Cast your mind back to 1980. Nobody, not a soul, knew that gaspers, coffin nails, and cancer sticks were bad for you.1 Tobacco companies used an advanced form of mind control (the technology in now in the hands of the government) to envelope the nation in a smoky cloud of ignorance.
Yet somehow, mysteriously, people awakened from their nicotine-induced slumber.
Hop in your time machine and pop forward a decade to 1990. Remember how we are all going to die of that noble and brave disease, AIDS? Well, maybe not all of us, but most of us were going to kick over, horribly and soon. Everybody was at risk.
Yet somehow, most of us didn’t.
Now shift forward eight years. That’s 1998, for you Brown University graduates. We were all going to die of heat frustration, choking on our own exhaust; we were all going to drown in our own sweat. The end was nigh.
Yet somehow the heat went into hiding. Nobody knows where it is.
If there’s one thing you can count on in a scientist, it’s that he never lets his failures hold him back. How could they? He never remembers them. No matter how many mistakes the scientist has made, no matter how over-certain he has in the past proved to be, he will sally forth boldly in his newest venture chock full of assuredness.
And, boy, will he be angry if you don’t fall in at his heels chirping, “You’re so smart. We ought to listen to you.” If you have the temerity to remind him of his previous sins, he will boast, “Science is self-correcting!”, never realizing that this argument is fallacious. Self-correcting science may be, but this is not evidence that the theory in front of us does not need correcting. Tell a modern scientist this and he begins to babble about “deniers”.
Consider this silly whine—The Subterranean War on Science—from Stephan Lewandowsky, Mike Mann, Linda Bauld, Gerard Hastings, and, I’m sad to report, Elizabeth Loftus in the Association for Psychological Science’s Observer.
Lewandowsky in particular, like most who teeter on the leftmost fringe of thought, finds it unfathomable that anybody can differ from his opinion. He dismisses as ludicrous the idea his opponents hold reasonable arguments. No: it must be some deep-seated pathology, some psychological aberration that accounts for the deviant behavior he feels surrounds him, that is closing in on him, constricting his movements, tightening the noose…it’s a conspiracy of oil companies and nefarious corporations! Not corporations like Apple and Solyndra, of course; bad corporations.
He and his co-authors are amazed—amazed!—that after years of nannying the citizenry over how much pop they can drink, what time they should go to bed; that after decades of stridently insisting that citizens should stay away from deadly potato chips, ice cream, popcorn; after the increasing hectoring of citizens about the sacking in which they carry their groceries, of what type of water containers are forbidden and on and on and ever on, that citizens are beginning to push back and tell the experts to mind their own damn business.
The world views of the experts are being challenged, and the experts are aghast, unsure what to do about it. Lewandowsky, after all but labeling his opponents mentally ill dimwits, was horrified—he tells us this—I almost can’t bring myself to type it—that somebody called him a bad name. Oh, the humanity!
Mann is a pest, an intellectual lightweight who in his imagination sees himself sparring with the big boys, but who puts on his glasses and whimpers at the first sign of trouble. Somebody dared asked for proof of his statistical, government-funded ravings and the poor dear was reduced to a blubbering mess.
Bauld and Hastings never go out after dark because they fret that every glowing cigarette—there’s one in every bush—is attached to an assassin dispatched by Big Tobacco.
Loftus, whom I admire, took one in the neck, too. But from a rival, as it were, and not a vexed citizen.
Look, some of the challenges by citizens of science are sensible, some not so much. But then, some of what scientists say is sensible, some not so much. Neither side can boast of a record when it comes to those areas which affect people. Not all science attains the same level of veracity, either. People know the difference. This is why you never see marches for or against the Standard Model in physics, or agitations pro and con over the best doping agents in transistors.
We’re not done with this paper, not by far.
1First OED appearance as slang for cigarettes: Gaspers, 1914; Coffin-nail, 1888; Cancer-stick, 1958.