There is no such thing as an ‘anti-science’ position

A position on an issue, say a policy perspective on climate change, cannot in and of itself be ‘pro-‘ or ‘anti-science’ — only a position coupled with the reasoning for said position is sufficient for claiming that a position is appropriately informed by science or not.

In recent times, popular narratives have emerged that label some positions as inherently ‘anti-science’. Setting aside for the moment the fact that some positions are ‘a-scientific’ (that is, we can hold a position for non-scientific reasons), it is crucial to see why the ‘anti-science’ accusation is often a strawman and a red herring that works against fair-minded discussion and debate. This oversimplification is leveraged by those with agendas to silence dissenting views, which are the lifeblood of scientific progress.

For a position to be considered informed by science, the underlying reason for the position must accord with sound scientific reasoning (and not, as many seem to believe, whether the position conforms to some, oft-imagined, ‘consensus’ on the issue). This means conclusions are constrained by the underlying assumptions and limitations of the statistical tools used as part of the reasoning process. A detailed analysis of those constraints is beyond the scope of this post.

Consider the following claims:

1) “I believe in climate change, because yesterday it was hot outside.”

2) “I am skeptical of the predictive value of climate models because of structural uncertainties in the modeling approaches, and the significant impact this can have on long-term projections”

Which is a more scientifically sound position? (I should note here that my perspective on climate change is a precautionary one).

Another example:

1) “GMOs are safe because there is nothing different about them from regular food.”

2) “Transgenic methodologies are extremely novel, harm can take significant time to surface (e.g. prion diseases such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy can take decades for symptoms to emerge), large-scale complex systems are notoriously difficult to predict, there is very little research done on ecological risks associated with large-scale genetic intervention; because of these reasons, and others, a precautionary approach to GMOs is warranted.”

Crucially, science by itself says little about the way we ought to address risk. Consider a situation in which we have 95% confidence of a favorable outcome. Would you ride in a plane based on those statistics?

A position is not pro- or anti-science because of its conclusions, but because of how those conclusions were reached. This does not guarantee the correctness of the conclusions, but focusing on the arguments and having fair-minded debates in good faith is the only way we will reach the appropriate conclusions — not through oversimplifications and pro/anti tribalism.

One thought on “There is no such thing as an ‘anti-science’ position

  1. z

    Hi, Joe. I don’t know a lot about the GMO subject but have been following some of the debate on Twitter with Taleb (1 of my favorite authors) and co. these last several months.

    I was wondering why, in the GMO debate, it sounds like the pro-GMO crowd don’t seem to think much about these tail risks that you and Taleb have been warning about but in other areas of science, the opposite seems to be the case from what I’ve seen.

    For instance, climate scientists (if I’m not mistaken), seem very heavily focused on thinking from the perspective of tail risks. Ditto with the pharmaceutical industry. Ditto, actually, with a lot of areas of environmental science.

    Is it that the climate scientists and pharma have seen or are seeing those risks coming to fruition and the GMO crowd hasn’t yet? (Are you guys right now the hypothetical equivalent of somebody in the early 1900s-1920s or so warning about the dangers of dumping CO2 into the atmosphere before the effects of global warming really started to be realized?)

    Or is it that climate and drugs get people thinking globally instead of locally better unlike, for some reason, GMO crops? Or is there something wrong with the thought processes or training of academics that train to study (and teach) the science GMOs vs. academics that study and train in these other areas of science?

    When do you think the GMO crowd will come over to your guys’ side and what do you think would have to happen in order for them to shift?


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