Anti-Science in Academia?

There is a phenomena I came across again: anti-science.

I wouldn’t feel compelled to write about it again, though, if it didn’t frustrate me so much. The reason I feel frustrated in this moment is because of three different interactions I’ve had this past week or so. What stood out to me is that these interactions weren’t entirely typical in that it demonstrated how widely spread this problem is.

I should first explain that the issue frustrating me isn’t precisely an anti-scientific attitude, but something that nearly approximates it in specific contexts.

Several interactions I had were all well-educated people who have spent much time in academia. I know at least some of them have worked in the capacity of teaching. All of them are typical intellectual types who are well informed about the world and are certainly way above average in IQ. Also, they also seem like people who are more than capable of independent thinking and rational analysis. Basically, they aren’t anti-intellectual and, of course, wouldn’t think of themselves that way. Nonetheless, the doubts they express about certain scientific issues is so strong that it comes close to the doubts expressed by people who are more obviously anti-intellectual.

One commonality is that all of them have spent time outside of the country of their birth, at least one of them having lived significant part of his life in another country. A couple of them even speak another language besides English. So, these are relatively worldly people.

Besides the commonalities, my attention was caught by the fact that they are ideologically and academically quite diverse. Between them all: They run the entire ideological spectrum from left to right. And they include a diversity of academic knowledge and experience. They are even diverse in their religious proclivities or lack thereof.

I should point out that all of these people are intellectually respectable. In fact, I personally respect them for their intellects. It’s because of their general knowledgeablity and rationality that I enjoy discussing issues with them on occasion, although only one of them did I meet directly through such a discussion.

It is for this reason I felt so disheartened by my feeling the need to defend science against people who should know better… or maybe that isn’t quite the right way of saying it. It’s not that I think all of them are wrong in their views per se, except for one of them who I think is obviously wrong about the data. More basically, it’s just frustration at trying to communicate. Science is one of those topics that brings up a lot of ideological baggage which gets in the way, myself included. It seems odd to me that science is so often one of the most polarizing of issues. It makes me aware of how much views on science can diverge when even well educated people can disagree so widely. On top of that, it has become clear to me how much we are divided simply because of the powerful role of media.

These interactions involved a variety of scientific issues, all related to research: psychology of ideologies, IQ testing, global warming, etc. Fundamentally, all of these people felt some variation of mistrust about potential bias in various aspects: the researchers themselves, the limitations of research, the agendas of scientific institutions, how data was being interpreted or reported, etc.

The specifics aren’t all that important. In some cases, the doubts they shared were to some degree within reason. What didn’t seem reasonable to me was how strongly they held onto those doubts, how resistant they were to treat as trustworthy the scientific method and scientific community. Of course, my own biased opinions about science played into my own sense of conflict and frustration. It’s hard to discuss neutrally many of these kinds of issues, especially when they seem very important in how they touch upon many other issues (global warming being a particularly clear example of this).

It seemed to me that they didn’t want give scientists their due. Despite their being well educated, they were all speaking about science as laypeople. As a layperson myself, I tend to want to put more trust in scientific experts until I discover very good reasons to doubt; for certain, I feel annoyed when an entire scientific field is dismissed or devalued without any seeming good reason besides the consensus of that field not fitting the person’s worldview.

More specifically, it seemed that they didn’t want to acknowledge the fact that scientists are more aware of and careful about such potential problems than anyone outside of the scientific fields. I would point out some of these scientific researchers (specifically the soccial scientists) are experts in bias and in some cases experts in the biases of science itself. If you want to know what are the reasonable doubts to have about science, you just need to ask scientists. Science works by trial and error. If there is bias or limitiation to some type of testing, scientists will be the first to point it out and fix the problem. The scientific method is a self-correcting system.

Doubt within the scientific method is essential and necessary. But doubt about the scientific method itself is a direct attack on the very ideal that puts knowledge above belief or opinion. That said, I’m sure none of these people meant to attack such an ideal and probably would see themselves defending it in their own way. It’s  just that it felt like their criticisms weren’t all that helpful coming from the sidelines of science.

