The fine line between ignorance and lying
When do you stop giving the benefit of the doubt to people who keep making claims in defiance of science? The first time someone makes such a claim, they may simply be ignorant of the relevant science. Many scientists will be ignorant of science away from their own field. There is rather a lot of science!
But when someone making a particular anti-science claim persists despite plenty of opportunity to acknowledge the current state of science, their excuses run out. They know their claims are false. They know they are lying.
What is science?
I am not a philosopher. I am not even a scientist, although I have a degree in Mathematical Physics. I am an engineer. There are various tests for “science literacy”. One that I like is “you don’t understand what science is unless you realise that it is a process“.
Here are 3 major obstacles to extending our knowledge and understanding of anything complicated, such as society or the universe:
- There are vastly more ways to be wrong than to be right.
- Knowledge and understanding come in dribs and drabs, not all at once.
- The inquiry is conducted by fallible human beings.
If we systematically address each of these obstacles, we end up with “the scientific method”. Evidence-based reasoning; open publication; arguments to force more research; models & paradigm shifts; skepticism; peer review; etc.
What I am saying, and what I am not
I am not talking about people who accept the principles of science, and acknowledge what science currently says on a particular topic, but who believe that science itself will eventually change what it says. Science is sometimes wrong, and needs people to challenge current positions.
For example, Barbara McClintock was convinced that current theories were incomplete, and that she had a better explanation. She worked within science to establish her theory, eventually did so to general satisfaction, and she won a Nobel Prize. She was not a science-denier; she denied a particular scientific position, and established and supported her own alternative with proper evidence.
A different result happened to Susan Blackmore. She worked as a scientist to establish an effect (parapsychology) that probably most scientists were skeptical about. Like Barbara McClintock, she challenged the established position. But she eventually realised, via science itself, that she was wrong, and change her judgment. She too was not a science-denier; indeed, it was science that caused her to change her position. She was driven by evidence to a position that she originally had disagreed with. Scientists do get things wrong, but it is science that will correct them.
I am talking about people who deny the effectiveness of science; or who refuse to acknowledge what science actually says (rightly or wrongly) about a topic and misrepresent it; or who have an agenda to convince people about a particular position whether or not science is ever likely to support it.
For example, someone who pushes an alternative to evolution without actually acknowledging what evolution actually states, and without using the scientific process to establish their own alternative. Or someone who picks at detailed problems within the science behind climate change as though that undermined the whole lot. This includes people who won’t accept that their alternative must still explain results that are not in dispute.
Such people are typically not scientists, or else are scientists talking outside their own field, yet are expressing scientific-looking positions with the confidence that might be expected from someone who knew what they are talking about. They are often driven by ideology or money towards a predetermined claim, rather than being driven by the evidence wherever it leads.
The hierarchy of lies
Any typical process of science-denial appears to have at least the following levels in a hierarchy:
- Those who create the science-denial or anti-science statements being used
- Those who promote / publish / preach those statements, possibly tailored for a specific audience
- The audience for those statements, who may then transmit them to their peers
My claim of lying mainly applies to people at level 1, but often applies to those at level 2 as well. Level 3 people are often simply gullible; ignorant dupes.
Level 1: Major science-denial claims tend to build and exploit costly resources, over a significant time. I don’t believe these were always originally knowingly based on lies, although I’m confident many are, especially where prophets or profits are involved. But the process of developing these resources attracts attention, and counter-evidence will eventually flood in. After a while, accidental ignorance can be ruled out, and only deliberate ignorance or deliberate denial remain. I consider either of these to be a form of lying.
Level 2: These people may know that what they are peddling are lies. Or they may mentally suppress the possibility, because it would interfere with their own agenda. (The term “used car salesmen” springs to mind! But last year for once I bought a used car, and I am happy with it, so I won’t push this analogy too far). These are like (sometime are!) preachers in pulpits: their jobs depend on propagating untruths, so they continue to do so. But unless they are aware of the above flood of counter-evidence, I can’t rule out the possibility that they actually believe what they say.
Level 3: I’m sure that, on some matters, I am an ignorant dupe! I sometimes cringe at nonsense that I have repeated to others believing it to be true! I have some sympathy with people at this level; they are often victims. But sometimes they are willing victims, and all they really want is reassurance that their beliefs are true and they won’t have to be inconvenienced by alternatives. Sometimes they just want to stick their fingers in their ears and say “I can’t hear any contrary evidence”, which is a lie!
I wonder whether an article like this that doesn’t even mention any names of science-deniers could be grounds for a libel action? Surely not, even in the UK? But if it can, so be it. I’m retired without dependents, and might even relish a court case! I suspect I could get a lot of help.
“Sooner or later, science works”