Have you searched your heart, dear brother or sister, and decided where you stand? Have you looked in the mirror and really asked yourself: Am I a believer in science…or not?
In recent years, a number of highly complex social issues dealing with age-old questions such as love, freedom, and prosperity have been boiled down into remarkably simple queries—each becoming a kind of litmus test for our time: Do you love gay people…or not? Are you in favor of civil rights…or not? Do you think black lives matter…or not?
Rather than making space for the wide diversity in viewpoint between equally thoughtful, good-hearted people on questions like how to promote lasting happiness in our communities, we’ve entered a time when these kinds of simple bifurcations between “good” and “bad” Americans have come to preoccupy our nation.
Even when it comes to science itself.
Those who believe. As the American public began to get a hopeful glimpse of getting past coronavirus earlier this year, they approached Memorial Day weekend with understandable excitement. Alongside images of holiday crowds, MSNBC host Nicolle Wallace lamented this decision to reopen “in defiance in some instances of public health warnings”—contrasting those groups of people with Democrats “on the other side” who, as she put it, have “hitched their fortunes to science and data.”
That same week, author Roxane Gay wrote in the New York Times, “The country is starkly dividing between those who believe in science and those who don’t”—echoing a framework that has been taken for granted and repeated endlessly over the last decade.
One more way to slice our country up into another stark division: Are you among the part of our country that believes in Science—and trusts it to guide their paths forward? Or are you one of those people who “ignore” or “reject” its edicts? (or even, heaven forbid, “despises” them).
Are you a climate denier…or not? It was arguably the debate over climate change that brought this kind of mentality so prominently into our public discourse. Whatever interesting differences may have existed among climate scientists, the terms of our broader conversation on the matter were sharply delineated almost from the beginning.
It was George Marshall and co-author Mark Lynas who first published a reference to “climate denier” in the English-language press in a 2003 op-ed they wrote for the left-leaning magazine The New Statesman. As Forbes columnist Ralph Benko points out, the term was intended to “sting”—casting any questions about climate as akin to “holocaust denial” (hearkening to Freud’s own use of the term to reflect a kind of ignorance bordering on sickness).
The remarkable popularity of this framing since that time quickly contributed to an atmosphere that became punishing to anyone questioning (or even just uncertain) about the consensus view. One 2014 petition demanding a ban on any article questioning global warming in a major newspaper bore more than 110,000 signatures. And former President Barack Obama once stated on his website: “Find the deniers near you—and call them out today.”
Pretty hard to have a conversation where you’re getting called out, punished, embarrassed—or even banned from sharing entirely, right?
That’s true of climate. And it’s true of sexuality, race, abortion and other issues—including the pandemic itself.
But it wasn’t areas of obvious debate where the unsettling elements of this popular discourse around science became clear to me. It was in areas far less controversial (and seemingly more settled)—research around depression recovery and pornography addiction.
Monied science. Before graduate school, I remember thinking that any reference to Foucault was a dangerous flirtation with relativism: power creating truth?
What scary and dangerous nonsense, I thought. Then, I conducted years of research on people’s experiences with Prozac.
And, as it says in sacred writ, “my eyes were opened.”
Of course, since the early 1990’s, when antidepressants began to be marketed extensively, the public heard a consistent and reassuring message: “these medications are safe and effective!” (After a single widely-promoted study in 1998, that message was expanded to “and they’re safe for children too!”)
During this whole time, it was taken for granted by many that “safe and effective” meant the long-term effects of the drugs had been tested….right?
I was honestly shocked to find out this simply wasn’t true—and to realize it was on the basis of fairly narrow, uniquely designed, short-term studies, that the FDA had granted approval to market antidepressants, yes, as “safe and effective.” This conclusion was promoted as uncontroversial, obvious—and (to those desperately seeking answers) so very reassuring.
At least, until the reports started coming out. Jarring accounts of youth suddenly taking their lives prompted a wholesale reevaluation of the evidence in the early 2000’s– culminating in an official black box warning in 2003. Since that time, the public has been gradually persuaded back to a more trusting place—thanks to prominent doctors speaking out and an enormous amount of marketing.
Precisely the same patterns, Americans were horrified to learn, had contributed to the opioid epidemic (exaggerated messaging and paid endorsements). These are familiar to those of us acquainted with the history of antidepressant promotion. There are seven different lines of evidence connecting rising suicidality and antidepressants—with particular cause for concern when it comes to uncharacteristic violence among medicated young people. Tragic aggression aside, more than twenty separate studies on the long-term trajectory of those on antidepressants for many years demonstrates additional cause for concern.
So, can we trust the continuing insistence on the “safety and effectiveness” of these widely used treatments?
