Eugenie Scott: Why Is Science Controversial?

That video is only a minute and a half long. It features Eugenie Scott, who, until recently, was head of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE). We wrote about her retirement a couple of years ago — see Eugenie Scott Retiring from the NCSE.

The video isn’t new, but it’s certainly worth a look. Scott discusses the controversy over evolution and climate change, and says that it’s not about the science, it’s about ideology. She’s got a good point, but we think there’s more to it than that.

As far as we’re aware, evolution and climate change are only two scientific subjects that arouse heated passion among the general public. Well, to a far lesser degree, there’s also the Big Bang, but the public usually ties that together with evolution. What is it about evolution and climate change that gets people so worked up?

There are science topics that are far more controversial — among scientists. Some say that string theory isn’t a scientific theory at all, as it seems to be resistant to testing. Dark matter and dark energy are hotly debated. You can probably think of others. Although those topics are genuinely controversial, the public seems content to let scientists work it all out.

In contrast — despite the silly claims of creationists and climate change skeptics — there’s virtually no scientific controversy about evolution and climate change — except for details. Is Scott right in saying that the public uproar about those two topics is because of ideology?

In our opinion, she’s partly right. Evolution is a hot topic in education. Creationists would love to ban it, or at least “balance” it with their religious views. Politicians and school board officials are often sufficiently ignorant (or crazed) that they try to accommodate their constituents’ religious preferences. As for climate change, again there’s a political dimension. Legislators are always trying to implement their “solutions” to the problem by imposing taxes and controls on activities they deem to be harmful. That is what generates opposition.

But politicians have — so far — kept their slimy hands off of things like dark matter and string theory. If they could figure out a way to tax and regulate somebody in the name of those ideas, they’d certainly try to do it — and then the public would get involved. If you think creationists’ letters-to-the-editor are crazy, wait until the public starts screaming about string theory.

Anyway, Scott is correct. Yes, the public uproar is ideological. But it’s triggered by politics.

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10 responses to “Eugenie Scott: Why Is Science Controversial?

  1. Oh, come on! It is “triggered by politics” only because certain theists insist on making it a political issue. If politicians “tested the waters” of such issues and found no response, they would move to other issues. Religious litmus tests are virtually mandated in the GOP. Remember the “Do you believe in the Theory of Evolution?” question in the 2012 presidential debates (GOP only). This was a dog whistle religious test for the candidates. All of the candidates on stage raised their hands to affirm “No” (some sheepishly looking around to see what their colleagues were doing).

    Why would any citizen care whether a politician “believed” in a scientific theory or not? Only as a signal that says “I am like you, possessing a certain brand of religiosity.”

  2. Genie Scott is simply the best. I heard her speak in Houston a few years ago on the creationism versus evolution “debate” and she calmly, precisely and eloquently dismantled every creationist argument out there. Of course, it doesn’t stop creationists from picking up those old, trampled arguments, brushing them off and using them again and again, but it was wonderful to watch a genuine master at work.

    All without name-calling. (pity that. I like a little [edited out])

  3. I think you may be putting the cart before the horse. Evolution is an issue because it conflicts with people’s identities and climate change is an issue because it potentially conflicts with people’s wallets. Precisely because of those conflicts is why they are politicized.

    Ideology first, then comes the politicization. I’m sure there is some feedback loop effect but the main momentum flows from ideology, not politicians.

  4. Another controversial science topic — genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Especially in Europe. Good op-ed in yesterday’s (10/25/15) NY Times.

  5. And vaccination.

  6. Anti-vaccination is a weird one, though – it’s kind of the place where the ultra-liberals and the ultra-conservatives meet, and while religion sometimes plays a role on the ultra-conservative end of the spectrum (particularly in the anti-vaxx portion of the homeschool movement), you can’t determine position on vaccination based on church or denomination the way you can evolution or climate change.

  7. Yet another controversial topic is nuclear energy, thought that’s rather about the question whether we should apply it or not, not about the science behind it. The interesting thing is that in several countries the public demands control on activities one way or another. In Europe there is hardly a company willing to invest in nuclear power plants.
    That’s confirmed by a controversial topic that has very little to do with science: immigration. Again the public demands control on activities.
    Oh and of course teaching Evolution Theory in Dutch schools is not controversial at all – schools (including the religious ones) that are way more controlled by government than in the USA.
    So it seems to me that our dear SC betrays being ideologically driven himself.

  8. In some places in the USA, fluoridation of water is controversial.

  9. mnb0 says: “In Europe there is hardly a company willing to invest in nuclear power plants.”

    According to Wikipedia, that’s not true in France — see Nuclear power in France.

  10. TomS: Not just in the US. In my Canadian hometown, a group of citizens succeeded in getting the municipality to stop fluoridating the water there too. It’s astonishing that people will forego a tremendous benefit to public health because they don’t understand chemistry (and don’t want to).