I remember when I first started reading about climate change. It was around my sophomore year of college and, predictably, I had a lot of questions. How we can determine causality, as opposed to correlation, and how we can develop forecasts decades into the future were questions that puzzled and interested me. I decided to ask a graduate student I knew who was studying just this sort of thing.
It did not go over well. I remember perceiving him as defensive in response to my questions. It was as though he assumed I had an agenda, and he was trying to break opinions I didn’t actually hold. It became exhausting quickly. I wasn’t trying to argue a point; I was trying to learn.
Partaking in many discussions about science since then, I now know that my experience was far from unique. There are certain subjects in science that have made it into the public spotlight as hot-button political issues. In addition to climate change, for example, candidates are asked about their positions on evolution and vaccines. Overall, politicians talking more about science is a good thing. But in politics, a particular type of discourse dominates. The world of politics is inherently antagonistic, where one candidate needs to beat another, and the language follows suit. To make their positions easier to digest and remember, politicians tend to dichotomize issues: one candidate adopts the pro-something position, while the other is anti. It’s a world where nuance is at best not appreciated and at worst frowned upon, and where changing your mind in the face of new evidence is criticized as a sign of weakness.
Even if not ideal, all that is understandable for politics. But the problem is that as scientific subjects join those ranks, the antagonistic nature of political discourse has infiltrated elsewhere. Into classrooms. Into labs. Into our everyday discussions with one another. It has become difficult to talk about those topics in science without viewpoints seeming immediately split: there are the enlightened ones and the less enlightened ones, where the goal is for the former to educate the latter. Conversations are loaded. Questions are treated with suspicion. More and more people who care about science, like that grad student, seem constantly braced against a presumed opponent with an agenda – an opponent who needs to be taken down. We debate instead of discuss.
That mentality just doesn’t work in science. Those who are new to a subject are intimidated from asking questions and afraid to disagree. Rather than reason through ideas themselves, they are pressured into accepting conclusions presented as settled and thereby indisputable. But the thing is, nearly everything in science is disputable. The nature of discovery means trying to find the absolute truth – and exposing inconsistencies, thinking through how to reconcile them, and critically analyzing data are all ways to get there. We can’t get very far when curiosity and open inquiry – the hallmarks of good science – are stifled. We are touting the bottom line while discouraging the very steps of the scientific method that get us there.
What we have to realize is that science and politics have fundamentally different goals, and it’s damaging to conflate them. In politics, the aim is to convince others that you are right. Scientists, ideally, should be seeking objective truths. To do so, they need to be receptive to dissent and open to the possibility of being wrong. Science thrives when diverse ways of thinking are welcome.
Pundits talk as though being skeptical is akin to being “anti-science.” But anti-science is a political idea, not a scientific one. The only way to be anti-science in science is to have a closed mind.
I know: it’s easy to feel frustrated with the real political forces that are in the business of denying data. Hearing about their influence on a regular basis is bound to evoke some reaction. But I’m afraid that in our efforts to combat them, we’ve gone too far in the other direction. Let’s give one another more credit, and assume that the person you are talking to about science – especially if you’re in a teaching position – is not a stooge of a political denial industry, but a reasonable individual who wants to learn. If the culture of scientific discourse has been distorted, it’s in our power to get it back.
Because if we don’t? That would be how anti-science wins.