Non-Fiction Reviews

Denying Science

Conspiracy theories, media distortions and the war against reality

(2011) John Grant, Prometheus, , pbk, 374pp, ISBN 978-1-616-14399-2


I have to say that I do wonder whether 'political correctness' (PC) does more harm than good. Certainly it is no longer 'PC' within British science communication circles in the early 21st century to talk of C. P. Snow's 'two culture's. True, C. P. Snow (1959) simply divided the population into scientists and artists, but today we do have some artists albeit a significant minority who are reasonably science literate, and also there are some scientists who are hopeless outside their own specialism: which is no fault of their own as scientists are increasingly specialist, but publicly flaunting one's limitations with wild and specious statements just muddies the waters. (I have encountered numerous scientists in my career representing learned and professional societies over the decades: my admiration for many of these is marred by disdain for a minority.)

I also have to say that I have quite a bit of regard for John Grant (a.k.a. Paul Barnett) who has made significant contributions to non-fiction speculative fiction including compiling, with John Clute, The Encyclopaedia of Fantasy. But not only this, he has tackled fantasy science too with books like Corrupted Science: Fraud, Ideology and Politics in Science (2007) and Bogus Science (2009): both are small-format gems.

Denying Science is the next step on from the afore two titles and has a more contemporary focus: the previous titles included topics from over a century ago such as the flat-Earth dogma. As you might guess from this new title, it is an exploration of how a minority attempt to mislead the general public with pseudo-science and/or a deliberate misrepresentation of scientific understanding. This would not matter except that the topics that are this band of miscreants' foci are also those of considerable public import, hence concern. Issues such as: AIDS, biological evolution and the teaching thereof, as well as anthropogenic (human-generated) climate change. The principal issues of fraudulent science explored in Denying Science are those of evolution and climate change, but we do get brief excursions into topics such as smoking, vaccination and eugenics.

This book is really a must-read for everyone with a view on any of the above topics and likely to engage with someone be it formally in a public meeting or privately over a pint, with a trenchant view that goes against the established consensus. Now, this is not to say that all scientists are right: far from it. Contrary to popular belief, science is not about being 'right'; it is about being as least wrong as possible. Science does not proceed by seeking the truth (that is a by-product of the scientific method) but is moves forward through falsification. A new paradigm arises, such as the space-time curvature of space, and this falsifies the former Newtonian view of motion in flat-space or, for that matter, the quantum behaviour of sub-atomic particles. (For more on 'falsification' and science, Google Karl Popper.) However, within the context of present-day understanding (whenever that may be for you reading this now), the established consensus can range from one of extreme confidence (the Earth is getting warmer due to increased atmospheric carbon dioxide), to one of certainty with low confidence (it is unlikely that the Gulf stream will be disrupted in the first third of the 21st century) or, if you like certainty with a lack of clarity (we know with confidence that the Earth is warming but we do not know exactly how much it will warm by the end of the 21st century).

Here then is the rub: science is made up of many consensuses. Yet this does not mean that central tenets are in doubt. A consensus in biology is that evolution of the species is a natural phenomena and that the human species has evolved. Make no mistake, this is not where the debate about evolution is within this consensus. Instead the debate here concerns questions such as the importance or not of things like punctuated-equilibrium within evolution. Yet miscreants will say, 'ahh, there is a consensus and so there must be dissenting views to the central tenets', which of course is an unfounded leap of logic. What John Grant is doing is showing us how some are trying to persuade us through such unfounded leaps of logic that some things we really do need to know (such as AIDS is caused by HIV, vaccinations are necessary for herd immunity to control human disease, the global climate is warming with increasingly detrimental impacts to our high-population global society). Such miscreants have their own motivations: personal gain (they can make money out of being sensationalist); profit (making money out of wanton burning of fossil fuel); psychological addiction (claiming to be unable to live without profligate burning of fossil fuel); etc.   And they use a range of tools: fear (this vaccination will kill your children); lying (burning fossil fuels is not changing the environment in a detrimental way to our global high-population); misrepresentation (making up and/or misinterpreting what bona fide experts actually say); conflation of issues ('a' is followed by 'b', yet 'b' is wrong so 'a' is wrong), and so forth which even includes slander.

With Denying Science John Grant lifts the curtain on many recent science-deniers and fraudsters who are preying on innocent people's ignorance: not everyone can have a high degree of science literacy just as not everyone can be a skilled craftsman or have athletic or musical achievement. Yet we live in a global society that depends (increasingly) on the rational, nay, wise, use of technology that arises from science. Peddling untruths and blatant lies, is a criminal assault on our collective sensibilities with real life and livelihood threatening consequences. (If you are a farmer in the southwest US or SE Australia then you would be wise not to get advice from climate change deniers.) If you are an AIDS patient, listening to someone who says that it is not caused by HIV is not prudent. We need to defend ourselves against such self-serving myth-peddlers and here John Grant's book helps arm us for the fray. Make no mistake, fray it is and it is a fight we must support if we are not to let science-deniers influence those malleable politicians who unfortunately run our lives. So buy this book, more importantly read it. Of course if you support science-deniers then you are free to try ignorance and see how far that gets you.

Qualms. Well nothing much really. Prometheus' copy editor still does not know the difference between common and proper nouns and so we get 'earth' (which means 'soil') when 'Earth' (meaning 'our planet') was actually intended. The only other thing is that I would have liked an explanation as to how science works and why informed challenging is so important. Here I felt that John Grant was perhaps a little harsh (only by a smidgen) on Roger Pielke who rightly has questioned carbon sensitivity assumptions (albeit over-enthusiastically and now needs to ease up a bit) and IPCC competence (the Himalaya ice issue in the 2007 Assessment was avoidable had the chapter editor been on the ball regarding IPCC protocol and so the Chair should have sacked him immediately), not to mention Kyoto mechanism cheating. Eugenics as ever gets bad press: does anyone really want researchers to stop work on genetic disesase and assess the implications for the population as a whole? But these are minor points, and Grant's coverage does rightly focus on how such issues have been over-used by denialists who, grasping at straws, will inflate anything that they think will serve their criminal assaults. Perhaps John Grant will cover such matters in future works. I really hope so as I would like there to be more books that expose those that promulgate deception.   If we are to face the challenges that the future will throw at us then our best chance of winning the future for our children is with understanding and knowledge, not fear and ignorance.

Jonathan Cowie

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