Anti Anti-Science

It's getting crazy out there in the land of politics. At a recent Republican forum in Iowa, representatives Ron Paul and Michele Bachmann spoke of the wonders of home schooling. In so doing, Paul characterized public education as "indoctrination." This claim suggests that public school teachers are brainwashing our children and grandchildren. If Representative Bachmann's recent public demonstration of historical knowledge, or her longstanding incapacity to articulate a coherently logical argument, is representative of home-school teaching, then home schooling needs a great deal of re-tooling. Indeed, if her demonstrated knowledge and intellect reflect the "strengths" of home schooling, how will home-schooled kids be able to compete in the world, let alone be capable of creative or critical thinking, which is, lest we forget, the foundation of any viable democracy?

The claim of public school "indoctrination" is part and parcel of a powerful wave of anti-science rhetoric that has been promoted in recent American political discourse. There is, for example, much suspicion of climate science, which many right-wing ideologues consider a bogus pursuit of knowledge. In February of last year, the Utah legislature passed a bill that disputes the science of climate change, arguing that greenhouse emissions are "essentially harmless." In that bill as reported by Suzanne Goldenberg in the Guardian, the Utah legislature, claiming that global warming is a hoax, demands that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) halt its attempts to regulate greenhouse gases. Speaking of such regulation Utah Representative Mike Noel said: "Sometimes... we need the courage to do nothing."

Anti-science thinking has worked its way into the Republican Caucus of the US House of Representatives. On February 19th of this year, the House voted 244 to 179 to kill the US funding of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Although this non-partisan organization won a Nobel Prize in 2007 for its sobering array of climate change assessments, the majority the House sided with Representative Blaine Luetkemeyer (R) of Missouri who referred to IPCC scientists as "nefarious" practitioners whose "corrupt" findings are part of an alarmist conspiracy. House Republicans believed so strongly in Representative Leutkemeyer's set of anti-science assumptions that they ignored the report of the Department of Commerce's Inspector General who, after an examination of the leaked e-mails of several climate scientists -- the source for claims of "corrupt" findings -- found no evidence of wrongdoing or, for that matter "nefarious" science.

The Congressional anti-science crusade shows no sign of slowing down. On March 3 of this year Representative Fred Upton (R) of Michigan and Senator James Inhofe (R) of Oklahoma introduced legislation that may well pass in the House of Representatives, that strips the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of the power to regulate carbon dioxide emissions. Against overwhelming and longstanding scientific evidence, they argue that carbon pollution poses no threat to public health and the environment.

How can we account for what from a rational perspective seems like anti-science lunacy? How can 244 Members of the House of Representatives vote to deny US funding the IPCC, which won the Nobel Prize in 2007? From my anthropological vantage, it seems that a vibrant anti-science culture is emerging in the US. Deeply rooted in fundamentalist religious beliefs, the culture of anti-science is creating an alternative universe of meaning in which scientific practices and findings, which tend to subvert fundamentalist social and cultural and political principles, are suspect and/or dismissed.

In the culture of science, there is open-ended critical debate. As new data are generated, they are critically scrutinized. This ongoing method means that scientists and social scientists are continuously assessing their practices and testing their ideas for reliability and validity, which, in turn, means that methods, ideas and theories are always being altered and refined. This set of scientific practices has advanced knowledge immeasurably. In short, the culture of science has provided a conceptual and practical framework that has enabled an exponential increase in the quality of our lives in the world.

The culture of anti-science, by contrast, has a narrow focus. In such a culture, beliefs about the world are often based on selective attention to scientific information or, worse yet, conspiracy theories. In this culture, one's belief tends to be ironclad. Even if an organization like the highly esteemed IPCC or the EPA presents an overwhelming case for, say climate change, or the negative impact of carbon emissions on public health and the environment, people who are anti-science will not be impressed. They will not change their minds or their positions. For them, the "common sense" of the culture of anti-science trumps the longstanding and critically productive methods of the culture of science. When 244 Members of the House Republicans vote to cut U.S. IPCC funding, they are suggesting that they somehow have the inside track to the truth of things, that they know what is good for public health and the environment. Such a vote, I'm afraid, is a sad and unfortunate institutional celebration of ignorance.

As a social scientist who studies the concept of culture, global social transformations, and the ever-changing practices of religion, I am anti anti-science, which means that I feel obliged to comment critically on the ideas and practices of my own academic discipline, but steadfastly defend the culture of science, a culture that enables such a critical discourse. Like all scientists, I am against close-minded conspiratorial thinking that allows little or no dissent, a thinking that in its celebration of ignorance looks backward into the darkness.

Although the elected officials who are proponents of the culture of anti-science sometimes make statements that appear either comedic or idiotic to any reasonable person, they are promoting ideas that endanger the future of our children and grandchildren. To secure our future, we need to make sure that the unschooled -- possibly home schooled -- advocates of the culture of anti-science articulate their ideas far from the halls of government where such advocacy undermines the public good.