I’m sorry, but you just can’t. The point here, though, is not really about antidepressants. It’s about science—and the extent to which we’ve all become prone to uncritically accepting what is shared as “scientific” as an unvarnished glimpse into reality itself.
Pornographic science. This was all accentuated for me years later when I started working with Fight the New Drug. In those early years, the organization was small enough to be mostly a blip on the radar for most people.
But as their effort grew, more and more people took notice…including the pornography industry itself. And that’s when something interesting happened.
For years, FTND had focused on helping people understand the extent to which the research literature repeatedly confirmed widespread consequences of pornography— drawing on the extensive work of Gary Wilson—someone I and many others consider our nation’s foremost expert on pornography research.
There wasn’t much controversy to it, honestly: Look here, porn really does hurt you—in all these ways. Then, seemingly out of the blue, a woman named Nicole Prause started speaking out as an “objective researcher” saying otherwise: Hey, so porn isn’t harmful after all—and it actually helps. And those who say otherwise are just religiously biased!
Over subsequent years, I was an eye-witness to a relentless campaign to not only misrepresent the research publicly but to also badger and harass anyone who opposed her “scientifically” proven message.
It was remarkable. And published here for the first time is a detailed review of the extensive tactics Dr. Prause used to shape and distort the public discourse around porn—each of them taken right out of the playbook of the Tobacco Industry (who muddled public opinion for years with a variety of similar exercises each claiming “scientific” authenticity).
Does any of this suggest this woman proclaiming herself as an objective researcher was actually working for the industry? Without a paper-trail to prove it conclusively (not likely to ever happen—even if it were true), we have to turn to other evidence.
Like how they talk about science itself.
Science mingled with propaganda. In 2018, I gave a presentation at the conference of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation proposing “a new way to help people recognize porn-science propaganda when they see it.”
No legitimate researchers try to drown out other voices, make others seem illegitimate.
Just like we can differentiate a tiger from a lion (stripes? mane?)—it’s possible, I believe, to tell a propagandist from a true researcher.
No real scientist, for instance, says things like “all the good evidence supports my position”—or “every study disputing my conclusion is just biased!” And no legitimate researchers try to drown out other voices, make others seem illegitimate—or try to “stir up” people to anger.
All of that reeks of propaganda. Because that’s what it is.
But here’s the real point: most people can’t tell the difference. For most people, effective propaganda makes it near-impossible to distinguish propaganda cloaked as “science” from the real deal.
When the impressive “scientific” conclusions are presented, most people can’t tell when they are being manipulated. They just can’t.
Science as oracle. In large part, that’s because a conclusion presented as “scientific” is believed among most of the general public to be, simply, the truth.
Science, from this vantage point, speaks as a kind of oracle—communicating in a monolithic voice the reality of things. Our job is simply to try harder to listen to this voice and then do a better job following it.
After publishing with our recent “map” of coronavirus disagreements, I was struck by one commentator who said he hadn’t learned much of anything new, before suggesting, “This would be more helpful if the arguments were tested for accuracy. Maybe you could add a third element to the two sides: what the actual data shows. If the data is inconclusive, tell us what we do and don’t know for sure.”
Wouldn’t that be nice? Just see what the data says…and then follow it.
However much we all would find that reassuring and satisfying, the honest truth is it ignores decades of debate in the philosophy of science—along with the current consensus among most researchers themselves.
And what is that?
The messy truth about science. In short, science is not an “oracle.” However much we have talked and taught about science as a kind of “revelator” of truth…it’s simply not. Instead, everyone that actually conducts scientific research knows full well the extent to which human interpretation influences methodological decisions which, in turn, generate evidence that then must be interpreted in messy, human deliberation about what the data means.
Many others have pointed this out over the years, in much more extensive explorations than is possible here [See, for instance: “Critical Thinking as Disciplinary Practice” and “On the Nature of a Critical Methodology“]
So, in other words, the data doesn’t speak for itself. Although bias may be controlled to some degree in the generation of evidence, the interpretation of that same evidence depends centrally on human beings.
That cannot be escaped. And that means interpretation of data often ends up being as contested as the diverse human beings doing the interpreting.
That’s true even when science isn’t being unduly influenced by industry and politics. Thoughtful scientists just don’t always agree on what’s happening. And more often than not, there are fundamentally different views of the correct interpretation—including about questions of great importance.
Which brings us back to the pandemic.
Competing coronavirus claims. Anyone else been confused by all the “scientific” certainty competing in our airwaves of late? For instance, as America prepared to re-open after all the lock-downs, some commentators cautioned against doing so prematurely—insisting that the lock-downs had been proven scientifically to be effective, and so must be continued. In response to this, Tucker Carlson insisted, “There is still no science or data at all”—arguing that “states that locked down early and aggressively are no better off today on average than states that never locked down at all.”
