I’m rarely angry. Even when a creationist says something stupid, I don’t react with fits of rage – I’ve made it a policy of mine not to do that under any circumstances.
This doesn’t fall under any of the circumstances I was thinking of at the time I came up with that policy.
A. N. Wilson wrote a deliciously stupid article for the Daily Mail today, likening scientists to “arrogant gods of certainty” in the wake of the scientific establishment in Britain defending the now ex-chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, Professor David Nutt; fired for saying that cannabis was less dangerous than alcohol and tobacco, and that ecstasy was less dangerous than horse-riding. Now, I’m not going to critique the scientists for defending Professor Nutt, I don’t have any expertise or specific knowledge in drug policy or the risks of partaking in illegal drugs vs. legal drugs and slightly fancy leisure activities, but I am going to critique Mr. Wilson for his moronic depiction of scientists and the scientific community in general.
Mr. Wilson seems to have a problem with science. I don’t know what it stems from, but something’s wrong when you choose to write this:
The trouble with a ‘scientific’ argument, of course, is that it is not made in the real world, but in a laboratory by an unimaginative academic relying solely on empirical facts.
What? Facts? Nonsense! Can’t have any of those, now, can we? How does the reliance on empirical facts and evidence make for something that should be pushed aside, cast out of the public arena? Wow, just, wow.
But there is an increasing presumption among many intelligent and good-hearted people that science is an absolute truth, that its methods of arriving at the truth are infallible and that scientists must be listened to at all times.
Really? I’d like to see Mr. Wilson name a person who is both intelligent and good-hearted who has legitimately said that. Science does not find “absolute truth”, it merely looks at the evidence and finds out what knowledge could probably be gained from it. But whatever, the underlying subtext of this statement is that there must be something better than science that reaches better conclusions more often, something that the scientific community arrogantly glosses over every time they unpack the test tubes. It’s a pity Mr. Wilson fails to mention such a system – I’m sure every scientist on the planet would love to know.
Science must be used to inform public policy whenever possible – if the science is telling you that something is probably true, is it wise to go against that simply because “scientists should not always be listened to”? Mr. Wilson seems to think that – and if he doesn’t, he’s not making it very clear.
But this isn’t the worst of the article, oh no. That stuff above could even be forgiven, on a good day. What follows is the real meat of the foolishness that this writer conjured up out of the depths of his science-hating brain:
The only difference between Hitler and previous governments was that he believed, with babyish credulity, in science as the only truth. He allowed scientists freedoms which a civilised government would have checked.
Do I need to remind you of Godwin’s Law? Because he just invoked it. Badly. Making it even worse, there’s a huge full-body portrait of Hitler just underneath those sentences. You couldn’t ask for a better example of Nazi-support in an argument. Oh Lord.
The worship of science is the great superstition of our age. The scientific adviser speaks and we are all supposed to believe him, whether he is promoting crops genetically modified to withstand huge doses of poisonous weedkillers and pesticides, or tampering with the origin of human life itself in so-called stem cell research.
Is it natural to want to punch this guy? Mr. Wilson, science is not a superstition – that’s laughably wrong by definition and highly insulting to the people who put the process of science into practice every day. Promoting GM crops is not evil – it has saved countless lives across the globe. And stem-cell research is… stem-cell research! What do you think it should be called, “embryo-slaughter research”? You research stem-cells! Research, stem-cells, stem-cell research – couldn’t be a simpler concept to grasp.
In fact, it is the arrogant scientific establishment which questions free expression. Think of the hoo-ha which occurred when one hospital doctor dared to question the wisdom of using the MMR vaccine.
Add a tinge of anti-vaccinationism to the mix as well! Argh! This isn’t healthy for my hair and scalp!
The point here is not whether he was right or wrong – it was the way in which the scientific establishment closed ranks in order to assassinate him. There was a blanket denunciation of his heresy, just as there is if anyone dares to point out some of the mistakes made by that very fallible genius Charles Darwin.
There goes my hair. Darwin!? You bring up Darwin!? “Fallible genius”!? How much more anti-scientific do you want to get – question GM crops, stem-cell research, vaccines and evolutionary biology?
I can’t take it anymore – he crossed my anger line a long time ago. Forget about Professor Nutt being out of a job – Daily Mail: please sack A. N. Wilson.
(Steven Novella wrote a much more rational and reasoned response to this debacle than I could under the circumstances – you might want to check it out as well.)