“Anti-science” no better than “phlogiston”

Can we please drop the label “anti-science”; it is about as helpful as the concept of phlogiston.

I really wanted to write about something else but there has been so much in the news recently about the GM trials at Rothamsted and so much rhetoric about “anti-science” that I felt I had to say something even if, for many people, it is such old ground that it needs to be taken over by the National Trust and preserved as a heritage site.

Just as phlogiston and the luminiferous ether should be consigned to the history of science so too should “anti-science” and the “deficit model” be consigned to the history of  science communication.

If we are to have such a historical perspective then hopefully you can forgive me for revamping something I wrote a few years ago…

Towards the end of 1945 the slogan “shoot all scientists” was being chalked on walls in London. It would be easy, therefore, to see the first use of nuclear weapons as marking a major turning point in the relationship between science and the public – a convenient punctum (8.15am local time, 6 August 1945) with a distinct before and after. Like most things in life it was not as simple as that. The post-war world was deeply contradictory in its attitudes towards science.

If we wish to see the war (and the bomb) as a turning point then it may be best not to see it simply in terms of a swing in public attitudes against science, but perhaps as a point of departure for new concerns about accountability and control.

Before the war, for example, scientists such as Hogben, Haldane and Bernal had expressed their sense of social responsibility by popularising science in an attempt to spread scientific values throughout society. After the war, the public increasingly took “social responsibility” to mean the injection of social values into science.

On the one hand we would appear to have a scientific community wanting it to be known that to understand science is to appreciate that it cannot be held responsible for any misuse of that science; and on the other, a public that was coming to feel that it understood science only too well and wanted to hold it to account.

It is, of course, in the interests of scientists that our attention be focussed on whether the public are for or against science, rather than focussed on questions of responsibility and accountability – questions about support interrogate the public: questions of responsibility interrogate the scientist.

It was not so much that there was opposition to science as that the cultural meaning of science was openly contested. This is well worth remembering whenever you see references to “anti-science” in current debates.

Then as now it is not simply a matter of weighing in the balance those who are for and those against, or even examining whether science has been used or abused. Instead what needs to be considered are more subtle questions of trust and accountability. On closer inspection, critiques of science often turn out to be better understood as critiques of modernity, capitalism, technocracy or authority.

This might all seem a disingenuous way of diverting attention away from science itself. On the contrary, it prompts us to ask a very real question: “How might it be otherwise?” Could science really disentangle itself from the demands of the military, the state and the market? Could it abandon its visions of progress and the control of nature? Could it forsake its technocratic mentality and renounce its claims for the authority of its experts?

If science can disentangle itself then maybe we are right to distinguish between attacks on science and attacks on what might be called its historical circumstances. If not, then maybe there are grounds for opposition and saying simply that, like it or not, this is what science is.


Margaret Jacob gives a broader historical perspective in this piece for Logos in which she points out that the dichotomies of western metaphysics make it naive to think that having more science education would remove anti-science critiques. As she says “Newton was anti-science when it came to Descartes’ science”.


2 thoughts on ““Anti-science” no better than “phlogiston”

  1. Good post, though one niggle… phlogiston and the ether were both useful theories that explained a lot. I’m not so sure the deficit model ever was.

  2. Ha, I like the idea that even the theory of phlogiston is more useful than the deficit model. I think the key thing is that they are each simple ideas that can appeal to common sense but have no foundation in the real world.

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