Geomedia: Books: The danger of anti-data ideologies is explored in 'Denying Science'

“Denying Science,” by John Grant, Prometheus Books, 2011. ISBN: 978-1616143992 “Denying Science,” by John Grant, Prometheus Books, 2011. ISBN: 978-1616143992

I see science denialism as a pernicious problem in modern society. It was with some anticipation, then, that I recently read John Grant’s 2011 book “Denying Science.” In it, I found a mix of indignation and new information, as well as a lot with which I was already familiar.

The opening chapters are the most informative, in that they examine issues that fall below the radar in typical discussions of science denialism. Grant starts by examining the relationships between religious belief and science, and between the law and science. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the first; the second, not so much. It was chilling to read stories of how “recovered memories” — in fact false stories suggested and actively solicited by interrogating officials — were considered sufficient evidence to send childcare providers to prison for Satanic torture and sexual abuse of children that never happened. Although exonerations were granted to some of these people, many lost their reputations, their livelihoods, and in some cases, their lives, to this crackpot technique. Phony forensics also merits several pages of attention. The sloppy thinking that pervaded the arson-examination industry for many years, for instance, falsely implicated innocent people and sent them to jail — and even resulted in executions in some cases.

Grant next covers alternative medicine, tobacco science, anti-vaccination conspiracies, faith healing, AIDS denialism and self-help books. These topics are sufficient to establish the ludicrous ways in which people can think about important issues, but Grant could also have opted to cover 9/11 conspiracy theories, the birther movement (which holds that President Obama was born in Kenya), UFOs, cryptozoology, ESP, astrology, the aquatic ape hypothesis and dozens of other manifestations of human creativity and paranoia not supported by actual evidence. Why did he pick these six?

My guess is that he focused on them because they represent potential near-term threats to public health. In each case, people buying into these scientifically invalid claims can cause suffering for others. The chapter on how parents routinely contribute to their children’s deaths by “treating” them with faith healing (that is to say, by purposefully denying them medical treatment) is stark and difficult to read. If you’ve ever asked “What’s the harm?” with engaging in nonscience-based medicine, you need to read this.

In the remaining chapters, Grant details various aspects of the denial of evolution and climate change and the cultural war playing out between scientific evidence and nonscientific ideologies. Much of this content will be familiar to readers of this magazine. That more than half the book is dedicated to them felt asymmetric to me. And while I personally agree with Grant’s take, most of his discussion felt stale. On the other hand, if you don’t ordinarily pay much attention to evolution denial and climate change denial, this book would be an excellent place to start.

I found the chapter on eugenics to be the most illuminating. Eugenics entails the notion that society is justified in determining which individuals should be permitted to procreate based on supposedly superior physical traits, with those deemed unfit subjected to forced sterilization. Eugenicists justify their actions by invoking Darwinian selection, including that odious and misleading phrase, “survival of the fittest.” I learned, to my chagrin, that one of my heroes — Theodore Roosevelt — heaped praise on the author of a popular eugenics tract. This taints my conception of Roosevelt’s legacy, but that’s why I read books — to get a fuller appreciation of reality. To me, this is a lesson that we should always separate ideas from those who espouse them. Hate the pseudoscience, not the pseudoscientist.

Although eugenics is hardly the most contemporary example, it’s a particularly nasty example worth knowing about because many well-read creationists today cite the flaws of eugenics as justification for rejecting evolution. This logic — that because eugenics is wrong, evolution must also be — is fallacious, but in my experience it’s widespread among young-Earth creationists. I’m glad to have had a chapter of Grant’s elucidation to bring me up to speed.

“Denying Science” also offers insight into the Scopes “Monkey” Trial: the 1925 legal case in which the state of Tennessee brought suit against one of its public school teachers for teaching evolution. As it turns out, the motivations behind the suit were complex. The trial was initiated by civic leaders in Dayton, Tenn., who saw it as a way of gaining national attention, and the attendant economic benefits. They recruited attorneys, who in turn recruited a teacher, John Scopes. It turned out that he had never explicitly taught evolution, but agreed to claim so for the sake of the trial. William Jennings Bryan, the celebrity prosecutor, even offered to pay Scopes’ fine — which was a fait accompli. Although his conviction was later overturned on a legal technicality, the trial — mounted for intentional spectacle, not justice — served its purpose well.

Grant’s writing style is equal parts well-informed, indignant, witty and flippant. Sometimes it really works, as in his discussion of AIDS denial: “Casper Schmidt ... claimed the already burgeoning AIDS epidemic was merely a sort of social hysteria, a reaction to conservative moral strictures regarding homosexuality. A decade after publication, Schmidt died of social hysteria.” In other places, he makes jokes that feel inappropriately sarcastic, as when he refers to the “ill-informed antiscience prejudices of the daft elderly relative you try to avoid at weddings.” Outrage toward many of the social phenomena that Grant documents in “Denying Science” is justified, but glib condescension is never in good taste — at any rate, as we’ve seen in the public debate on climate change, it doesn’t get you very far.

The section in the book on climate change offers a depressing read, given the potential severity of the consequences. Much of the material is covered more compellingly and completely in other sources, such as Elizabeth Kolbert’s “Field Notes From a Catastrophe” for the science, and Naomi Oreskes’ and Erik Conway’s “Merchants of Doubt” for the denialism. Grant’s inclusion of the subject here, however, usefully frames it in the context of the many flavors of science denialism throughout society.

Overall, Grant’s book is a suitable, if asymmetric, overview of the many different ways we can be hoodwinked by schemes and memes. Its many, many lessons serve as sobering guides to humanity’s past and future. As he writes, “In science, when a hypothesis makes predictions that reality confounds, it’s the hypothesis that’s ditched, not reality.”

If only it were so in society as well!

Callan Bentley

Credit: Virginia Community College System.

Bentley, an EARTH contributing editor, is an assistant professor of geology at Northern Virginia Community College in Annandale, Va. He is the 2018 recipient of the National Association of Geoscience Teachers Shea Award for exceptional contributions in earth science writing for the public and/or teachers. He also draws EARTH’s cartoons and is past president of the Geological Society of Washington. He blogs about geology at http://blogs.agu.org/mountainbeltway. The views expressed are his own.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016 - 06:00

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