The Veneer of Science

In a discussion on animal rights extremism over at Chez Hoofnagle, commenter Zach Alexander makes an interesting observation:

Though it certainly is that at times, speaking as a former (and possibly future) vegan and animal rights activist. The amount of mischaracterization of science that goes on in the movement is astounding sometimes (e.g. not just making moral arguments against animal testing, but claiming it’s all “junk science” on scientific grounds).

(Bold mine)

Of course, we see this sort of thing all the time nowadays. People dress up their non-empirical objections to scientific findings using pseudoscientific language. Creationists drop the “magic man done it” refrain and create Intelligent Design, making seemingly scientific attacks on the specifics of evolutionary theory itself rather than harping on how science is an affront to God. The vaccine/autism link proponents tire of Generation Rescue testimonials and commission “scientists” Andrew Wakefield and David and Mark Geier to do “studies” proving a causational link between MMR and/or thimerosal and autism.* And even homeopaths established a shoddy journal showcasing shoddy studies that show homeopathic remedies to be effective.

Here’s where we finally get interesting: I think this trend is great. It’s great for skepticism, it’s great for science, and it’s great for the prospects of a world dominated by rationality.

I should probably explain myself.

I’m not saying that the perpetrators of this pseudoscientific babble aren’t trying to cover their nonsense with the guise of scientific approval in order to sucker the rubes; that’s undoubtedly what their motives are. But by even attempting to give such quackery an empirical underpinning, these alties and denialists acknowledge science as a source of knowledge and truth. Why else would they seek to establish scientific proof of their pet theories if not to latch on to that affirming source? By eschewing the appeals to God or other ways of knowing, they unwittingly reinforce the concept of science as truth-giver. They’re shooting themselves in the foot while trying to pull the wool over our eyes.

So yes, the faux science peddled by cranks is specifically tailored to shine respectability on something that doesn’t deserve it. But this strategy also assumes respect for science as an authority, which will only hurt the crank cause in the long run. This shouldn’t, of course, stop anyone from pointing out such bad science when they see it. It should only comfort the debunker; cranks are as stupid as always, and their latest nearsighted strategy will only backfire on them in the end.

* Sorry for the overuse of scare quotes, but this is pseudoscience we’re talking about.


2 comments so far

  1. Zach Alexander on

    An excellent point, illustrated by an excellent quote if I may say so 🙂

    I would add to that list two of the kookiest movements of the 20th century: Christian Science and Scientology.

  2. Soberish on

    I’m right because of SCIENCE!

    Jessica Valenti over at Feministing had two posts on Monday about studies that told her exactly what she wanted to hear. Unfortunately for her, they’re both pretty flawed, and the conclusions Jessica is drawing from them are ridiculously oversta…

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