Here is my response to all of this:

If we can’t trust that the best experts on bias can deal with potential problems of bias, then we lesser mortals are beyond any hope of non-scientifically dealing with biases. Attempting to dismiss or discredit a particular field of science is the opposite of helpful. As long as even well-educated intellecuals end up undermining science and the scientific method, whether intentionally anti-scientific or not, we are going to have a hard time advancing as a society. Considering the possibility of losing our collective faith in the ideal of knowledge, do most people realize what we would be giving up?

These interactions demonstrate the apparent failure of the non-scientific fields of academia… or maybe just failure of science education in general (I know the science education I received from the public school system was probably a bit lacking). I would imagine that even many of those working in higher education need to be better educated about science. Our entire society needs to be better educated all around, and I have no doubt that the people I speak of would agree with me on that.

My emotional response to these interactions might have less to do with the interactions themselves. Instead, it might just be that these interactions helped clarify my sense of the problem we face. My perception of science being undermined not only saddens me, it makes me fear for our future. This isn’t about any individual person or any individual doubt. We could argue about the specifics endlessly. What I’m pointing out is much more insidious, the undermining of scientific authority itself where any doubt almost automatically trumps even the vast knowledge accumulated by decades of experts, where scientific peer-review and consensus becomes a reason for doubt of expertise instead of a reason for trust… worst still, where the science itself and the scientists who do it seem to get lost in the cloud of conflict and the whole media charade, where we no longer even have a shared set of facts to work from, much less a shared set of values.

The line between questioning doubt and nihilistic denialism may be thinner than many realize. It’s a line that might be easy to cross. As individuals ocassionally going a little too far over the line isn’t necessarily problematic, but if such a crossing is done on a society-wide scale it may not be easily undone. Nothing good can come of this. We seem to be livng in a an era ruled by mistrust that dangerously verges on collective cynicism. We should tread very carefully.

18 thoughts on “Anti-Science in Academia?

  1. If you are talking about me and science, you’re wrong. I studied anthropology first, I know how to set up field experiments and read forensic data, and I know how to parse statistics. That I think the social science data that you have cited is fundamentally flawed because it is a) historically obfucating and b) has primed the questioners into naturalizing the current perspective into being then I am going to say its you that done sent have respect for the science not me. You will notice that I don’t comment on biology or physics and if you read my blog, you’ll that I use genomics to discredit pseudoscientific notions about race, in fact, Ben, my blog was started to combat antiscientifc trends and bullshit passing for science in the field of education. Go back and read the first years of my blog. One reason I am skeptical is that I actually did some phd work on neuro psychology in education with a neurologist and he told me flat out that a lot of the reporting on temperamental orientations was problematic methodologically.

    So when you lament at academician who disaagrees with you about scientific research, don’t assume it is because I don’t know science, or doubt it. Well talk physics sometime if you liked to. This patronizing these academic don’t understand science line is particularly foolish in my case.

    • It doesn’t matter who I was talking about. It also doesn’t matter what one neurologist said. Science isn’t dependent on or defined by one scientist. That is the point. Those denying global warming also point to a scientist here or there. You’ll always be able to find a scientist somewhere who will criticize or even dismiss the entire field he works in. That doesn’t prove anything and it isn’t helpful.

      • We weren’t talking about the research, we were talking about practical applications of it IN THE MEDIA (you know, like the articles you were showing me) and in the schools.

        There are hacks everywhere.

        • There definitely was confusion in what we were talking about. I was talking about the research, but maybe you weren’t. Even a scientific journal is THE MEDIA.

          When I’m thinking about such research, I look at both popular articles, blogs analyzing the issues, and the research papers themselves. I take it all in as information to be considered. The articles I showed you in that particular moment may have just been general articles, but as I recall they were just random examples that I had just come across. If you had caught me in a different moment, I might have offered you some journal papers. It’s all info to feed my curious mind.

          Indeed. There are hacks everywhere.

