MICHAEL FOLEY: Why I Am Not Marching for Science Today


[This one’s for Ron. ~ds]

Today’s March for Science is touted as a defense of informed democracy against ignorant tyranny. But the “science based policy making” that liberals defend is often just another form of tyranny, and a poorly informed one at that. Policy should ultimately be based on our values. It must be reality based, to be sure. But “science” does not provide the sure guide to reality that proponents claim. That claim is based on Science as religion, as dogma, not on science as an ever correctible practice. The reason that climate denial is so outrageous is that it defies the only approximation science has to established fact, a scientific consensus. But much of the science invoked in court, in Congressional testimony, and in bureaucratic rule-making lacks that sort of surety.

The case of Annie Dookhan is a dramatic illustration. The Massachusetts chemist was convicted in 2013 of falsifying evidence in the state drug lab where she worked. Some 21,000 people were convicted of drug crimes as a result of her work. It took years of litigation, and the threat that prosecutors would have to retry all those cases, to get those people exonerated. How could this happen? Because courts routinely take “science based” evidence from police and prosecutors as fact, opening the way to just such abuses.

Public bureaucracies, from public health to the FDA to agriculture, rely on often poorly cooked scientific results to shape rule-making and their own positions on public policy. A Master’s thesis can be dragged into service by a local public health official to justify yet another piece of restrictive rule-making without question by a public similarly beguiled by Science. The unexamined dogmas of science history can be used to routinely derail questions about the soundness of policy choices. Statistically small risks can be elevated to major public health concerns. And meanwhile larger concerns are left unaddressed, whether because of prejudice or political pressure.

If science is under siege today, it is because science education, journalism and scientists have failed. They have failed by representing Science as a body of dogma, unquestionable even though constantly changing as new scientific discoveries and theoretical shifts alter scientists’ views. They have failed by neglecting to hammer home the difference between tentative findings, growing bodies of evidence, and scientific consensus. They have failed by not educating the public on experimental method, not demonstrating how to read scientific results and assess their soundness, not giving people the tools they need to sort through the maze of competing “findings” that we all face. They have failed by deriding critics and skeptics, at least some of whom are only doing what real science demands: questioning, questioning, questioning until all sides of a question are examined.

In short, I won’t march for science today, because the religion of Science serves science, and the public interest, badly.

One Comment

Well, Science (as religion) has certainly failed as described above, but that is a characteristic of almost all religions. I personally gave up religion back in 6th grade, after two years of parochial school convinced me the obvious hypocrisy and double-talk was just too much to swallow. At age 11, with no outside assistance. No doubt further feathers will be ruffled if it is also suggested that a lot of the easily-led-astray public has simply failed to grow up. Which might be the subject of another interesting report.