Tolerance and Intolerance

I mentioned a news item last week that I didn’t have time to follow up on: UK Government Chief Scientific Adviser John Beddington compared pseudoscience to racism and homophobia, and called for “intolerance” toward pseudoscience from the scientific community and the media. Frank Swain has an excellent essay addressing the problems with equating bad science with racism and homophobia: intolerance of the latter two is based on morality and democratic ideals in a civil society, while pseudoscience is a slipperier beast. Since science is itself changing and (ideally) self-correcting over time, pseudoscience—which is the reflection of science in a shattered mirror—also changes in time. Yesterday’s science can become today’s pseudoscience (though rarely does this process happen in reverse!).

Obviously, the whole issue is interwoven into questions about free speech and free press—both of which I support strongly, even when I find the opinions being expressed personally repugnant. As an educator, there’s another side of the question I was thinking about: the question of tolerance of ideas vs. tolerance of people. In my experience, most people who are advocates of pseudoscience are not evil people, hucksters, or charlatans. The problem is that pseudoscience has real-world impact: Andrew Wakefield may have falsified data, but most people who advocate against vaccinations don’t fall into that category. A person may be motivated by a genuine concern about autism, but if they choose not to vaccinate their children, that decision has a real effect on their health and the health of others around them. The impact of anti-evolution laws is harder to gauge directly, but given that thinking in a scientific way is essential to so many professions—engineering, teaching, medicine, etc.—it’s all the more important to recognize the interconnectedness of science.

Science is a framework of ideas—testable evidence-based theories about how the world works. Pseudoscience likewise lives in the realm of ideas. The battle against bad ideas is a hard fight, and the best weapon we have—as with the battle against racism and homophobia—is education.

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