The March That Trampled Science

The march was never about science. It's about political activism masquerading as science.

By Douglas Axe Published on April 20, 2017

The march on April 22nd was never really about science. From its inception it gave every appearance of being just another case of political activism masquerading as science — one more reason to be suspicious of scientists (as if that were helpful).

The March web site shows that the organizers know better. They acknowledge that science should be self-critical rather than dogmatic: “We support science education that teaches children and adults to think critically, ask questions, and evaluate truth based on the weight of evidence.”

An earlier version of the site even went so far as to encourage different views: “Our diversity is our greatest strength: a wealth of opinions, perspectives, and ideas is critical for the scientific process.”

But openness like that leaves no room for dogma, and what good is a protest without dogma? After all, alarm over climate-change policy was the first motive for the March (though they’ve added more). How do you promote the beating of that drum without also insisting it’s the right drum?

Science is about the long haul — a humble walk, not an attention-seeking march.

You don’t. Instead, if you really love science, you give the drum a rest. Science is about the long haul — a humble walk, not an attention-seeking march. It may not draw big crowds, but the value it brings to those who are patient is more lasting than viral popularity.

In time, maybe science will show that the marchers’ view of climate change is right. Maybe humans will be shown beyond doubt to have messed up the weather. I don’t know. What I do know is that efforts to shut that debate down only delay the science. Science needs experts who disagree with the majority view. Even when they prove wrong, they play a critical role in getting things right. When supporters of the majority view pretend these dissenters don’t exist, people are right to be suspicious.

Bowing to Consensus Isn’t Marching for Science

The dissenters do exist, of course. A study titled Scientists’ Views about Attribution of Global Warming makes this clear. According to that study, the view that humans are the main cause of recent global warming has solid majority support. And yet one in ten experts disagrees. Those minority thinkers amount to a large group in themselves  — hundreds of scientists.

So, it’s one thing to say there’s a consensus view on the cause of climate change but another to say the matter has been settled. If science were an academic popularity contest, then one side of this issue is currently winning. But science clearly isn’t that. At its heart science is radically undemocrati. It’s the pursuit of correct answers regardless of popularity.

Consensus by weight of evidence is a good thing, but consensus by peer pressure isn’t.

The March organizers know this full well. “Science should neither serve special interests nor be rejected based on personal convictions,” they claim. And yet they fail to see that the majority and minority views of climate change are science in the same way. Both sides apply scientific reasoning to the evidence. They just reach different conclusions. The impulse to dismiss one side simply because it’s the other side is familiar. We all experience this. But if we want to do justice either to science or to democracy, we must rise above it.

In the end, consensus isn’t always worth celebrating. Consensus by weight of evidence is a good thing, but consensus by peer pressure isn’t. Marches and protests, being all about pressure and power, tend to signal the latter.

So, when the March organizers say, “It is time for people who support science to take a public stand and be counted,” what they really seem to mean is it’s time to let the majority opinion of scientists dictate public policy.

In other words — think for yourself, but make sure your thinking conforms to that majority opinion if you don’t want to be labeled an enemy of science.

In other words — don’t think for yourself.

Champion Science by Welcoming Civil Debate

My experience comes from another controversy. The work I and others have done on evolution shows that the consensus view that life is an accident is wrong — even obviously wrong. My part in that work once cost me my job at a top research center. So I know firsthand how hard is it to go against the flow. Even so, the cost of slavishly going with the flow is surely greater. If I could go back in time, then I would lose my job again — not happily, but resolutely.

I know how difficult it is to go against the flow. My work criticizing evolution cost me my job at a top research center. 

As I said, I don’t claim to know the answer on climate change. I do know that the controversy is very much alive and that pretending otherwise only harms science. Instead of trying to shut debate down, anyone who thinks the case for human-caused global warming is rock solid should welcome open critical dialog as an chance to convince the rest of us.

I’ve always favored that open approach for the debate between Darwin and design. Recently I asked Darwin’s followers to assemble their best team to show that unguided evolution really can invent living things. No evolutionary stories disguised as evidence. No appeals to consensus. No condescension. No demonizing. And don’t bother to bluff either (we know the science).

Of course, if Darwin’s followers really have the evidence they won’t need to bluff, or demonize, or condescend or appeal to consensus. The science will speak for itself, which is all I’m asking for — straight up demonstration: Show us how it works.

So far, they haven’t taken me up on it.

 

Douglas Axe is director of Biologic Institute and author of Undeniable: How Biology Confirms Our Intuition That Life Is Designed (HarperOne). Follow him on Twitter @DougAxe.

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