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Social Movements, Critical Thinking, and Science

I have experienced the fact that some people in general and more specifically some people involved in social movements distrust or downright hate science. I have commented on this occasionally as I think it is a very self-defeating phenomenon, especially for animal protectionists as their fundamental arguments for animal protection actually have science as the foundation.

With that in mind I recommend an essay Science is not the oppressor that I found at Skepchick. (As I have mentioned before I strongly suggest that animal protectionists read some skeptic blogs and magazine and listen to some podcasts like Skepchick, The Skeptics Society and Skeptic magazine, Skepticality, The Skeptics Guide to the Universe and Skeptoid. There are more, these are just some examples.) To the Science is not the oppressoressay I would add the following.

Why do so many in the people hate science? One reason science has a bad reputation is because of hubris. One reason many are turned off by science is the sheer nonsense they hear from some scientists. Scientists do not always represent “science” or the scientific method when they speak or write. Scientists are human and as such are fallible just like everyone else. When a scientist speaks on a topic other the one he has expertise in, he is basically giving an opinion. Granted, if he is a smart person perhaps his opinion should be at least heard as he may have something to contribute the discussion. But his opinion should not be taken with the same weight as we take the validity of the second law of thermodynamics.

Another reason is, science is just plain hard. Understanding science requires a lot of hard work. Sorry, but that’s just how life is. But the effort will pay off in the end. Science is important and studying science is worth the energy! On the other hand, you do not need a PhD to understand some of the basics and therefore be able to present your arguments in accordance with those principles.

Another reason involves the fact that sometimes scientists, who are usually very smart people, say very stupid things. Martin Blaser, director of the Division of Infectious Medicine at the Vanderbilt University called Barry Marshall’s claim that bacteria caused ulcers, “the most preposterous thing I have ever heard (Monmaney 1993).” He was wrong. There is a difference between what science is and what scientists say.

Along those same lines, while science is the best way humans have discovered for finding truth about the material universe, it does not progress as rapidly as it should. Why? Again, because scientists are human. Max Plank stated: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

Science also assumes honest intent. It assumes a person will not lie about the results of an experiment or an enterprise just to keep his job or maintain his ego. A scientist once said, "Anyone who wishes to think rationally should have the habit of thinking coolly, with all affective feelings or sentiments and all emotions parked outside. The heat of the passions, especially if they are strong and violent bodily commotions, cannot help but cause a disturbance or even a distortion of all intellectual work." Mathematician Mark Kac once said a proof is something that convinces a reasonable man and a rigorous proof convinces an unreasonable man." While I agree I must point out that unreasonable men may not be convinced regardless of the persuasiveness of the proof. The easiest way to make a man unreasonable is to make his livelihood dependant on a certain activity. The man whose livelihood is threatened by a new idea will not necessarily be reasonable, rational, or able to think coolly.

Many dislike science because of one sentence from one of the founders of science, Bacon: “Science seeks to control Nature.” Bacon said many other things but even with regards to this statement we must ask what is wrong with a roof over our head to protect us from sun and rain, a lighting rod to attract lighting away from ourselves, an airplane for traveling long distances, computers, anesthetics, MRI scanners, and others results of science controlling nature? And what would be wrong with learning how to prevent earthquakes and tornados, cure AIDS and cancer, and build an efficient, workable windmill or solar panel to provide all our electrical needs? Mastering naturedoesn’t sound that bad. But then that’s not how some people have pursued mastering nature and that is where the problems come in.

Science can be scary. Ivan Valiela states the following in Doing Science. (Sorry about the long quote but it is a good quote and a good book).

We live at a time in which science and technology are moving forward at dizzying rates; knowledge-although perhaps not wisdom-is being generated so fast that today in one year we are accumulating more information than was acquired in the first fifty years of the twentieth century. This information avalanche results from the enormous increase in scientific activity: perhaps 90% of the scientists who have ever lived are alive today. New discoveries challenge long-held beliefs, ideas, and facts, and there are too many new findings to assimilate. The blizzard of scientific revelations becomes incomprehensible, threatening to our sense of place in the world, and perhaps even irrelevant. Science is regarded by many, perhaps as Jehovah was by the Israelites, with respect, fear, and utter incomprehension; we might add skepticism to that list.

Numerous widely recognized feats engender public respect for science and technology. Scientific enterprise brought the Green Revolution and refrigerators, improved public health, landed men to the moon and machines on Mars, found the Titanic on the sea floor, and diminished the effective size of the world by developing the Internet.

