18 February 2011

Intolerance: Virtue or Anti-Science "Doublespeak"?

John Beddington, the Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK government, has identified a need to be "grossly intolerant" of certain views that get in the way of dealing with important policy problems:
We are grossly intolerant, and properly so, of racism. We are grossly intolerant, and properly so, of people who [are] anti-homosexuality... We are not—and I genuinely think we should think about how we do this—grossly intolerant of pseudo-science, the building up of what purports to be science by the cherry-picking of the facts and the failure to use scientific evidence and the failure to use scientific method.

One way is to be completely intolerant of this nonsense. That we don't kind of shrug it off. We don't say: ‘oh, it's the media’ or ‘oh they would say that wouldn’t they?’ I think we really need, as a scientific community—and this is a very important scientific community—to think about how we do it.
I really believe that. . . we need to recognise that that is a pernicious influence, it is an increasingly pernicious influence and we need to be thinking about how we can actually deal with it. I really would urge you to be grossly intolerant. We should not tolerate what is potentially something that can seriously undermine our ability to address important problems. . .

I'd urge you—and this is a kind of strange message to go out—but go out and be much more intolerant.
Just what the science community needs -- advice to be even more intolerant of wrongheaded, uninformed or politically unhelpful views.

Fortunately, Andrew Stirling, research director of the Science Policy Research Unit (which these days I think just goes by SPRU) at the University of Sussex, provides a much healthier perspective:
What is this 'pseudoscience'? For Beddington, this seems to include any kind of criticism from non-scientists of new technologies like genetically modified organisms, much advocacy of the 'precautionary principle' in environmental protection, or suggestions that science itself might also legitimately be subjected to moral considerations.

Who does Beddington hold to blame for this "politically or morally or religiously motivated nonsense"? For anyone who really values the central principles of science itself, the answer is quite shocking. He is targeting effectively anyone expressing "scepticism" over what he holds to be 'scientific' pronouncements—whether on GM, climate change or any other issue. Note, it is not irrational "denial" on which Beddington is calling for 'gross intolerance', but the eminently reasonable quality of "scepticism"!

The alarming contradiction here is that organised, reasoned, scepticism—accepting rational argument from any quarter without favour for social status, cultural affiliations  or institutional prestige—is arguably the most precious and fundamental quality that science itself has (imperfectly) to offer. Without this enlightening aspiration, history shows how society is otherwise all-too-easily shackled by the doctrinal intolerance, intellectual blinkers and authoritarian suppression of criticism so familiar in religious, political, cultural and media institutions.
Stirling concludes:
[T]he basic aspirational principles of science offer the best means to challenge the ubiquitously human distorting pressures of self-serving privilege, hubris, prejudice and power. Among these principles are exactly the scepticism and tolerance against which Beddington is railing (ironically) so emotionally! Of course, scientific practices like peer review, open publication and acknowledgement of uncertainty all help reinforce the positive impacts of these underlying qualities. But, in the real world, any rational observer has to note that these practices are themselves imperfect. Although rarely achieved, it is inspirational ideals of universal, communitarian scepticism—guided by progressive principles of reasoned argument, integrity, pluralism, openness and, of course, empirical experiment—that best embody the great civilising potential of science itself. As the motto of none other than the Royal Society loosely enjoins (also sometimes somewhat ironically) "take nothing on authority". In this colourful instance of straight talking then, John Beddington is himself coming uncomfortably close to a particularly unsettling form of unscientific—even (in a deep sense) anti-scientific—'double speak'.

Anyone who really values the progressive civilising potential of science should argue (in a qualified way as here) against Beddington's intemperate call for "complete intolerance" of scepticism. It is the social and human realities shared by politicians, non-government organisations, journalists and scientists themselves, that make tolerance of scepticism so important. The priorities pursued in scientific research and the directions taken by technology are all as fundamentally political as other areas of policy. No matter how uncomfortable and messy the resulting debates may sometimes become, we should never be cowed by any special interest—including that of scientific institutions—away from debating these issues in open, rational, democratic ways. To allow this to happen would be to undermine science itself in the most profound sense. It is the upholding of an often imperfect pursuit of scepticism and tolerance that offer the best way to respect and promote science. Such a position is, indeed, much more in keeping with the otherwise-exemplary work of John Beddington himself.
Stirling's eloquent response provides a nice tonic to Beddington's unsettling remarks. Nonetheless, Beddington's perspective should be taken as a clear warning as to the pathological state of highly politicized science these days.

(H/T Bishop Hill)