When I was interviewing Robert Kennedy Jr. for my recent Washington Post magazine profile, there was one charge leveled against him that he deeply resented. "I am not anti-science," he insisted on numerous occasions, and my suggestion a year ago that he was anti-science perturbed him more than anything. After all, Kennedy, like many greens, embraces what science says about climate change and other pressing environmental issues. So how could he be anti-science? Similarly, GMO opponents hold views that are often broadly characterized as "anti-science." For example, here's how a tweet described Jon Entine's presentation this week to a National Academy of Science (NAS) committee on crop biotechnology.
The tweet by Entine's organization (Genetic Literacy Program) was referring to the numerous GMO critics who don't accept overwhelming evidence showing genetically modified foods to be safe, and who were invited to share these views with the NAS committee at a public meeting. But is it fair to label anti-GMO activists--and their claims--as anti-science? Like Kennedy, many of them, if not all, also hew to the scientific consensus on climate change. But if they dismiss the same scientific consensus on crop biotechnology does that automatically make them anti-science? [In fairness, nowhere in Entine's NAS presentation--which is excellent--does he use the term "anti-science."] Entine, in his remarks to the NAS committee, acknowledges that
many of those who maintain that GMOs are potentially harmful, while sincere for the most part, are engaging not in science but in politics.
Sound familiar? Earlier this year, a Harvard panel explored the reasons for persistent opposition to action on climate change. As a write-up of the event explained:
The underpinnings of the anti-climate change movement have given it political resonance, [Naomi] Oreskes said, because of ties to cultural traditions of independence, self-reliance, and small government. “It becomes an argument about big government,” Oreskes said. “For Republicans in Congress and elsewhere, it’s not about climate change, it’s definitely not about science, it’s about government.”
In other words, it's really about cultural values and political ideology, not science. Yet, in so much of the discourse on climate change, these views are framed as belonging to "anti-science deniers." You couldn't craft a more antagonistic term. Now I'm not suggesting that we sugarcoat denialism of any sort, but I do think the disparaging language that takes hold in a public discourse can be off-putting to those who perhaps identify with a certain tribe but not necessarily buy into all its positions. Then there's the backfire effect. This is something that, in lieu of a recent study on vaccine safety messaging, public health communicators need to pay special attention to. Similarly, you have to wonder if insulting people you disagree with--calling them idiots or deniers or evil--is counterproductive to your goal, be it reducing greenhouse gas emissions, elevating the GMO dialogue, or allaying parental fears about vaccines. So it goes with tarring someone as anti-science. Why poison the well even more? I ponder this as I continue to write about GMOs and other hot button topics. It's relatively easy to debunk urban myths, call out false balance, shake my fist at agenda-driven fear-mongers. (I'm sure I'll continue doing that.) But I see diminishing returns with this approach. It seems more fruitful to engage in a debate about the socio-cultural values that underlie opposition to GMOs and that inform strong views on related sustainability issues. Along these lines, I don't see how characterizing a person's beliefs, a political party, or an NGO as "anti-science" is helpful. I'm sure it's good for scoring points and sharpening the lines in a debate, but beyond that, I'm not seeing much value. Additionally, just look at how casually ubiquitous the term "anti-science" has now become. Plug the phrase into Twitter and see for yourself.
I could show plenty more, but you get the idea. So am I putting too much emphasis on tone? At the very least, I think the meaning of "anti-science" has become so elastic and overused as to trivialize its use.