At the same time, many achievements of science create deep-seated fears. That same scientific enterprise is responsible for nuclear bombs, germ warfare, stratospheric ozone depletion, genetically engineered organisms, animal cloning, contaminated air and water, medical uses of fetal tissues, and massive computer networks. The increasing intricacy and abstraction of science have furthered the cultural and educational gap between the scientific establishment and the rest of us: many people simply do not understand what scientists do, and the less knowledgeable an audience, the easier it is to raise fears. As the far-seeing Spanish painter Francisco Goya may have said it, the sleep of reason creates monsters. Lack of understanding inevitably creates fears that somehow those hordes of privileged, too-smart, white-coated scientists have something nefarious up their sleeves, and they are planning it with our money.

There is a certain, and understandable, degree of public skepticism about the scientific establishment. The public sees huge amounts of money poured into science, yet progress on Arcs, mad cow disease, and cancer seems to take place at a snail's pace. Scientists appear to change their minds altogether too often: cholesterol is bad for us one year, not so bad the next. First there are reports of evidence of life on a Martian meteorite, then there are doubts, and then they change their mind again. Moreover, many inscrutably esoteric scientific studies (recall the Golden Fleece Awards mentioned earlier) seem distant from, and even irrelevant to, public welfare.

The pace, inscrutability, and inconstancy of changing scientific knowledge may all be part of why now, at the end of the twentieth century, people are flocking to the irrational.' There are too many facts changing too fast, threatening too many beliefs. People want to find a more constant base. (Valiela 2001)

Science is suspect these days is because of the harm or potential harm that has resulted from scientific discoveries. Bertrand Russell said:

Science is partly agreeable, partly disagreeable. It is agreeable through the power it gives us of manipulating our environment, and to a small but important minority it is agreeable because it affords intellectual satisfactions. It is disagreeable because . . . it assumes . . . the power of predicting [and manipulating] human actions; in this respect it seems to reduce human power.

The atomic bomb, pollution from gasoline engines, factory farming, Styrofoam cups, damming rivers for electricity and many more are the direct or indirect result of scientific discoveries. But one needs to distinguish between science and technology. Science discovers truths about the universe while technology takes this knowledge and uses it to create vaccines, medicines, surgical instruments, bombs, genetically modified organisms, biological weapons etc. technology, not science or the scientific method is the villain/hero. Science merely discovers truths that then allow technology to develop. Granted the scientific method may play a role in technological advancements but when people criticize science usually they mean technology. Criticizing the scientific method for the exploits of corporations that make unethical technologies is like criticizing Henry Ford for making automobiles because rapes occur in them.

Isaac Asimov said: “The dangers that face the world can, every one of them, be traced back to science. The salvations that may save the world will, every one of them, be traced back to science.”

In the end, science and science alone offers hope to people with AIDS (PWAs), the millions suffering from malaria and tuberculosis in developing countries and all those discriminated against for their lifestyle e.g., homosexuals and other minorities. Science has cured diseases, and many of those that have not been cured we have learned how to prevent because of science. PWAs are living longer because of protease inhibitors and other science-derived therapies. Cystic fibrosis, a disease that is not preventable can be treated because of science-based medical discoveries and many are living into their 30s. Is a death sentence in your 30s great? No. Is it progress? Yes.

Science also offers hope to disenfranchised members of society like the mentally ill of a hundred years ago. At that time mental illness was thought a curse from God or other evidence of sloth or evil doing. Science came along and said, “No, mental illness is a broken brain, just like a broken bone.” People are not to blame for events beyond their control. Science vis-à-vis Newton, Pasteur, and others have relieved people of the guilt they used to feel when they became sick, when the crops failed, when they had a deformed offspring, or when they just happened to be born female and the community needed a virgin to sacrifice. One reason we credit AIDS to a virus, give people drugs for diseases, and refrain from burning homosexuals at the stake is because science tells us that a virus causes AIDS, illness is best treated with medication, and homosexuality does not mean someone is possessed of the devil.

Niall Shanks and I think critical thinking and skepticism so important, we have a chapter devoted to it in our book FAQs About the Use of Animals in Science: A handbook for the scientifically perplexed. IMO a working knowledge of critical thinking, the differences between logical fallacies and critical thinking, knowing the differences between a sound argument and nonsense and so forth will assist the social activist more than anything else.

If you still need convincing about the importance of critical thinking and science consider this. Your opponents usually know every little about critical thinking and science so by using science and critical thinking together, you can irritate the hell out of the opposition.


Monmaney, T. 1993. Marshall’s Hunch. New Yorker 69:64-72.

Valiela, Ivan. 2001. Doing Science: Oxford University Press.


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