          • Yeah, I get the strange feeling that we are fundamentally misreading each other and worse I think it’s from the fact I use language in an overly philosophical jargon heavy way here.

  2. A lot skeptics who complaint about anti science in academia don’t realize that quite a few of us started in the sciences and became skeptical of assumptions, methodologies, etc. I will admit that most of my work is in the humanities as is most of post graduate education, but my critique of the psyche research while it was a philophical and methodological critique, but it was not based on postmodernism or ignorance.

    • You missed my point. It isn’t really about ignorance or not. It’s about respect for the scientific method and the scientists who submit to its rigorous demands. It’s easy to make commentary from the sidelines. I’m not saying that scientists are never wrong. I’m not saying that you can’t find some scientists who have doubts, possibly even reasonable doubts, about their own fields. I’m certainly not saying I understand it all or even much of it. My point is simply that I respect the consensus within a field, the vast majority of researchers.

      • You completely missed my point: it is highly problematic to talk about a general “lack of respect” for the sciences by academics, when at least 1/3 of the academics you are mentioning are explicitly respectful of scientific methodology: Haidt’s research while heavily reported on in popular studies and has let to many other psychological studies is actually pretty damn controversial within academia, including the scientific academia. My philosophical point about the terminology being confused and confusing because of the census within historical studies (a field in which there is a census on the way term liberal is used which is different from the way it is used in Haidt research) and this differences are not noted in the popular reporting of the research. I have read Haidt’s books and some of the paper’s he published prior to that book in scholarly circles on Ebscohost.

        Do you know about the current controversies about peer review in humanities, social science, and hard science? About publication bias for positive results obscuring critiques because they would be damaging to a field? I don’t point this stuff out because I don’t take scientific methodology seriously, I point it because I do and the naive view that all fields are equally rigorous because scientific study is rigorous is just that: naive.

        For example: it is a census among most comparative biologists that the entire field of evolutionary psychology is methodologically problematic in the sense that it is not current falsifiable. The entire field of positive psychology, of which Haidt’s career has been based, has been accused of being somewhat sloppy in its categorizations and the way its use of self-reporting slants things to justify its interpretative framework.

        I respect the scientific method, Ben. I also know its limitations and the limitations of working within the University system in general. Given how much ink I have spent in my life defending the scientific method against bad educational and humanities research, as well as bad philosophy against science such as post-modernism, and against scientists making remarkably sloppy claims about history and philosophy when they don’t respect the consensus within a field, I find this to be sloppy too.

        Now there is real anti-scientific sentiment in the Academy, and there are long standing methodological hostilities between disciplines and between sciences. I am not denying that, but I actually worry about this trust of scientific consensus by outsiders because it makes them scientifically lazy. Most of the public, including the skeptical community, has never read a scientific paper and can’t parse statistics. This is a serious issue and its led to a lot a seriously discredited science getting pasted along on blogs and in popular culture for ten to fifteen years after its been discredited. I’ll give you a popular example of this: when I was getting MAT in Education, and doing work in Research Methodology, I discovered that the Learning Styles that is taught as dogma in education schools and in the public schools still, and still mentioned in all sorts of popular psychology literature had been generally discredited but these studies had not made it out into the public or even the profession of which they really were relevant because they were solely negative studies.

        So if you think I don’t respect the scientific method, please, show me where in any writing I have done since 2005 where I just discredited it out of hand. I did worry about the way a very particular field of study is framing things in a way that “naturalizes” categories which are historically specific, but I didn’t say anything about the method beyond the problematic framework.

        This is the point though: I see people cry “Po-mo distrust of science” on philosophers or people who talk about the problems of scientism or scientists not respecting the demarcation line of what science is, and often it’s just a generic respect for science being conflated: when there was a scholarly consensus about Phrenology, that argument could have been applied, and it would have been wrong then too.

        Sorry mate, I definitely see the seriousness of your point, but you don’t see the seriousness of mine.

        • I see the seriousness of your point. I know of the things you speak of. I don’t follow all or even most of the controversies in science, but I am aware of many of them.

