Idea of “anti-science” is woo woo

Ever noticed the irony that demands for “evidence-based” policy are often accompanied with attacks on “anti-science”? Or maybe you don’t see that as ironic and I need to show how the idea of anti-science is just woo woo.

Since one of the claims against anti-science is that it ignores the evidence, let’s see what evidence there is to show that “anti-science” exists.

I should say at the outset that I’m not trying to defend those who are seen as “anti-science”. If those who are against “anti-science” are anti-anti-science then my being anti-anti-anti-science doesn’t make me pro-anti-science. That’s the trouble with such simplistic binarisms. They don’t work.

Instead, I want to examine the idea of “anti-science”; and to avoid slipping into my own woo woo nonsense I shall use the definition of woo from Rationalwiki as my guide.

Rationalwiki is very helpful in setting out a nine point guide to woo. I shall set “anti-science” against each of them and see how it fits.

For something to be woo it “most always contains most of the following characteristics”.

1. A simple idea that purports to be the one answer to many problems
– check. Anti-science is certainly a simple idea and is the one answer used to label a whole range of diverse oppositional positions and issues.

2. A “scientific-sounding” reason for how it works, but little to no actual science behind it, quote mines of studies that if bent enough could be described in such a way to support it, or outright misapplication of studies.
– check. It has to be scientific sounding because it is the pro-science camp making the noises but there isn’t any actual science behind the idea. There are studies of literacy and public attitudes to specific technologies and so on but these have to be bent to support the idea of “anti-science”.

3. It involves the supernatural and paranormal (not necessarily)
– OK it does say this one is not necessary so we might want to skip this one, but…… Andreas Sommer has explained we can find a tacit supernaturalism at least in popular science.

4. A claim of persecution, usually perpetrated by the pharmaceutical, medical, or scientific community
– check. Maybe not persecution by the scientific community but persecution by the anti-science community and in this case “anti-science” might be taken as anything that is not-science such as might be invoked in any debate about the two cultures.

5. An invocation of a scientific authority
– check. Strictly speaking this appeal to scientific authority would be needed for something to be “science woo” and not just “woo” but I think anyone who speaks from scientific authority would be happy in any appeal to themselves.

6. Lack of scientific research, but abundant testimonials
– check. As with point 2 above there is no research to show that anti-science exists. Surveys of public attitudes regularly show widespread support for science and where there isn’t support it is usually on specific issues rather than a more general anti-science position. Is there anything more than anecdotal evidence?

7. A claim that scientists are blind to the discovery, despite attempts to alert them
– check. There certainly seems a blindness to the non-existence of anti-science despite attempts to argue otherwise. Of course, the absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence, but it would be nice to see what the evidence is for its presence.

8. A disdain for objective, randomized experimental controls, especially double-blind testing
– not quite. I certainly can’t claim there is a “disdain” for these things. In fact the opposite is true. It’s just a shame that such objective thinking isn’t applied to “anti-science”.

9. And, usually, an offer to share the knowledge for a price.
– check. There’s no attempt to sell snake oil but it would be naïve to think that there isn’t a lot of money in science that has to be fought for and protected. And I want to be absolutely clear on this, I think it should be fought for and protected.

Rationalwiki also adds that “Woo is usually not the description of an effect but of the explanation as to why the effect occurs”. This also seems to fit. For example, GM protesters are not simply described as anti-science but their opposition to GM is seen as being because they are anti-science.

Finally, Rationalwiki says that “Woo is used to blind or distract an audience from a real explanation or to discourage people from delving deeper into the subject to find a more realistic explanation.” And that, for me, is “anti-science” in a nutshell.

Science is facing enough problems as it is. It doesn’t need its own brand of woo woo to make things worse.


4 thoughts on “Idea of “anti-science” is woo woo

  1. Interesting! I can’t help but think you’ve made this subject a lot more complex than it needs to be but I enjoyed reading it nevertheless. I’m also not sure that your claim that science is facing enough problems is justified. Remember that priests, witches, fascists, politicians, druids and mediums all resort to science if their kettles don’t get hot when they flick the switch. When your detractors subscribe to your method, maybe your problems aren’t a big as you first imagined.

    1. I agree, science has a very privileged position in our society in that everyone wants to stake some claim to it, but I still think science is faced with some difficult problems. Even though I maybe very dismissive of the idea of “anti-science” I do recognise that it is based on real fears many of which I share. I do worry about creationism being taught as science and about climate change deniers. I just worry that terms like “anti-science” will make it more difficult to understand what the problems are let alone trying to find any solution.

      1. I think we need to reassert the basic truths about science. Folk will realise it’s logical, they all use it, they cannot live without it. Anti-science looks paltry by comparison.

  2. Rob, to be clear, my objection is to the TERM “anti-science”. Ideas and beliefs maybe erroneous but that does not make them “anti-science” and the term “anti-science” makes it more difficult to understand those who might have such beliefs.

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