When Bill Nye the Science Guy complains of a war being waged on science, he should look in the mirror. Nye, who is actually the mechanical engineering guy—that’s his educational background—is more guilty of undermining science (properly understood) by politicizing it than almost anyone this side of Al Gore.
No one is attacking science. Why would they? Science is a powerful method for understanding the physical universe. Science’s tools are observation, careful measurement, testing, experimentation, falsification, and the like. Given the incalculable benefits that have arisen from applied scientific endeavors over the centuries, who on earth isn’t “pro-science”?
Why, then, did science become the subject of international protective protest marches? Blame political cynicism. Organizers of the March for Science hoped to harness the authority of science to prevail in hot-button public policy and cultural controversies involving scientific inquiry. But politicizing science is the real subversion—if you convince people that they have to choose between “science” and their moral, political, or religious beliefs, support for science could well wane.
There are at least three means by which these supposed defenders of science actually undermine it through their political tactics:
Conflating “science” with ethics and morality: Science is amoral. It is very effective at deriving knowledge and learning facts, but it can’t tell us right from wrong, good from bad, or moral from immoral. Yet self-described science advocates often blur those crucial distinctions by accusing the people with whom they disagree with on an ethical or public policy question of being “anti-science.”
Nye has been a prime example of this across a wide swath of public controversies, from climate change to abortion. With regard to the latter, Nye infamously appeared in a YouTube video promoting abortion rights in which he contended that pro-lifers lack a proper “scientific understanding” of “the facts.” But in fact he is the one who seems to be confused: Nye proclaims that “fertilized eggs are not human”—even though an egg, once fertilized, ceases to exist as the one-celled embryo called the zygote comes into being. He continues that the sperm joining the ovum “is not all you need. You have to attach to the uterine wall, the inside of a womb, a woman’s womb.” It could be argued that implantation is the point at which a woman becomes pregnant. But that doesn’t have anything to do with the biological nature of the embryo itself. Besides, embryology textbooks—real science—tell us that a new organism or, to put it another way, a human being comes into existence once fertilization has been completed.
More to the point, science can only tell us the biological nature of the entity destroyed in an abortion; it cannot tell us whether the destruction is right or wrong. Hence, it is a scientific fact that Nye and I are the same organisms today that we were when we came into existence as one-celled embryos. But when Nye tells us, “Nobody likes abortion. But you can’t tell somebody what to do!” in his YouTube mini-lecture, that is political advocacy masquerading as a scientific claim.
Wielding the term “anti-science” as an epithet to stifle legitimate debate: I have been the subject of such attempted stifling. As first discussed in these pages a few years ago, I was branded “anti-science” by Glen Hank Campbell, now the head of the American Council on Science and Health, who accused me of “hating biology” and viewing IVF “as a tool of Lucifer.” What had I done to deserve such public shaming? I opposed plans to use a novel IVF procedure to create a “three-parent” baby.
How was that “anti-science?” I may have been misguided—though I don’t think I was—but I most certainly wasn’t opposing science, biology, or even reproductive technologies per se. I was making an ethical argument that it would be wrong to use this technique on humans, a position with which Campbell disagreed. But rather than engage in debate, Campbell tried to quash it with the “anti-science” slur—a strategy deployed often in moral and policy arguments around embryo research, climate change, evolution, abortion, human cloning, genetic engineering, GMOs, transhumanism, and other controversial areas.
Using the authority of “scientific consensus” to stifle heterodox hypotheses and alternative fields of research: Science is never truly settled. Indeed, challenging seemingly incontrovertible facts and continually retesting long-accepted theories are crucial components of the scientific method.
Examples of perceived truths overturned by subsequent discoveries are ubiquitous. Here’s just one: So-called junk DNA that does not encode proteins was, until relatively recently, thought by a large majority of scientists to have no purpose, and was even used as evidence of random and purposeless evolution. But continuing investigations in the field led to the discovery that most “junk DNA” actually serves important biological functions.
Think what might have happened if scientists seeking to continue exploring this area of inquiry had been warned away because of the “scientific consensus.” What if the self-appointed guardians of existing perceived wisdom had gotten researchers to abandon their investigations for fear of losing university tenure, being scorned by colleagues, or having research funding blocked? The biological truth about non-protein-coding DNA might well have never been discerned. Yet these are the very anti-science tactics deployed today to chill scientific challenges to the theory of evolution and the questioning of “consensus” climate change conclusions.
Politicizers of science are not as clever as they think. People are watching, and the real victim of their abuse could be support for science itself. Indeed, the more vehemently establishment thinkers and their media camp followers seek to suppress alternate views and research, the more they attempt to crush ethical debates with the “anti-science” cudgel, the less people who are served by science will trust the sector. And that will be bad for everyone.
Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism.