A common technique of activists and people who generally distrust science and want to undermine it is to clog up the discourse with sophistry, like "it depends on how you define X", or they claim that their personal belief means science is not science, but rather morality. 

As an example, I am going to use attorney Wesley Smith, who writes a column about ethics for the conservative magazine National Review and works for the Discovery Institute, an organization devoted to undermining science. I've talked about attorney Smith once already and this will be the last time - beyond that, criticism isn't constructive and it would be violating my policy of making issues the topics and not individuals - but he uses both these techniques in a recent piece, so it is a good example of how people who claim to care about science are really out to undermine it.(1)

His complaint is about a 'Top 10 List' on Real Clear Science - settled science that is controversial. He disagrees that 8 of them are settled at all, even really goofy stuff like homeopathy, after hundreds of years of helping no one. But how he does it is key. He makes sure he can't be wrong on his opinion about settled science by insisting his personal definition of science is different or that it's not a science issue, it's an ethics one.(2)

The only thing he accepts is that vaccines don't cause autism. To their credit, National Review never embraced that bit of anti-science fluff the way the left did. I may not like that they pay a guy who is a fifth columnist for an anti-biology organization but denying evolution is not killing anyone; the anti-science people against food, energy and medicine are putting real lives at stake, and they have as much dominance on the left as climate change deniers have on the right.

Here are the two ways you know you are being led down the path of undermining science:

(A) It depends on what you mean by... statements.

We can start with a real doozie: Evolution is only a science issue, Smith declares, "depending on what is meant by the term".


Now, for calibration, keep in mind he works for the Discovery Institute, which exists to undermine evolution. It is no surprise he declares evolution is 'only a science issue' depending on how you define it.  So if you define evolution as some new world order to overthrow religion and impose an atheistic scientocracy, then evolution is not science to you.  And you are also a crackpot. Smith does not know many biologists so his data pool is limited but I have never once heard a biologist define evolution as "proof of atheism and materialism" - yet he says that is what biologists are out to do. It isn't even a straw man, he just pulls something untrue out of thin air and claims to debunk it.

He also uses a logical fallacy to rationalize his apparent belief in homeopathy. You'd think a conservative publication like National Review would want to get rid of a goofy division of government like NCCAM that costs taxpayers $120 million per year and is the darling of Democrats but, no, homeopathy and all those other alternative medicines may be legitimate because you can't prove it doesn't work

While promoting doubt and invoking logical fallacies is great for attorneys, that is not how evidence-based medicine works. If a treatment wants to be non-alternative, it simply needs to be shown to work in double-blind clinical trials. Then it becomes regular medicine. Until it works, it does not work. Claiming it simply has not been proved to work yet is ridiculous. 

He also thinks cold fusion is getting a bad rap and some bad logic gets thrown around again. It isn't that it doesn't work, it just hasn't been accomplished. This can also apply to telepathy, telekinesis, levitation and just about anything else - who knew religious people believed so readily in magic? It isn't that it isn't real, those stupid scientists just haven't discovered how to make it real yet. Bring on that perpetual motion and time travel! A blogger says it can happen.

He doesn't like nuclear power. "It depends on what" the meaning of safe is - but this also applies to swimming pools and church attendance and giving birth. 250 women each year have heart attacks while pregnant, that is as many women as will be shot by rifles. So I can now be a good attorney and redefine rifles to be as safe as pregnancy using his flawed logic.

He doesn't like that GMOs are safe - once again, he declares "that depends on the meaning of" safe. To evidence-based people, safe means it has not been shown to do extraordinary harm, since no product in the world does no harm. That is what substantial equivalence is. After over 15 years and hundreds of millions of tests, while organic food has sickened and killed thousands, genetically modified foods are still sitting at zero instances of harm. Declaring that the best hope for feeding poor people is risky because his arbitrary metric for 'safe' has not been met is silly. It is the exact kind of elitist patronization National Review usually opposes.

When his Bill Clinton-ish "it depends on what the definition of 'is' is" shtick isn't working, Smith resorts to:

(B) It is not a science issue, it is an ethical issue.

To be fair, it is not just a National Review blogger who engages in this; if you talk to anyone on the left who is anti-science about biology, medicine or energy, they will invariably say it is not a science issue, it is an ethical one. They don't hate GMOs, they distrust the policies of Monsanto. They don't deny medicine, they think drug companies are unethical. Double that for energy companies and the ethics of actual emissions-free power.

By making everything morally relative - though conservatives hate that term so they use 'ethics' - there are virtually no science issues remaining. It's all just opinion and therefore scientists are no more knowledgeable than anyone else. Does that sound like a left-wing postmodernist to you? It's amazing what Smith shares in common with the very people he claims are ruining his America.

But even he can't keep track of what he believes on this ethics stuff. Example: He notes that the majority of researchers won't engage in chimpanzee research due to personal ethics and concludes therefore that animal testing is not scientifically necessary.  

Hasn't he grown? Previously he declared for National Review readers that not performing animal research was an ethical crime against humanity, now he is saying that animal research is not science.  Back then he declared animal research was going to cure Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, Huntington's and stroke if liberals against animal research would just get out of the way. Today, nope, animal research is not science at all. 

Oh, and he also says GMOs are an ethical issue for good measure. Why? No idea, he is pretty vague. What does he actually know about transgenes? As much as a writer at Elle magazine, who also declared GMOs risky.  National Review readers should feel good knowing that their recurring science pundit knows as much science as a freelance writer for a fashion magazine. 

He finishes off with a sort of anti-elitism, after engaging in so much of it.
Sorry, in a free society that isn’t (yet) a scientocracy, scientists don’t get to be the sole “deciders.”
No, sorry for you, Wes. You don't get to vote on facts. You simply can manipulate what your readers do with them.


(1) Obviously we could laugh it off the same way we laugh at science articles in Elle. It's a political magazine, people reading him are not interested in science. What should be alarming is they think he is an expert on ethics.

(2)  And if you disagree you are part of some vast liberal, atheist, sciencocracy conspiracy. When did scientists become so organized? They are more like herding butterflies than any cohesive effort to legislate policy. Science is a $100 billion constituency in the US with no clout at all - Democrats can manipulate science just like Republicans and scientists don't change any votes.