The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Politics of Science Terminology Abuse

The World of Weird Things website has posted a top 5 list of abused science terms. The list is pretty good, my two favorite inclusions being the terms "toxin" and "quantum" which mean some very specific things in science, but are used in nonsensical, pell-mell ways in New Age belief.

But this brings to mind something that I have noticed before. The list at World of Weird Things leaves off the word "theory" - for my money, the all-time most abused science term. The reason, and it is a legitimate one though it is unstated in the post, is that the list reflects an intention to criticize the New Age forms of pseudoscience, which tend to be left wing, rather than the creationism/environmental denial forms of pseudoscience, which tend to be right wing.

This is not a criticism of World of Weird Things, the new age pseudoscience is just as deserving of criticism as such right-wing nonsense as creationism and global warming denialism - and as the left wing version has given rise to the anti-vaccine movement (which is now bizarrely gaining traction on the right, with a Democrat president being in favor of vaccines - evidence that pundits are only concerned with attacking "the opposition" and not with reality) it is has now created a public health hazard. But it is interesting, and the different vocabulary illustrates some differences between the left and right when it comes to science denial.

The adoption of terms such as "toxin", "energy", and "quantum" show an attempt to steal the legitimacy of science without doing any of the work. To be sure, many on the left wing of science denial will flat-out attack science, but it seems more common for them to adopt the terminology and act as if they are actually working within the framework of science when they are, in fact, developing sophisticated ignorances of science and actually undermining it by abusing the terminology. In short, this particular form has created a false edifice that looks "sciency" on the outside, even fooling many who buy into it, but is wholly vacuous on the inside. It has a tendency to filch terminology in order to make it look as if the pseudo-science is on the cutting edge and is the harbinger of advanced scientific knowledge when it is often (read: typically) actually just peddling re-packaged nonsense that is centuries old.

On the right, there is a tendency to use such terms as "theory" incorrectly to claim that science never actually proves anything*. Out of the Intelligent Design movement, there has even been a new pseudo-scientific jargon developed with gems such as "irreducible complexity". The basic thrust is that the jargon stolen from science or generated by pseudo-science is a jargon of uncertainty or denial - a claim that what is known is not actually known so that it may be safely ignored and old dogmas maintained. It sometimes creates a gap into which a god can be inserted, at other times it simply gives the proponent of an idea or policy the plausible deniability necessary for them to advocate for the status quo when change is necessary.

Certainly, there are those on the right who falsely claim scientific credibility (just as there are those on the left who openly attack science) such as the creation "scientists", but typically the intention is to cast doubt on science rather than co-opt it, and this is reflected in the jargon adopted.

There is another important difference, though. A large part of right-wing science denial is politically motivated - it begins with people attempting to push policy and then bleeds in to the broader culture. Global warming denialism is an obvious example, but even creationism, though coming from religious beliefs and therefore not necessarilly political, has abused science jargon largely through political attempts to force creationism into educational policy. Left wing science denialism comes largely from the New Age movement as it blossomed in the 1960s, and although it has political implications, was not crafted specifically to move a political agenda.

Both right and left wing science denial is equally concerned with supporting pre-existing assumptions rather than fairly evaluating new information, and both have a stubborn refusal to accept inconvenient truths and realities at their cores. However, they do take somewhat different courses, one usually trying to masquerade as science the other trying to deny the effectiveness of science. Certainly, there is crossover (not all creationists are right-wing, not all believers in Reiki are left-wing), and there are people in both camps who adopt the tactics of the other side (and increasingly there even seems to be some rather strange examples of bleed-over between both sides), but as a general rule, this does seem to describe the behavior of both sides rather accurately.

*Technically correct, but over-simplified by these people. Science deals in probabilities - what the evidence shows is what is most likely to be correct, and the strength of the evidence is directly proportional to the accuracy of the supported claim. There is always the possibility of a new piece of evidence proving the previous beliefs wrong, but the more evidence there is supporting a claim, the less likely such new evidence becomes. People who argue that something (usually, though not always, evolution) is "only a theory" pretty much always try to assert that their own arbitrary belief is just as valid if the "theory" can't be proven 100% true - this is bullshit, as an arbitrary belief with no unequivocal supporting evidence is not only as well supported as a scientific theory (which by definition has supporting evidence) but is, in fact, far more likely than not to be proven wrong by new evidence.


Lt. Cccyxx said...

I think the key word in both of these types of abuse is "scientization." Let's couch the entire discussion in the cloak of science, and make it seem like it's entirely about science, and make it sound as scientific as possible...when in reality, it's more about (as you said) reinforcing preconceived views or predetermined policy goals. But always act as though the science is determinative, one way or another.

Added your blog to my feed a month or so ago, btw, and have been enjoying it. I did some CRM work myself way way back in the day, and sometimes your posts bring back memories.

Greg F. said...

Actually, WOWT has a whole post on the subject of the "it's just a theory" excuse by pseudoscientists and denialists...

Anthroslug said...

Sorry it took me so long to get back to you guys. Blogger doesn't always inform we when there are comments.

Lt. Ccyxxx: I agree about the tendency for most people pushing psuedoscience to go for scientism. I have long been aware of the similarities, but the differences just hit me as being really interesting on htis particular day.

I see that you survived the CRM work. It's good to know that I might get out alive, myself.

Greg F.: Thanks for pointing that out.