So, which was it? Had science proven the lock-down was effective…or not?
Sweden was likewise praised (and condemned) for its unique approach to the pandemic that avoided full lock-down—with both sides citing seemingly indubitable statistics to justify their divergent conclusions.
“Haven’t you heard the statistics on how bad Sweden has done?” a friend recently asked —reflecting the kind of condemnation that has lit up social and mainstream media for months. In contrast, a research aggregator trusted among critics concluded: “Countries without lockdowns, such as Japan, Belarus, and Sweden, have not experienced a more negative course of events than many other countries. Sweden was even praised by the WHO and now benefits from higher immunity compared to lockdown countries,” etc.
So, who is right?
What about opening schools? Calls to “use medical science” to guide reopening have been prominent—with many teachers pointing to that data in protesting that in-person instruction is overly risky.
By contrast, Dr. Scott Atlas has suggested “there’s no evidence really whatsoever to continue to have these schools closed. We understand they interact with these elderly people—but we understand how to protect these elders.” When asked about the critique he’s received for these comments, Atlas asserted people are pushing back against an “overwhelming body of science.”
Anyone else confused? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it?
As a final example, the mask debate has been dominated of late by a new argument that says there really should be no controversy whatsoever – with some suggesting the research is conclusive beyond any question (see “BYU Researcher Says The Science Is Crystal Clear”).
Yet not all researchers share this view, with Swiss scholars cite other studies in concluding: “There is still little to no scientific evidence for the effectiveness of cloth face masks in healthy and asymptomatic individuals.”
Where does the disagreement come from? According to Dr. Greg Abbott who authored one review arguing for the effectiveness of masks, “The fact that some people still don’t believe this science is a grim reminder about what happens when we put politics before reality. The blatant politicization of masks has cost us precious lives, time, and money.”
Is it really just “politics” that underlies this and other disagreements? Or is something else going on?
How science actually works. Rather than a confusing mess leading otherwise normal folks to throw their hands up in the air and proclaim, “Oh goodness, everything causes cancer now, don’t you know?” what if we’re witnessing the true nature of science in its full glory?
Not as an oracle that speaks in some monolithic voice.
But as an argument—between otherwise thoughtful and good-hearted people all seeking truth, but reading the data differently, defining terms differently, emphasizing different indicators in determining what is true and trustworthy, etc.
If so, rather than waiting for Science to declare the truth of a matter—maybe we need to start doing something else: Thinking for ourselves.
About what? About at least some of the questions scientists have to deal with as well: What definition of a term do we think is fair— “success,” and “failure”; “safe” and “effective”—or even “COVID death”
Want to know what happens when you start to look at these details?
Everything starts to make sense. I’ve spent a lot of time doing that with antidepressant research—along with a similar analysis around some of the research conducted about sexuality and faith.
In both cases, it’s been fascinating to see the extent to which details of study design— how to organize control groups, what to measure (and not to measure), and which findings to emphasize (or not) make such a substantial difference in the resulting story that gets told.
Both sides are thinking plenty. Just differently.
That’s where I believe almost all of these gaping differences in conclusions are coming from—in all these research areas. Not from “stupid people” on one hand—and the rest of us on the other.
No, both sides are thinking plenty. Just differently.
Are we okay with that?
I ask that sincerely because it’s the point at which I’ve noticed people get surprisingly frustrated—maybe because I haven’t sorted out the truth between these competing views and made that clear.
Clarity about what’s happening is important—that’s for sure.
And none of this is an argument for relativism – or a suggestion that everything is “subjective.”
Nope. Truth is real. And yet, you have your own view of that truth. And I have mine.
And likewise each scientist has their particular view of the truth as well – a view that shapes the questions they ask (or don’t) and how exactly they approach them methodologically. What I’ve tried to emphasize here is that the distinctive perspectives any researcher has about the truth shapes everything they do – and what they ultimately “see” in the data. That’s why, depending on a wide variety of differences in assumptions, thoughtful researchers come to such different conclusions about sexuality, antidepressants, masks, and yes – even climate change.
What does that mean for us on a practical level? Rather than so often pretending our convictions are the only “scientific” ones—and pointing to someone in a lab coat with letters after their name to justify that (let’s be honest, we’re all doing that)—maybe it’s time to do something else.
Recognize what we’re hearing as arguments—including those referring to data. Listening to them all as best we can, and then doing the hard work of deliberating together—openly, and without bitter accusation—to discern for ourselves what is true and right.
Wouldn’t this all give us all a better chance of getting closer to the full truth?
In the end, maybe that’s the underlying method we all must rely on to learn more and expand our horizons (yes, including those wonderful scientists).
We’ve all got to decide where we land on these important questions we’re facing.
And no one’s going to decide that for us.
Not even Science.