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The Sciences

How Science Defenders Enable Anti-Science Forces

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyMarch 19, 2008 10:38 PM

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My latest piece for Science Progress--where I am now a contributing editor--has just gone up. It's entitled "Enablers," and it's how people like us, who care about science, are often guilty of actually empowering those who who are attacking it. A great example occurred recently with the Heartland Institute's climate skeptic conference in New York. Climate skepticism is totally passe--this event should have been completely ignored. Instead, many of my intellectual allies were screaming their heads off denouncing it, and thereby drawing greater attention to it. In the piece I give other examples, including one that comes from the latest version of the Nisbet-Mooney talk (about Ben Stein), and that I owe Matt Nisbet for originally pointing out:

There's certainly a longstanding mentality among progressive groups that nonsense must be refuted, often in rapid-fire mode if possible. But that mindset runs up against something else that ought to be obvious: controversy sells. If you create a big fuss over what your intellectual opponent is saying, you might well be helping him or her. Fox News's highly publicized lawsuit against Al Franken surely helped sell copies of Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. So why wouldn't repeated critiques by environmental groups of someone like, say, Bjorn Lomborg or the Heartland Institute do exactly the same thing? Nevertheless--and to stick with environmental groups for a second-they fall into this trap constantly, refuting at length anti-environmental forces at rightwing think tanks or in the media. The Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Defense Fund (now known simply as Environmental Defense) both published lengthy studies to refute New York Times contrarian John Tierney's 1997 attack on the efficacy of recycling, to name just one example. Couldn't all the energy and resources bestowed on rebutting our enemies be better used to help promote our friends--perhaps, say, by devoting resources to getting the word out about individuals who have written pro-environment books? Rather than reacting, couldn't we be setting the agenda? Unfortunately, yet another example of scientific defenders enabling anti-scientific forces has recently come to my attention. The rightwing comedian Ben Stein has a new movie out called Expelled, a supposed documentary about how evolutionary forces are suppressing the intelligent design movement's intellectually valid dissent. Now, this is nonsense, but what better way to help nonsense thrive than to unleash public statements that would seem to confirm it or to be consistent with it? Sure enough, one of the Expelled trailers features the following quotation from Oxford evolutionary biologist and atheism apostle Richard Dawkins: "If people think God is interesting, the onus is on them to show that there is anything there to talk about. Otherwise they should just shut up about it." And then in comes Ben Stein to play the rebel, the Galileo, against this oppressive scientific orthodoxy, against "Big Science" that tells the little guy to "shut up." How's that for enabling?

The full column can be read here.

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