          What interests me is that these controversies are openly discussed and debated in the scientific fields themselves, either fields discussing their own controversies or other fields pointing out another perspective. I understand your frustration that science doesn’t change quickly enough, especially in how science is applied in the real world. The scientific method by design and the scientific community by nature tend to be slow changing, but it is that slow and steady change that I would consider a strength. It’s hard to appreciate how science changes since the major changes happen across generations.

          So, in the coming decades, I have little doubt about science being able to deal with all the things you bring up. With science, an attitude of patience is required or else you’d constantly feel frustrated. I just see no advantage to criticizing science for not being perfect. For all of its imperfections, science comes closer to living up to its own standards than many other areas of society.

          Your comment about consensus, however, is largely meaningless or just plain unhelpful. I don’t know that there ever was a consensus on phrenology since polls of all scientists probably weren’t done back then. You are taking an example from when science was barely even a real science. Phrenology was a theory based on no objective research. That example doesn’t compare to the science of today.

          Yes, scientific consensus can be wrong, but the point is that science is designed to change more easily than would happen with the consensus of religion or government. For example, a decade or so ago there wasn’t clear consensus about anthropogenic global warming because the evidence wasn’t strong enough, but the evidence increased until there was a consensus. Could that consensus be wrong? Sure. If new evidence is brought forth in the constant research being done, yet another consensus will be formed. The point is that each generation of consensus tends to come closer to an accurate view of reality, i.e., a consistent correlation between theory and research.

          Part of your criticism has nothing to do with the scientific community itself. You complain that those who popularize science don’t always understand science. I don’t doubt it, but that has nothing to do with the scientists themselves or their research. As for the example you bring up, the fact that it was seriously discredited already means there wasn’t a scientific consensus and so that example doesn’t bring evidence against scientific consensus. How schools, via government policies, implement science also has nothing to do with scientists themselves. You can’t blame science for every wrong thing someone does with science. Do you blame all historians or all philosophers for the wrong things some people do with their academic work? Of course not.

          Let me also comment on your example about biologists. It in fact proves my point. Those are criticisms of scientists within the scientific community. That is a debate scientists in those two fields will have. If the criticisms are valid, then over time the criticized field will improve its methods. This might take a new generation of scientists to shake things up, but change will happen or that field will lose consensus support among scientists in related fields. If a field fails to improve itself and loses enough credibility, it will eventually disappear as a field of study. That is how science works.

          You bring up many good criticisms. However, my point is that you are bringing up criticisms that are made by scientists themselves. You bring up some good examples of problems. However, my point is that these problems often came to the attention of scientists through their own research. The beauty of the social scientists is that they even do research studying scientists doing research. We know about many of the biases of scientists and the problems of research because social scientists have studied it.

          You see these as negatives, but what I see is the fact that science deals with its own negatives which to my mind is a positive. We don’t disagree about the issues of science. We apparently just disagree in terms of what we see those issues as representing.

  3. Science is fundamentally rooted in epistemology, and what falls within the realm of that demarcation line is actually somewhat contested in the philosophy of science, for example, Sam harris research on ethics and objectivity seem to think it is scientifically sound to make descriptives normative and many biologists think this is unsound or reasons of the demarcation line. Haidts research, which is the basis for all most all the research I disagreed with you about on philosophical and historical grounds, has a similair problem and also takes self assessment too seriously in my opinion. So some of this antiscience wrap, aimed at a scientifically minded member of the skeptics community seems to be rooted in not understanding what related fields are saying and why the philosophical critiques matter, but find one article I have written that attacked science? Or belittled the scientific method? If anything I insist upon it in a deeper way than most.

    • I didn’t argue that philosophy doesn’t relate to science. However, philosophy doesn’t trump science. Yes, there is room for disagreement, but I give more credit to the discussion of disagreements within a field than the disagreements by those outside of the field, although I take into account all disagreements. Heck, I have many disagreements. I’m full of doubts and questions.

      Not all social science is self assessment. You should know that.

