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Right about institutions; Wrong about science.

April 15, 2010

Andrew Sullivan links to a passionate TED talk by Michael Specter on the topic of science denialism.

Specter has a lot of very sensible things to say about the perilous lunacy of campaigns against vaccines, and other technologies that save millions of lives every year. And he has some good insight into the source of such backlash: we have lost faith in institutions.

Why do we spend billions on alternative medicines that don’t actually work? Because “the health care system in the US sucks.” Specter empathizes with skepticism, but argues that it should have nothing to do with science. For example, on the issue of genetically modified crops, he says:

We’ve got a huge food problem, and let’s fix it, but this isn’t science. It has nothing to do with science. It’s law. It’s morality. It’s patent stuff. You know science isn’t a company. It’s not a country. It’s not even an idea. It’s a process.

This is just plain wrong. Science is a process, but it doesn’t exist without things like patents, countries and companies. You cannot separate them out.

And you cannot separate the risky, scary, cosmetic, and materialistic aspects of genetic engineering from the hopeful, lifesaving ones. The same science feeds both, and the same institutions and laws are wrapped up in both.

Specter is right that backlashes against science are troubling in many ways. And he’s right that the root of many of these problems lies in the institutions. But you can’t isolate science from institutions as he suggests.

The outcomes of science are not simple, especially as they relate to difficult social problems such as hunger. Specter falls into his own trap when he puts up the “shameful” graph showing falling investments in Africa over recent years (at about 14:10 in the video). What would he say about academic arguments (science?) showing that much of that investment hasn’t actually helped? It is not a question of more investment=good, less investment=bad.

And just look at revelations in the New York Times today about decreasing maternal deaths. This is extremely encouraging news, but some advocacy groups sought to delay publication of the findings, for fear that they would undermine the cause of maternal health (h/t Roger Pielke).

You cannot separate science from its social context. Specter’s arguments may be inspiring, but they amount to an exercise in futility.

One Comment leave one →
  1. April 21, 2010 2:01 am

    I’m sure you’ve read this already, but related to Specter’s Denialism:

    Cool, science is gonna save the world! if only those dang environmentalists would start believing in it…. *sarcasm*

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