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Stifling Opposition Is the Real “Anti-Science”

Photo: Martin Kulldorff, Sunetra Gupta, and Jay Bhattacharya, by Taleed Brown, CC BY 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

The advancement of science is one of mankind’s greatest triumphs. And who could be against it? Deploying the raw power of rational analysis, science exponentially increases our understanding of the natural world and leads to wonderous applications to improve the human condition.

But these days, science has become something of a divisive concept. It’s not that most people reject the scientific method or science’s many achievements. Rather, because some in the scientific establishment co-opt the term “science” as a means of exerting control over policy or to further favored ideological agendas, trust in the scientific sector is deflating.

You know the types. They can be seen regularly on cable TV claiming righteously that “the science is settled” about the rightness of their opinions — for example, the medical propriety of “affirming” gender confusion in children with puberty blockers. Then, they deploy the pejorative “anti-science” against those who disagree to stifle other perspectives.

The Antithesis of Science

But shutting critics up is the antithesis of science, properly understood. Indeed, stifling opposition is the real “anti-science” because it betrays the fundamental precepts of the scientific method, an approach to learning that requires continual argumentation, (sometimes bitter) disagreements, and the never-ending willingness to challenge accepted orthodoxies. In this sense, “the science” is never “settled” but always open to revised understandings. Otherwise, science mutates into dogma, which suppresses the pursuit of knowledge. Indeed, sometimes that is the point.

Examples of once-unquestioned “truths” overturned by subsequent discoveries are legion. Here’s a recent example. Biologists used to believe that the human appendix was a useless vestigial organ. But because science is dynamic, this once uncontroversial perspective was challenged. And what do you know? “Science” has now discovered at least two valuable purposes for the appendix: it supports the body’s immune system and serves as a “bank” of sorts for storing beneficial gut bacteria.

Now, imagine if the scientists who worked to attain a better understanding of the appendix had been prevented from exploring that subject because the “scientific consensus” had determined previously that the organ had no beneficial purpose. What if the self-appointed guardians of perceived medical wisdom had dissuaded researchers from pursuing their investigations for fear of losing university tenure, being scorned by colleagues, or having research funding blocked? Valuable knowledge would have been lost. New medical approaches for treating an infected appendix would never be developed. The mistaken scientific understanding would have remained, yes, “settled.”

The Costs of “Settled Science”

Alas, these days the science establishment too often engages in just such censorship when it involves controversial scientific issues. We saw that on full display during the COVID-19 pandemic. When three noted epidemiologists (pictured above) questioned the wisdom of societal shutdowns and keeping children out of school, in the Great Barrington Declaration (GBD), rather than engage its content — as would have been the proper scientific approach — the public health establishment instead attempted to destroy the messengers. For example, then-National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins slandered the authors as “fringe,” and Anthony Fauci worked to undermine the GBD in the media. One of the authors, Stanford University professor Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, even found himself scorned by his own academic community for contesting the “settled science.”

Funny that. In the end, the GBD proved to have the better argument, illustrating the terrible harm that can be caused by stifling the scientific method and suppressing dissenting views.

Or consider the hot-button topic of evolution. For decades public spokespersons for the scientific establishment have insisted that the contemporary theory of evolution is unchallengeable. Oxford evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins even went so far as to claim that “if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that).” Talk about chilling open scientific inquiry!

Yet, in 2016, a group of leading evolutionary and cell biologists convened a conference at the Royal Society in London. Many scientists who attended openly called for a new theory of evolution because of their increasing doubts about the supposed creative power of Darwin’s mechanism of natural selection. Are all these scientists “ignorant, stupid or insane”? Of course not. They are simply “doing science.”

The same vituperative anti-science approach to stifling critics was pursued by the scientific establishment during the embryonic stem cell debate between 2001 and 2008. After President George W. Bush funded embryonic stem cell research but also placed modest federal funding limitations on the experiments, he and supporters of his policy were accused of imposing their religious beliefs against “the gold standard” of regenerative medicine that could soon allow disabled people to throw away their wheelchairs. Scientific arguments that adult stem cells offered the better hope of developing treatments for a wide array of medical conditions were similarly attacked.

The Proof Is in the Pudding

More than twenty years later, what do we see? Embryonic stem cell research was mostly hype. There is not one FDA-approved treatment using embryonic stem cells. Meanwhile, adult stem cells are used to treat a wide array of pathologies. In other words, despite all the name-calling and screeching about interference with the scientific consensus, the heterodox theorists were right.

That isn’t always true, of course. Established views frequently prove correct when challenged. But that isn’t the point. What matters is that for science to be “science,” perceived truths — no matter how seemingly settled — must always be subject to rethinking. The defense of generally accepted views should be based on evidence, not personal denigration of the challengers.

Alas, they never learn. Whether the scientific issue involves climate change, the safety of vaccines, how best to care for children with gender dysphoria, or the alleged scientific support in favor of Darwinian evolution, etc., the scientific establishment continues to brand those who contest their opinions (as a column in Scientific American put it recently) “anti-science” for rejecting “mainstream scientific views.”

That’s Baloney

Stifling the messy and contentious process required for scientific knowledge to advance undermines science. Yes, that means charlatans and frauds may, at times, successfully beguile the ignorant. But just like the most efficacious answer to bad speech is good speech, the way to overcome bad science is for good science to demonstrate its veracity. Attempts to short-circuit that contentious process betray the very purposes science is supposed to serve.

Cross-posted at The Epoch Times.