Anti-science on the internet

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I had to take a break from social media because I was spending too much time worrying about people being wrong ABOUT SCIENCE on the internet (credit to XKCD for articulating it first). I moved house and had to focus on catching up at work. But the subject nagged me. I started working on a long form writing project about anti-science online. Why are people against science? There are a lot of answers to that question. It’s not as simple as just saying “fundamentalism” and throwing my hands up. I want to understand the problem better.

As I started researching the issue, I found a book called The War on Science. I realized that I don’t need to write a book about this because it has been done already (and better than I could manage). The book is exhaustive.

I keep thinking of this quote from A Demon Haunted World – we do seem to be in “a gentle slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness…” (Carl Sagan). There are real forces that are trying to bury science in an avalanche of bullshit. The agendas range from the relatively harmless (selling LED anus illuminators) to existential threat (climate denial). They come from biblical literalists and from real-life fascists. They come from fringe groups on the Left and increasingly mainstream groups on the Right.

I try to reassure myself. Sometimes the anti-science crowd is very vocal, but actually a small minority. Something like two-thirds of Americans believe in climate change. That’s good! The minority has been boosted so thoroughly that they can seem like the majority. That’s bad. (Sparkman, 2022, Nature Communications)

And it’s worth examining the motivations. There are profitable reasons to distort public perceptions. It’s not just the public’s perceptions of science, but the perceptions of public opinion about science. For example, there’s no point fighting for a Green New Deal if 75% of Americans are against it. Legacy industries have a vested interest in getting people to believe that the Green New Deal has very little support. In fact, Green New Deal programs individually have strong public support. It’s strange that science-dependent industries (like the petrochemical industry) should push to undermine science, but there are deeply perverse incentives at work.

This topic is compelling to me. I want to see a future filled with art, science, technological progress and material prosperity. To get there we need a foundation built on reality – empirical measurement of the world around us. We can’t get there with wishful thinking and superstition.

The comic was made by Peter Allen with MidJourney and shared under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0)