Science denial or science hijacking?

Princess_Bride_That_WordThere’s a an interesting panel discussion tonight “Dissecting Science Denial” based around the idea that “A recent Inspiring Australia study reported the alarming finding that 21% of Australians do not know who to trust about science and 9% do not trust anyone at all. Australia is not unique in this position, and the distrust of science is felt in many disciplines from the environment to medicine, with implications on our community’s health, sustainability and future.”

Watching our egregious new Senator for loony conspiracies on Q&A made me think that the problem we’re currently facing is not so much science denial but the science hijacking. People like Senator Roberts don’t flat-out deny science, instead they grab hold of scientific terms and use them like blunt objects to batter at any attempts at sophistication. So Malcolm Roberts keeps saying there’s no empirical evidence: He bashes away at the word ’empirical’ until you just wish someone would channel Princess Bride and say “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” If you watch Q&A you can see Prof Brian Cox’s face fall into bewilderment as he does a double-take between the Senator’s words and the graph of data Cox is waving about in his hand.

The problem is that unless you’ve got some idea about what the words mean (or you’ve actually read up on Roberts’ beliefs) he sounds plausible. By taking the science and twisting it he makes a much more convincing argument than if he was just denying everything. And worse, it’s very hard for a real scientist to argue, because they want to tell the truth and so can’t help but knowledge the small truths that people like Roberts build their fantasies upon. Again, you can see Cox acknowledging one of Roberts small points even while Roberts blindly refuses to acknowledge the over-arching argument being put forward by Cox.

This issue is far from limited to one TV show. It seems that there is a lot of this going on – taking small scientific truths and conflating them into bigger arguments, or just tossing scientific words about until they become either twisted or meaningless. That’s not denial, it’s far more dangerous. That hi-jacking is partly what leaves people uncertain about science: Do you believe the slick presenter who seems to be spouting common-sense (of course heavier things fall faster than light ones – stands to reason don’t it?) or the scientist who has devoted years of their life to understanding how the world works and can’t help acknowledging its complexity? If you don’t like where that complexity is taking you, the simplistic but plausible sounding person is the one you go with.

We can see it in Donald Trump, we can see it in the denial of experts in the Brexit debate, and we can certainly see it in Senator Roberts view that he has a better understanding of the science of climate change than anyone else.

Anyway Dissecting Science Denial is on 6:30-8:30 tonight at the Powerhouse and it’s timely to be giving this issue some thought.

Leave a Reply