Daniel Sarewitz: Stop Treating Science Denial Like A Disease

  • Date: 22/08/17
  • Daniel Sarewitz, The Guardian

Turning the rejection of scientific expertise into a pathology mistakenly presents individual ignorance as the bottleneck in political disagreements

[…] I find this emerging intellectual programme around science denial problematic on so many levels that it’s hard to know where to start. Certainly one part of the problem with the idea of an innate cognitive stance toward science, and with discussions about science in the political world more generally, is the undisciplined way in which the word “science” gets used – as if particle physics, climate modelling, epidemiology and cultural anthropology have so much in common that they are substitutable for “science” in any sentence. Which science does “science denial” pertain to?

Moreover, the entire programme fetishizes individual cognition and understanding by positioning the innate ignorance of the individual as the bottleneck at the intersection of knowledge, uncertainty, expertise, and political disagreement. The idea that these books implicitly endorse is that progress in tackling the complex problems of modernity is being blocked by individuals who do not accept new causal knowledge generated by science.

The effort to provide a behavioural explanation for why people might not accept the opinions of experts strikes me as not entirely dissimilar in its implications from the early ambitions for eugenics, in that it seeks in the biology of the individual an explanation for complex social phenomena. It makes one wonder what the appropriate treatment for science denial might actually be?

Meanwhile, the situation in the science enterprise itself is hardly reassuring. There is a reasonable case to be made—and I have tried elsewhere to make it —that much of science is on the verge of a crisis that threatens its viability, integrity, legitimacy and utility. This crisis stems from a growing awareness that much of the science being produced today is, by the norms of science itself, of poor quality; that significant areas of research are driven by self-reinforcing fads and opportunities to game the funding system, or to advance particular agendas; that publication rates continue to grow exponentially with little evidence that much of what is published actually gets read; and that the promises of social benefit made on behalf of many avenues of science are looking increasingly implausible, if not ridiculous.

Maybe a little science denial is actually in order these days? The emergence of science denial as a pathology designed to explain why science is not leading to improved political decision-making seems, if nothing else, completely overwhelmed by the precisely opposite condition.

The vast scale of the knowledge-production enterprise, combined with the likelihood that much of what’s produced is not much good, makes it possible for anyone to get whatever science they need to support whatever beliefs they might have about how best to address any problem they are concerned about – with little, if any, capacity to assess the quality of the science being deployed.

Twenty-five years ago, Silvio Funtowicz and Jerry Ravetz developed their concept of “post-normal science” to help understand the role of knowledge and expertise when facts are uncertain, values in dispute, stakes are high, and decisions are urgent. Under such conditions—which are common to many of today’s societal problems—Funtowicz and Ravetz describe how the “traditional distinction between ‘hard’, objective scientific facts and ‘soft’, subjective value-judgements is now inverted.” That is to say, facts become soft, and values hard.

Under such conditions, our expectations for Enlightenment ideals of applied rationality are themselves irrational. We are asking science to do the impossible: to arrive at scientifically coherent and politically unifying understandings of problems that are inherently open, indeterminate and contested – to provide, as Scienceblind promises us, “the full causal story.”

Meanwhile, the reliability of the very types of science that underlie books like Scienceblind and The Knowledge Illusion are increasingly called into question as evidence of irreproducibility continues to mount, including across many fields of research that make strong generalisations about human behaviour.

Our biggest problem is not science denial; it’s post-normal science denial.

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