      In my commentary in this post, I never claimed any of these people were actually anti-science. That was my whole point, that they aren’t anti-science. The reason I was making this point is because the undermining of science ends up stengthening the position of those who are anti-science. Doubts and disagreements are best dealt within the scientific method itself through peer-review, through attempts at replication, through debates at scientific conferences, etc.

      I don’t know what it is like in other countries. My perspective is that of an US citizen. Here in America, I’m surrounded by anti-intellectuals spouting anti-science BS on a daily basis. I defend science so strongly because it is one of the last bastions of rationality in this age of ignorance and disinformation. Criticisms of science isn’t a matter of abstract philosophizing. There are real stakes at hand… which I’m sure you realize.

  4. I was largely, though, just venting. That is why it didn’t matter who I was specifically talking about or what the specific criticisms were. It feels like science is constantly under attack. It’s frustrating. A large number of people I interact with don’t seem to appreciate the value of science, assuming they even have a grasp of the science itself.

    My post is particularly relevant in context of certain studies. There is the backfire effect where someone’s opinion becomes stronger when they are confronted with facts disproving or putting doubt to their opinion. In one study, it was conservatives and, oddly, experts who showed higher rates of backfire effect. There is also data about highly educated conservatives being the group that is hardest to persuade with facts they disagree with. That blows my mind.

    It would be one thing if this were just a few studies, but that isn’t the case. We are talking about thousands of studies about various biases and whatnot. It also wouldn’t be so impressive if this was limited to studies reliant on self assessment, but it isn’t. These studies use many different methods to determine political orientation.

    Sure, there is a lot of complexity in all this, plenty of room for mistakes to be made in how the studies are designed and the data interpreted. Even though social science has been doing research for a long time, most of this most interesting research is very recent. It’s a rapidly changing field. So, even if the neurologist you worked with was correct at the time you spoke with him, his comments might already be irrelevant to the new generation of research.

    That neurologist probably didn’t have any special insight not shared by others in his field. Those kinds of criticisms would be immediately taken into account in designing new research methods. Scientists are constantly communicating with one another, constantly offering criticism and debating. Any important doubt about research would spread through the entire scientific community in a very short period of time.

    • “There is the backfire effect where someone’s opinion becomes stronger when they are confronted with facts disproving or putting doubt to their opinion. In one study, it was conservatives and, oddly, experts who showed higher rates of backfire effect. There is also data about highly educated conservatives being the group that is hardest to persuade with facts they disagree with. That blows my mind.”

      Mine too.

    • You know what, Ben. This does get me to see one thing clearly when I turn off my defensive button. I am being defensive because of my background and I am sorry: How could I communicate to you the problems I have with a lot of this research WITHOUT giving fodder to anti-science cretins?

      • I realized I was possibly asking a lot of people who feel the need to make intelligent criticisms of science. Science requires people who are willing to make intelligent criticisms of it. In fact, I’m a person who loves to criticize and I try to do it intelligently most of the time.

        I’m definitely not criticizing the act of criticism itself. There is an irony in my criticizing the critics, of course. It’s more than possible that I’m not being completely fair. I do want to emphasize that this post was largely venting.

        Furthermore, I definitely should emphasize that my recent interactions with you are more periphery to my frustration, just in the background of other interactions. I have lots of interactions going on in my life. I did find myself in a situation where I didn’t know how to communicate to you, but difficulty of communication is hardly a new phenomenon in my life. Science in particular a tricky subject to talk about.

        Anyway, the interaction that inspired this post had absolutely nothing to do with you or with any other interactions online.

    • You’re welcome!

      When posting this, I knew I wasn’t be perfectly clear in my communication. It would probably have been a better post if I delayed posting it in order to have given myself some more perspective.

      It is hard to communicate well or fairly when one is venting. I think there was a valid point I wanted to make beyond just venting. But I could have been more clear about that point. I’m not sure how important my point was, however.

      Maybe my feelings and thoughts on the matter would have been better served if I had put them in a larger context or else put them in a more neutral and less reactive way.

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