I noticed recently that Stony Brook is hosting next week a panel discussion devoted to
a conversation about one of the most grave challenges to confront humanity: the anti-science movement.
There is a truly grave challenge being referred to, but a serious mistake is being made about the nature of the challenge. In particular, there’s no evidence of an “anti-science” movement, quite the opposite. Across the globe, if you ask people what profession they respect the most, “scientist” comes out on top (see here). Likely the organizers have in mind climate denialists and anti-vaxxers as prime examples of “anti-science” behavior, but in my experience such people typically show a great devotion to pointing to scientists, scientific results and scientific papers to justify themselves. An example would be Lubos Motl, who has put out literally thousands of pages on his blog about climate and COVID science (by the way, his blog seems to have gone “by invitation only”, anyone know what that’s about?).
The problem isn’t “anti-science”, but bad science, promoted for ideological reasons. This is part of a larger truly grave challenge to humanity, that of our information environment being flooded with untruth, on a scale that dwarfs the output of the Ministry of Truth that Orwell foresaw. For years now we’ve been living with this in the form of phenomena like Trumpism, and the past few weeks have seen the Russian government exploiting these methods to conduct a campaign of brutal slaughter. I don’t know what the best way to address this challenge is, but unless something can be done, humanity has an ugly and disturbing future ahead of it.
Sticking to the problem of what to do about the promotion of bad science, there at least I have some experience trying to do something about one example of it (although with very limited success). This problem deserves attention and a panel discussion, but a panel in which four of six members have devoted a significant part of their careers to promoting a failed scientific research program is a really odd choice.
The underlying thorny issue is that of how to evaluate scientific claims. Given the complexities of controversial science, non-experts generally have little choice but to try and identify experts and trust what they say. A major societal role of elite institutions is to provide such experts, ensuring that they provide trustworthy expertise, untainted by ideology or self-interest. A large part of what is going on these days seems to me to reflect a loss of faith in elite institutions, with an increasing perception that these are dominated by a well-off class pursuing not truth, but their own interests. As a product of such institutions I’m well aware of both their strengths and their weaknesses. We need them to do better, and in this case Stony Brook should come up with a better panel.
Update: I’ve heard that Lubos himself shutdown the blog, unwilling to agree to follow rules Google was now enforcing.