Hostility to science is bipartisan and nothing new.

Are the forces of ideology and irrationality thrusting science into a dark era? Nina Fedoroff, the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), seems to think so.


In her remarks to this year’s AAAS conference in Vancouver, Federoff said: “I am profoundly depressed at just how difficult it has become merely to get a realistic conversation started on issues such as climate change or genetically modified organisms.”

As the Guardian reports Fedoroff’s gloomy outlook stems from a larger concern:

She confessed that she is now “scared to death” by the anti-science movement that was spreading, uncontrolled, across the U.S. and the rest of the western world.

Her remarks suggest that anti-science attitudes are going viral in the public sphere. With respect to the U.S. discourse on climate change, Fedoroff has good cause to be depressed. And there remains a stubborn opposition to biotechnology (particularly by greens) around the world that many experts feel is without scientific merit. (On this score, do watch Fedoroff’s opening address at the 2012 AAAS conference. She discusses what she sees as lingering and unfounded distrust of GMOs.) But in reality, it’s worth asking if people are, in fact, becoming more hostile to science today, or if it just seems that way because demagogues are louder and society hears far more about the campaigns waged by special interests?

It’s also not as if current suspicion of science materialized out of thin air. Naomi Oreskes, co-author with Erik Conway of the book Merchants of Doubt, tells the Guardian, “Our present crisis over the rise of anti-science has been coming for a long time and we should have seen it coming.” The same goes for today’s attacks on scientists. It’s deplorable but, alas, not a new phenomenon, as industry’s campaign against Rachel Carson and other scientists in decades past attests.

It’s also important to note that unscientific thinking on numerous issues clouds the minds of both liberals and conservatives. Because Republican leaders have associated themselves with noisy, influential constituencies that reject evolution and climate change, the GOP has found itself labeled as the anti-science party in the U.S. Some have suggested that the ideology of social and religious conservatives puts them in opposition to science.

However, as Mark Hoofnagle at Sciencblogs points out, “liberals are just as likely to disbelieve science that challenges their ideology, only the issues where liberals tend to deny aren’t quite as earth-shattering (although anti-vax is a serious public health problem) and not as much in the media spotlight. And recent cognitive studies on why people believe what they believe support the likelihood that all of us, liberal, conservative, or moderate, are poor rational actors in the evaluation of science.”

For example, Hoofnagle continues: “I’ve found liberals are far more likely to be interested in ‘greening our vaccines’ (note the liberal pull of the label ‘green’). There are conservative anti-vaxxers but they come to it ideologically as well from the ‘guv’mint can’t tell me to vaccinate’ standpoint. Liberals are far more likely to buy into altie-med, to believe ‘toxins’ cause all illness, to engage in ‘big pharma’ conspiracy-mongering, to express paranoid delusions about GMO foods or irradiation, to espouse insane theories about food in general ….”

In short, there’s plenty of irrational suspicion of science to go around. Whether it’s becoming more prevalent, or just more noticeable, because of high profile issues such as climate change, is hard to tell.

That said, today’s generations of scientists might take heart from Louis Pasteur, who once advised future scientists to “not let yourselves be tainted by apparent skepticism; nor discouraged by the sadness of certain hours that creep over nations. Do not become angry at your opponents, for no scientific theory has ever been accepted without opposition.”

Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a New York City-based freelance journalist who writes often about the environment and climate change.