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Defending Science: Robert Crease Takes On the Denialists

Bob Crease

Today the authority of science is under attack. Politicians may still consult doctors, engineers, even weather.com, but in key areas of national and global consequence, government leaders confidently reject scientific claims, substituting myths and cherry-picked facts. How is this possible? What can we do about it?

Robert Crease
Robert Crease

In his new book The Workshop and the World, Stony Brook professor and chair of the Department of Philosophy Robert Crease poses these questions and provides some answers.

“Science denial is extremely dangerous,” Crease says. “It’s like someone shouting ‘Stay put!’ in a burning building.”

The idea for the book came to Crease in 2014 as he was giving a TEDx talk at CERN, the international laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland. He chose the topic of modern science denial, only to find the allotted 14 minutes were far too few to do the subject justice. As he presented an image of a shark to symbolize the dangers that can’t be avoided without recourse to science – in a shout-out to the iconic movie Jaws — a reporter tweeted “We’re going to need a bigger idea boat!” The book, said Crease, “is my full-scale version of that bigger idea boat.”

Crease, who has written, translated, or edited more than a dozen books on the history and philosophy of science, decided to begin by looking at the experiences of the first people who argued for the authority of science, including Francis Bacon and Galileo.

“They, too, had to cope with science denial,” says Crease. “A cleric named Cremonini who was an opponent of Galileo refused to look through Galileo’s telescope.” These early champions of scientific authority had to develop countermeasures, and Crease found that we can learn much from these episodes.

“What I found was that the very features that made science work – that it’s technical, subject to revision, open-ended, done in bureaucracies, for instance – can also provide a veneer of legitimacy to those who want to deny its findings,” he said. “You have to identify these features in order to develop ways to fight back.”

As examples, Crease cites what he calls the “I am not a scientist” objection, the “Jury is still out” objection, and “scientists have their own agenda” objection, discussing instances of these in his book, as well as ways to respond.

“It’s tempting to think scientific authority is natural and will soon reassert itself like a sturdy self-righting boat knocked over by a rogue wave – that all you have to do is wait for the next election,” says Crease.

“The ugly truth is that science is more like Facebook, whose positive features are also vulnerabilities. Precisely because it allows us to connect and share, Facebook creates opportunities for misuse. Likewise, the very cogs that make science go provide opportunities for opponents to challenge its findings.”

But if science denial has been around from the beginning of modern science, is it any worse today?

“It’s different this time,” Crease says. “We have modern-day Cremoninis in office. Until recently, if politicians did not incorporate science into their policies, they were sheepish and defensive about it, like George W. Bush was on global warming. But Donald Trump and his Congressional followers are proudly hostile to science – and their rejection of scientific authority is part of their appeal to voters. When they dismiss scientific findings as a ‘hoax,’ for instance, they aren’t mishearing or poorly understanding scientists, but outright rejecting scientific authority itself.”

But science denial can’t be solved scientifically, by such things as citing more findings, appealing to experts, or shouting that “Science works!”

“Anti-vaxxers will just say that say that people who argue for vaccines are pawns of Big Pharma,” explains Crease. “Climate change deniers will say that those who insist on taking action are socialists.”

Crease says there are many motives for science denial, including greed, fear, bias, convenience, profits, and religious beliefs.

“Did you ever see that old Doonesbury cartoon about an ‘honest’ science denier being interviewed on a talk show?” asks Crease. “The punchline was that this guy says ‘I don’t oppose sound climate policy because it’s flawed, I oppose it because I care much more about my short-term economic interests than the future of the damn planet. Hello!’  That pretty much nails it.”

The Workshop and the World
The Workshop and the World

The key to moving forward, Crease says, lies not in science, but in the humanities. To that end, The Workshop and the World brings the role of humanities into the open, highlighting the important role it can play in preserving cultural health in a scientifically and technologically permeated world.

“The humanities can play an essential role here — science denial is not a problem with a scientific solution,” he says. “The special role of the humanities is to get humans to think more carefully and reflectively about our world, our relation to it, and our responsibilities for it.”

Crease, for instance, is inspired by the work of the German-American philosopher Hannah Arendt, whose remarks about politics, lying, and truth have shown up frequently in discussions of the contemporary political scene. “I find her remarks about authority particularly useful,” Crease says.  “Her instinct was first to tell the story of how we got into a situation to help us figure out how to get out of it. I tried to do the beginnings of that in The Workshop and the World.”

“Stories are easy to digest and I’m a fan of them,” he continued.  “Jaws, for example, is a classic science-denial related story about what happens when you don’t at least listen to scientists warning you about ‘sharks.’ Why don’t we want to listen?  That has to do with the stories circulating in our heads about the world and our relationship to it. Who is acting with integrity and who is part of a conspiracy?  Countering science denial requires modifying those stories.”

One way, says Crease, is to make provocative — and even incendiary — comparisons that bring the professed values of science deniers into the light. As an example, he compares U.S. politicians who attack science to the Islamic State militants who bulldozed archaeological treasures and smashed historically significant statues in 2014-15.

“Is that really an over-the-top comparison?” Crease asks. “Science is a cornerstone of Western culture, providing us with tools to ward off threats and achieve our goals. Science deniers who try to destroy these tools are like ISIS militants in that they’re motivated by a perceived higher authority, believe that mainstream culture threatens their beliefs, and want to destroy the ways by which that culture works. If anything, ISIS militants are more honest than science deniers because they openly admit that their motive is faith and ideology. Washington’s cultural vandals do not.”

Two themes that are discussed today are the relationship between science and religion historically, and the relationship between science and capitalism today. One of most important stories in the book is about the experience of the Ottoman Empire, whose institutions and society were thoroughly Muslim.

“Faced with an existential threat after serious military setbacks, they considered importing Western science and technology. But was it possible to do so and still be faithful Muslims and patriotic citizens?” offered Crease. “After an extensive self-examination that amounted to a large-scale humanities education, they decided it was.”

Crease says the very successes of science have helped make it easier for some to deny it.

Bob Crease
Bob Crease at Brookhaven National Lab

“We take for granted cellphones, transportation, medicines, and the ability to develop better ones,” he says. “We don’t think we have to make tough choices and trade-offs about the ways we obtain things like energy or food.”

Closer to home, Crease is proud of the efforts being undertaken at Stony Brook to reinforce the credibility of science in a volatile world.

“Stony Brook is superb in science, and all instances of that ultimately improve its credibility,” he says. “And of course, there’s the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science and the great work being done there.”

And Professor Crease is also doing what he can; over the past 19 years Crease has devoted many of the “Critical Point” columns he writes for Physics World magazine to exploring the presence and role of the humanities in science. He is also also the historian at Brookhaven National Laboratory.

“A lot more needs to be done,” he says. “In a world permeated by science and technology, humanities scholars need to engage the sciences as part of their fundamental duty to connect with the world as we find it. That’s why pursuing the history and philosophy of science is so urgent.”

Crease will delve deeper into this topical and thought-compelling subject in a lecture called “Lights Out: The Rise and Fall of Scientific Authority,” which will be given on Thursday, April 18 at 4:00 PM in Room 303 in the Student Activities Center. Professor Crease’s lecture will be part of Stony Brook’s upcoming Earthstock festivities, which begin on April 15.

 

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