Part2: Answering some of the most common antiscience arguments.
Starting from the first part of our “The modern witch hunt against science” saga where we introduced the phenomenon and the dangers of the antiscience movement, let’s now illustrate the most common arguments that oftentimes arise to denigrate science, with the hope of contributing to a more constructive and mature discussion on the scientific method and to factually improve our man-made practices. Of course, despite the following points were chosen because of both their controversiality and flawed rational grounds, we don’t want to make a straw man out of any critics against the scientific method, but to simply illustrate the reader about the dangers of biased opinions.
1. “You cannot say my argument is less valid than yours. Even Galileo was considered a mad man by the experts of his time.”
This is a modified version of what an anti-vaxxer told for real to Prof. Roberto Burioni, a world-famous Italian virologist who is well-known for his scientific achievements and his harsh methods of vulgarization that oftentimes backfire into a stronger radicalisation of his interlocutors.
The best response to this statement, despite the undiplomatic way of bringing it, comes from Prof. Burioni himself:
“To be like Galileo you don’t only need to say something different from what the others think. You must also be right.”
To further explain this point, this antiscience argument is a mixture between a relativist fallacy and a survival bias, which respectively are describe by the following sentences:
- “Since we don’t have absolutely objective tools to understand reality, my opinion is always as valid as yours.”
- “There is no easily retrievable record about the ones who failed at something or were simply wrong in a specific topic. So, considering that the records mainly show the ones who did it and/or were right, I am statistically likely to be right as well if I find myself in conditions that are similar to theirs.” Which means, in this particular case, that if Galileo went against the common opinion and was right, if you go against the public opinion you are right as well, despite all the ones that did it, were wrong and have been forgotten.
Most of the arguments that we will see here, like this one, have the sole purpose of denigrating the experts with the unproved assumption that they are all biased and that their knowledge is not adequate to address the reality of facts, while not even addressing the mechanics of science itself.
2. “Scientists are paid to spread lies by corporations and unknown groups of power.”
According to UNESCO there were almost 8 million full-time researchers worldwide in 2013, accounting for 0.1% of all global population. Now we all know that some of them are corrupt, but so far a considerable number of nights spent at looking for some evidence to prove that even 1% of them is indeed corrupt or at the mercy of unknown groups of power were fruitless.
One cannot take all scientists accountable for scientific misconduct just because a small minority has been found guilty of unethically altering its research.
If tables were turned, no one would gladly accept to be treated as untrustable scum just because someone working in his own sector, maybe not even in his own company, is a criminal.
Inductive processes like the one described above are some of the most dangerous things one can use in science or to understand society. They can be helpful, but one must always remember when using them that adequately large statistical samples and a full comprehension of biases is not only recommended, but also deontologically mandatory! This means that if one wants to understand the scientific community as a whole from the merits and/or the felonies of the few he should:
A) Be sure those few are not too low in numbers to be statistically significant;
B) Cut external biases off, i.e. he should demonstrate the impossibility that these people’s actions are due to restricted circumstances rather than an intrinsic quality of all modern scientists;
C) Acknowledge his own biases, which means he shouldn’t let his hopes for a specific outcome cloud his judgement.
3. “You say that from A we go to B and in turn to C… so what do you know about quantum field theory?”
Variations of this argument come with a major frequency in hot topics that everyone knows something about, like climate change, natural selection or vaccines.
When one starts a friendly conversation with a relative or a fierce discussion with unknown people on social media there will always be someone that will ask him something very specific, even if it is not really pertinent with the topic they are discussing.
This doesn’t happen only to “amateurs”, but to experts as well! Science includes so many disciplines that is quite hard for anybody to have an almost encyclopedic knowledge on a single one, let alone more than one discipline! Any scientist, when asked for specific equations or to explain specific phenomena, would sometimes be in the uncomfortable situation of asking for some time to check his notes in order to give a proper explanation to his interlocutors.
This is quite a common scenario that shouldn’t leave anyone upset or ashamed. It is just part of the game.
The problem instead arises when your interlocutor want to exploit your not-knowing-something to fallaciously prove that all your arguments are invalid and his is instead right just because he might have a sketchy understanding of a complex phenomenon.
Never drop your ideas because someone proved you don’t know all the specifics. There is a difference between proving your argument wrong and acknowledging some points are missing. Be always confident enough to recognize the latter case and to fight for your ideas, but not too arrogant to assume you are never in the former one.
4. “Science is only ~ 400 years old. Ancient civilizations were able to make wonders without it, some of them yet not explained by modern experts.”
This is sometimes nothing more than a refined memoria praeteritorum bonorum (or Rosy retrospection), which is a disproportionate positive judging of the past that is iconically represented in our culture by an elder person complaining about the present with the opening “Back in my day”.
No one is denying that science doesn’t have all the answers, but just because scientists don’t know something doesn’t necessarily mean their methods cannot be applied to understand or do better than what happened in the (partially idealized) past.
Imagine you lived whenever between Copernicus studies and 1928, when Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin and started the antibiotics era. What would you have thought if an antiscience activist of that time had told you that science was not able to surpass the ancients at fighting the plague?
There are alternatives to science, of course. What is although important is the accuracy of the method you are using and its effectiveness.
The only “true” answer to this antiscience argument is therefore the following: if you took a person from the year 0 and another one from 1600 AD, and you brought the first one to 1600 AD and the second one to 2020 AD, which one would be more surprised of the world he would see? Did humanity progress more in terms of technology and understanding of nature in the 1600 years prior to science or in four centuries with science?
Of course it is not only a merit of science. Societal changes gave fertile ground for science to proliferate, but nevertheless the scientific method has been so far shown to be the most effective one, also considering the least amount of biases and superstitions it possesses.
5. “Some scientific theories and technologies have been proven wrong in the past or have been corrected. You cannot therefore dogmatically take what science say as an unquestionable truth.”
This is actually an excellent point. This criticism can really bring something interesting into a mature discussion about the pros and cons of science.
Anyone reading this article should know that science is not (or shouldn’t be, at least) based on dogmas, but on trials and errors. Any proper scientist, at least in his field of expertise, will never hold anything as an epistemological unquestionable truth.
As a matter of fact there is this great misconception transversely all the education levels that science represents the ultimate tool to understand reality, while instead the truth is a bit more complicated than that. Science is in fact the BEST tool at our disposal right now to get an approximated and usable understanding of our reality.
Nevertheless even this argument, despite the qualitative conversations buildable from it, has its own flaws.
First of all because it assumes science as an independently working machine that doesn’t need humans to work, who can, as we know, make errors.
Secondly because it is making a straw man out of science by highlighting only the times when it was wrong.
Antibiotics kill bacteria (for now), smartphones and internet can bring you to Twitter, space shuttles routinely bring astronauts to a fully operative space station, and with our knowledge of thermodynamics, electromagnetism, quantum mechanics and so on we produce each year enough energy to meet the needs of billions of people at once.
Did science make mistakes and is still doing them? Yes, but it’s still by far the most reliable method we have nowadays to obtain knowledge and to apply it for our own benefit.