Coming to the Defence of Science


I‘VE KNOWN since the age of eight that I would be a writer, but biology was the subject which came in at a close second. The first book I read in college was Richard Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker, for a first-year university biology course. To many Dawkins is the leading advocate of “militant atheism,” and for this reason one may fail to notice that his campaign on behalf of science — necessarily a campaign against anti-science — is defensive in nature. But who would have thought even a decade ago that science would be in need of defence? These were my thoughts last week, as I participated in Stand Up for Science, an initiative of an agency called Evidence for Democracy.

Anti-science developments of recent years are global and various. They include the resurgence of Twelver Islam (as well as of less-noted but equally radical eschatologists within Judaism and Christianity), the equal time campaign on behalf of intelligent design, the silencing and defunding of scientists and scientific initiatives (especially in the fields of climate and environmental science), the growing conspiracy theories concerning medicine and medical science and the related rise of “natural” medicine. In some parts of the world there exists an effort to supplant the haram of science with the halal of holy writ, and in others hard-won gains of rational inquiry are to be sacrificed to economic growth. One encounters with dismay the daily evidence that science is indeed under attack.

The preceding list is partial and could, and will be, expanded. You have noticed yourself that every morning paper and evening program delivers fresh instalments of pseudoscience, conspiracy and anti-science indignation. On the day that I read of a Texas mega-church — where vaccines are believed to be linked to autism and where unvaccinated children have as a result contracted measles — an email arrived from another parent warning me of the dangers of our children’s school’s immunization day.

Also at this time I was directed to the story of Eugenie C. Scott, who fights the teaching of creationism in schools. Now at the point of retirement, she’ll likely vacate the field with much of the battle remaining. To date, Canada has been spared the creationists’ assault upon natural selection, the chief opponent of disinterested scientific study in this country being the federal cabinet of Stephen Harper. The government has placed the science and technology portfolio into the hands of a former nurse and lawyer, Greg Rickford, whose only qualification appears to be loyalty to the Prime Minister’s industry-focused and expedient research agenda.

The scientific method of inquiry has made possible our many material comforts and has advanced our health, opened our minds and inspired our imaginations. Through it we have fostered the conditions which may at last liberate our species from deprivation, fear, superstition and ignorance. How could anyone object to an outcome like this? The answers are many, but among them is the fact that scientific inquiry produces inconveniences. The cause of religious bigotry is hindered when rational inquiry into our biological nature advances. Our knowledge of DNA reveals that race is an invention and that we are brothers and sisters, all humans being beneath our skin the children of Africa. Science is often a corrosive agent where political and religious dogma are concerned: as a result, rational inquiry is rightly perceived as a threat to those whose bread is buttered on the wages of credulity and unquestioning obedience. Behind every anti-science bully is an income derived from the pulpit, the pipeline and the placebo. A little knowledge really is a dangerous thing.

For this reason the threats to rational and disinterested inquiry are manifold. For this reason, science is today engaged in a global confrontation with those who want the apocalypse to come, and soon. Why study the world and learn about our place in it when all is soon coming to an end? Why trust science when it tells us that our lives are the outcome of material forces, rather than of the will and planning of a creator? And why forward the taxpayers’ dollars to scientists, when their inconvenient findings undermine the plans of industry and interfere with the government’s economic agenda?

The answer to these questions is that many of our advances were purchased for us through scientific study. It may be that the world does not end for the anticipated reasons. What then? We will require knowledge and technology to survive and succeed. Some knowledge is a source of present dangers (nuclear science, for example), but it does not follow from this fact that ignorance or retreat will help. Our dignity and our human potential will be much better served by scientific inquiry than by political expedience or religious dogma or folklore. I’m happy to stand up for science, but I’m not happy that I feel I have to.

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