Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Science denialism - is it the new black?

Before I begin my diatribe I feel I should apologise for my tardiness in drafting this post. Despite my best intentions sometimes life just gets in the way :) Now to resume normal service, at least until our baby arrives. And I urge my handful of readers to comment if you so desire.

I remember a time, and it wasn't that long ago, when we as a nation looked up to scientists and respected them for their knowledge and expertise. The news media would seek their opinion on matters about which they could make relevant comments and we would nod sagely as we listened to and, for the most part, believed what we were hearing. Today it has become fashionable to scoff at those who dedicate their lives to the pursuit of knowledge, a state of affairs which for obvious reasons perplexes me.

There are some very apparent symptoms of this shift. A couple of high profile examples are proponents of "intelligent design" and deniers of climate change. But there are others. The internet abounds with wacky conspiracy theories which survive not in the presence of any real proof, but in fact proliferate by actively opposing those who provide evidence to the contrary, and by suggesting that those who follow scientific method are somehow the patsies, unwitting or not, of big evil corporates or war-mongering governments. I'm thinking here of theories like that the US govt is causing earthquakes and freak storms around the globe by misdirecting the relatively puny power of the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Programme (see HAARP conspiracies), that the contrails left by airliners are not water droplets condensing rapidly from jet exhausts, but that the aircraft are seeding the atmosphere with barium and aluminium salts for nefarious purposes (see chemtrails), that the HIV virus is not responsible for Aids but that the cause may be, among other things, recreational drug use (see aids denialism), and the list goes on. These are the same people who believe that what is possibly humankinds greatest achievement, landing astronauts on the moon, never happened and that the whole event was faked at a sound stage in Area 51. There is considerable cross-over with the folk who think the world is going to end this year because of the shortcomings of an ancient calendar commonly attributed to the Mayans, but which was likely devised by the Olmec people.

Why is it that such a vocal sub-group prefer not to accept knowledge earned and/or theories devised by science? These are the same folk who in earlier times felt deeply threatened by Darwin and Galileo, and who for reasons known only to themselves are deeply fearful of the world being a rational place, guided by natural and predictable laws. They commonly spread their dogma via the internet, blissfully unaware of the irony that the means by which their message is being propagated would not exist but for the exploits of the very scientific community which they continuously mock. In the past all of these folk would have been drawn to the church, where they relied on the power of prayer to protect them from demons and boogie-men. But organised and structured belief doesn't seem to be du jour, so many have fled the church and instead today seek solace in the companionship of fellow conspiracy cultists.

Scientific denialism may not be the new black, but it is certainly akin to a new religion. Don't get me wrong, it is ok to question science. Scientists do this all the time, it is part of the peer review process, and the way in which the body of scientific knowledge evolves and grows. But do it with sound evidence gathered by experimental findings and proper research. To do anything less demeans not only the great works of scientists past and present, but also ourselves.


  1. I agree that science denalism seems to be on the rise, although it may be that the Interweb simply provides a way for traditionally disparate crackpots to bond together. It is interesting to read commentary by some of the more media savvy scientists (such as Robert Winston and some NZ scientist whose name escapes me) that part of the issue is a general trend among scientists to not engage in the public debates which of course lets the echo chamber of morons proceed unimpeded.

    Of course it is hard to rebut some (most) of these delusions (I wouldn't call them theories) as most conspiracy ideas lack any coherent structure. E.g. some moon landing conspiracists seem to believe that it was all faked, whilst others seem to believe the early landings were faked but the later ones were real (this allows them to account for moon rocks etc).

    Additionally if you've seen the vitriol spewed forth at Richard Dawkins, it is understandable while there would be some hesitation in engaging in the public debate. There is also the real risk of being seen to elevate some of these ideas to the status of credible theories by debating them in public.

    Nonetheless if scientists don't actively engage with the media/public then the situation isn't going to improve. The first battle is probably educating the media as educating the public will require the media's support. We're going to be here a while.....

    1. You're most likely correct on that the net provides a more accessible forum for the nutters to vent, humankind is now able to interact and connect in ways previously not possible, and the discourse on the net is but a reflection of humanity as a whole. I also agree about the vitriol at Dawkins' site, but I'd add that this goes both ways, Dawkins has never shied away from slinging a bit of abuse at faithists. Personally I'm no fan of his methods, but I certainly understand his frustration at people who simply choose not to listen in the face of overwhelming evidence.

      I would note that since 2008 we have had in NZ the Science Media Centre, a govt funded organisation tasked with being the first point of contact for media organisations seeking feedback and comment from those in the scientific community. The board itself is a bit light on scientific expertise, but they have a pretty solid range of advisors on tap. I've met one or two and followed the posts of a couple on SciBlogs and I'm reasonably confident that science in NZ has a reliable voice should media choose to seek it out. Unfortunately sober & factual commentary is often not very sexy and not a headline grabber. Too often the media opt for the sensationalist story in order to sell more copy.

    2. I agree that the media is often driven by what makes good headlines and sound bites, however there appears to have been a rising trend in New Zealand (it has existed overseas for ages) for the media people in scientific organisations to also engage in 'PRing' (for want of a better word) their information release to capitalise on the headline grabbing angle.

      I just recently finished reading Robert Winston's 'Bad Ideas' and he has a 'Scientist's Manifesto' which is a list of points for scientists to consider when engaging with the media/public at large. Makes quite interesting reading.

  2. I think your last statement has hit the nail on the head Andrew - the new media norms (digital, audio, print) is now so focused on 'sensationalism' that it has truly gone to such new heights as to be competitive at making everything the 'best sound byte ever', sadly. Perhaps born of competition for attention with the ever sprawling plethora of media types & channels; perhaps because scientists & technologists themselves feel the need to 'announce' things in a similar style to be heard these days above the rising tide of ever more exciting 'sound bytes'. I would say that any appointed science advisory body these days will also need to be social media savvy and engaged in this arena as well, for better or for worse, out of a necessity to reach the public that are being bombarded on these same channels from the crackpots and ignorant populace who click the 'Like' & 'Share' buttons without a moments thought or hesitation, which is how a lot of these conspiracy "theories(?)" get seeded. My 2 c...

    1. I appreciate the feedback, and am gratified that I'm not, as I feared I might be, talking complete bollocks :)

      To their credit the SMC do engage in social media to a degree, they have a blog and twitter feed, and I believe they are cross syndicated to SciBlogs although I may be mistaken. Having a professional body which represents science in the media must be a positive step, although I suspect that by the very nature of their role they will likely be more reactive than proactive with mainstream media, responding to requests for information more than they initiate dialogue with the media.