Time to Dial Back Charges of Being 'Anti-Science'

There's nothing wrong with raising questions, or showing skepticism: that is the hallmark of science.

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Michael Lynch is the president and director of global petroleum service at Strategic Energy & Economic Research.

Science seems more in the public debate than ever, and many are accused of being "anti-science," but the term is tossed around far too cavalierly. Certainly, not believing in evolution qualifies one as being obtuse, but that represents only a fraction of those to whom the label is attached.

But other issues have found advocates (or opponents) citing "science" as the source of their beliefs, including opponents of the fluoridation of water and hydraulic fracturing of shale for oil and gas production, as well as proponents of theories that vaccines might cause autism and of course, everyone involved in the global warming debate. Joseph Romm, for instance, recently referred to Joseph Nocera as attacking climate change science because he argued that blocking the Keystone XL pipeline wouldn't affect oil consumption.

[Nancy Pfotenhauer: There Is No Equivalence Between Solyndra and Keystone XL]

Treating every utterance of a scientist as Science is rather like imagining them as medieval priests, who transmogrified bread and wine into the flesh and blood of Christ. Not everything that comes from a scientist is automatically science, any more than everything that comes out of a cow is beef (the comparison is intentional). Even aside from bad research, many scientists have no qualms about expressing personal opinions that are not supported by research. This is a problem when they are addressing topics outside of their expertise, which many seem to think themselves particularly qualified to do by dint of their professional standing.   

Complex issues like global warming have their own arenas. The media often treats the debate as between believing or not believing, when the primary controversies are over more subtle questions, like the effects of clouds, feedback loops, and so forth. Yet many environmentalists refer to those who question any aspect of the intricate models of long-term global climate change as "denialists" and "anti-science," when it is not like saying evolution is a hoax, but rather arguing about whether a particular hominid is an ancestor of modern humans or a dead end, for instance.

[See a collection of political cartoons on energy policy.]

There's nothing wrong with raising questions, or showing skepticism: that is the hallmark of science, after all. It's bad enough when politicians weigh in on scientific questions, but scientists who label their critics "anti-science" are behaving more like the medieval Catholic Church, attacking anyone who dissented from their dogma. And scientists who demand their work not be questioned should be correctly labeled as ideologues.

It's understandable that activists find themselves frustrated when the public doesn't give their concerns the attention that they feel is deserved, but they should not react by becoming increasingly alarmist. James Hansen's apocalyptic claim that approval of the Keystone pipeline would mean "game over for the planet" is a disservice to honest debate, and his supporters, like Romm, should urge him to practice restraint (and accuracy) rather than compound the problem by falsely accusing those who don't agree with him of being "anti-science."

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