I almost wasn’t going to read the recent Paul Krugman column on the proud anti-science stance of mainstream Republican thought. You know, “this also just in: Fire is hot.”
But it got so much attention in my social media circles, that I decided to read it anyway, and I’m glad I did, if only for the closing paragraph:
Now, we don’t know who will win next year’s presidential election. But the odds are that one of these years the world’s greatest nation will find itself ruled by a party that is aggressively anti-science, indeed anti-knowledge. And, in a time of severe challenges — environmental, economic, and more — that’s a terrifying prospect.
“Anti-knowledge” is the key. I’m going to put my political communications hat on here, and dissect what may be one reason why this issue doesn’t get as much traction as it ought to.
To folks who are into science or are a part of the secularist/atheist movement, the word “science” means something big, important, and fundamental about human knowledge. We (usually) understand that when we talk about science, we’re not necessarily talking about the products of science, but the act of science: exploring questions, testing hypotheses, developing theories, all based on observable data. We know that to be “anti-science” means what Krugman says it means, to be anti-knowledge.
But I think that when the general public hears the word “science,” something different is evoked. They think of dudes in lab coats, robots, medicine, eggheaded professors pontificating with polysyllabic words. And that’s the best case scenario. Cassini scientist Carolyn Porco has addressed the strong cultural bias against science and its practitioners, and I reported on her address to the 2009 Atheist Alliance International convention thusly:
The hurdle, according to her, was the deeply ingrained image of scientists and technology as negative, the near-universal portrayal of scientists and intellectuals as villains, as cold, or as socially inept. Often set up as archetypes to be ridiculed, hated, or feared, Porco said that popular culture usually associates science with disasters, “Frankensteins”, and people who are “too brilliant for their own good.”
“It is not uncommon for people to respond [to scientists and science] with ambivalence,” she said. “To see the evil scientist receive his or her comeuppance is soothing.”
In other words, the term “science,” and all of its associations, carry far too much baggage to be politically useful. For too many Americans, the notion of being hostile to science is not only acceptable, but validating of one’s own ignorance.
This is why we in the reality-based community should, for now, abandon the term when dealing with deniers of climate change and evolution, and the conspiracists who foment anti-medicine paranoia (such as those opposed to vaccinations). Instead, we should talk about folks like Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann as anti-knowledge, anti-progress, anti-reality. (We should not bother calling them “anti-intellectual,” because if the general public is uneasy about scientists, imagine how hostile they feel toward “intellectuals.”) These fools and frauds should be called out for living in a fantasy world, for hawking nonsense that would get snake oil salesmen run out of town, and for dragging our society back to the Bronze Age.
But at this time in our rhetorical history, we should stop talking about “science.” As the hubbub over Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape shows us, even we skeptics and allegedly pro-knowledge folks can misunderstand what the word “science” means in certain contexts.