the case for science denial?
In a world simultaneously post-truth and yet incessantly fact-checked, it can be tempting to entirely forgo any sense of definitive, knowable truth. Today, we’re all a few keystrokes away from validating any preconception we arrived at the keyboard with – be they via ‘official’ or ‘independent’ sources online. Forbes warned us against this sort of behaviour, declaring with a provocative headline, “You Must Not ‘Do Your Own Research’ When It Comes To Science”. I would have preferred a more straightforward headline:
Accept The Current Consensus And Nothing Else.
The problem with this framing of course, is the term ‘current’, for it betrays a flaw with the original argument. We can look backwards with scorn, but never forward with skepticism. And just what horrors are we committing today that we will look back on and shiver? We can’t know for sure, of course, but God forbid we speculate. Trouble is, when we do indulge in a little of our ‘own research’, we’re met with a combination of the following: research supporting the current consensus, research that does not support said consensus, well-intended speculation, and the standard dose of old-fashioned, red-blooded misinformation. Somewhere in that stew of thought and documentation lies a truth that will only be retroactively known at an unspecified point in the future.
The different cardinal truths neither clash nor mesh. No one is invalidated, but nobody is right. Not even natural selection can take place here. The world is being engulfed in “truth”. And this is the way the world ends. Not with a bang, but a whimper.
Colonel & Rose,
Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (2001)
At this point, we have a few options. We can shrug, stand up, and head to the local milk bar in apathy. Alternatively, we could accept the current consensus and download the next safe-for-consumption update from our nearest device. Alternatively, we could become reactionaries, dismissing all official reports solely due to their officialness, and consume the independent sources, the speculation, and the misinformation with indiscriminate gusto. We might even oscillate between all three. But I suspect there is a fourth option lurking about. Perhaps we forgo any hope of truly and definitively sorting the endless chaff and instead turn inwards. We can ask our own personal value structures what they are telling us.
Admittedly, it is not scientific at all. However, we are not technically looking for science – we’re looking for the truth. Science can align with truth and with good, as it has with many great scientific discoveries. But it can also align with falsehood and with evil, as it has with a great many crimes against humanity. Science, in this way, exists in the same limbo of uncertainty as even sheer barstool speculation – time and chance happeneth to them all.
This is easy to forget of course, because science catches up, just as we do. Science once told us that mixed-race children were intellectually inferior, but it has since forgotten its own misgivings. The medical industry invoked the name of science as it hooked millions on OxyContin, but that too slips the mind. Truth, on the other hand, is more stoic. Yogic principles have held value for the human body many millennia before scientific studies verified them. Fundamental truths are true today, just as they were at the beginning of time.
Truth is eternal, science is evolving.
None of this is to say that all official reports need be condemned. We are not reactionaries and the Earth is not flat. Official reports and independent commentary alike must be reviewed critically, of course. They must also be reviewed philosophically, however, for objective fact requires a philosophical lens with which to have meaning. Let us demonstrate this with an example. Consider the following statement.
Human beings are profoundly complex organisms.
Assuming we agree semantically, this could be considered an objective fact. If so, what is its objective meaning? This depends on who is evaluating it and what their personal beliefs are. A creationist might say, “Human beings are in fact so profoundly complex, that only God could have made them.” Alternatively, an evolutionist might say, “Human beings are indeed so profoundly complex, that only four and a half billion years of evolution could have produced them.” The fact itself possesses no allegiance. Now, a more topical and political example.
Lockdowns slow pandemic spread.
Once again, this could easily be considered an objective fact, but does it mean that we must plunge our country into an economically catatonic state for somewhere between two weeks and eternity, while policemen enforce social distancing via pandemic-era quarterstaffs? Of course not. There is no direct line from statistical analysis to the suspension of civil liberties. More broadly, there is no direct line from reality to policy. It is our reality that thousands of people die swimming every year, yet it is not our policy to outlaw breaststroke. To draw such a line is to inject our own worldview into the equation.
This is only natural, mind you. Every day, we take what objective facts we can, inject what philosophical convictions we possess, and conclude what action we ought to take. This is normal behaviour. To outsource this process however, to let an appointed authority make this evaluation on our behalf, to let them decree that “attacks on me, quite frankly, are attacks on science” – that is to surrender our self-governance and unconsciously adopt the worldview of those who would proclaim themselves our betters.
Science™ is not science, any more than a picture is the vista. The institution of science is not itself science, just as a church is not itself belief. A person conflating the object with the ideal is a person worthy of our suspicion. In short, ‘follow the science’ reduces to just ‘follow me’.
Is this really, ‘the case for science denial’, then?
In a word, yes. This is the case for science denial, in that it is the defence of those ridiculed as ‘science deniers'. Nicolaus Copernicus and Galileo Galilei were ‘science deniers’. To assert that the Earth revolves around the sun, they had to deny that the sun revolves around the Earth. At worst, ‘science denier’ is a slur, meaning, “one who, in time may or may not be vindicated, but whom we shall slander regardless”. And at best, science denial is itself a part of science, the necessary antagonist that drives our story forward.
Let us assume for now that we have put science in its place, neither irrationally sidelined nor ingested unquestioningly. What does it mean to interview our own personal value structures, and to use that process to interpret the world? Where do these value structures come from? It is likely different for many people – a philosophical stance, a spiritual orientation, a religious edict, or perhaps simply a sheer but definite sense of existential unease. This thing, this guiding light, is in some sense the truest, most fundamental expression of identity. Whether found in a book, in the stars, or simply even in your own decades of experience – a source of inner truth is inseparable from human nature. It cannot be wrenched away by the scorn of consensus, nor crushed underfoot by the boot of authority. Even in the gulags, the soul survives the barbed wire, to both borrow and butcher a phrase.
It cannot be re-educated into extinction.
The inclination we see to frame recent political debates as “science versus anti-science” is telling. That nervousness betrays not a firm grasp of science, but a slipping grasp on consensus. A more accurate diametric would be “consensus versus dissidence”. My aunt needed no citation when she declared plastics a pariah. You could have fact-checked her until the sun went down, and I tried, but it would not have put a single dent in her resolve. For it was not something perpetually updated and reshaped at the whim of a new Vice thinkpiece. It was rooted in something deeper.
We won’t always be right, far from it. In fact, worse than potentially being wrong is definitely being unpopular. But what is the shame in unpopularity? Martin Luther King, Jr. was unpopular even among the white moderates who claimed to be his allies. Ignaz Semmelweis, the Hungarian scientist and physician, was so unpopular with his colleagues that they had him institutionalised. The belief that condemned him, in the context of the recent political landscape, is chillingly ironic.
Semmelweis advocated for hand-washing, to reduce patient mortality.
Unfortunately, he was unable to devise a theoretical explanation for his findings. As such, he was fact-checked into oblivion by his peers and by the scientific consensus of the time. He spent his final days in an insane asylum, where he was beaten nearly to death and shortly died of gangrene. To put a perhaps unnecessarily fine point on it, the adherents to consensus that saw Forbes lauding Semmelweis for his achievements two years ago, are the same adherents to consensus that would have condemned him to exile – had they been contemporaries.
If these are the people of history whom we honour in our dissidence, in our pursuit of truth, then unpopularity is the toll we pay. But the attempt to align yourself with that intangible and eternal truth is a far more practical and worthwhile endeavour than simply being ‘up-to-date’ with the consensus of our time. That might, finally, be something worth doing. Or trying to do.
For if truth is eternal, so is its pursuit.
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