Science said Y, X years ago, therefore, >>insert non-sequitur here<<. This is becoming an increasingly familiar, and tiring, argument. First, let me use it in a few examples.
GMO foods are bad despite what the science says because science said cigarettes were safe for use 60 years ago.
Organic produce is healthier than conventional produce despite what the preponderance of scientific studies today show because science gave us nazi eugenics 80 years ago.
Got it? Well, it’s a non-sequitur; that is, the conclusion does not follow from the premises. Here’s what it is, a red herring, a debate stopper; what it is not is a logical argument.
There are several points I wish to make against it.
Let’s take cigarettes. It goes something like this, In the 50s, science was telling us that smoking cigarettes is safe, therefore because 600 peer-reviewed studies show that GMOs are as inherently safe as any other form of agriculture, we shouldn’t listen to the science. After all, they were wrong about cigarettes, so it follows — it doesn’t — that they are wrong about this. Well, even the premise in this case (science said cigarette smoking was safe) is wrong — a pretty bad way to start an argument.
The first Western study that showed that cigarette smoking was linked to lung cancer was the John Hopkins University in Maryland, which came to that conclusion in 1938. The British Medical Journal in 1950 (you can actually read the original paper at that link) was the first in Britain. The British Doctors Society confirmed it 4 years later. In the United States, it was 1964 when the Surgeon General’s report came out codifying the same warning as the British, but, the Sloan-Kettering Institute in New York City did so earlier in 1953. However, the first to the ball were actually the Nazi’s in the 30s. (The bloody Nazis!) The science was there, there were just a handful of deniers obscuring it with just enough doubt to leave people perplexed. The majority of scientists and scientific institutions feel this way about GMOs now. So, the excuse, that science said cigarettes were safe 60 years ago (even though it didn’t), so we shouldn’t trust them now shows you the roles the accuser thinks they are taking is actually backwards — they are the equivalent of the “cigarette causes lung cancer” deniers; just like the global warming deniers now. They’ve got it ass-backwards, they are the malcontents.
Eugenics: This one is quite invidious. When the Nazi card is played, the debate is already well out-of-hand, and probably has been over for some time. Firstly, the eugenics movement began in the US of A with California leading the way — does it then follow that by this reasoning that all current Californians are born-and-bred eugenicists with blood on their hand? Of course not, it’s a non-sequitur for a reason. From California, the propaganda (not science) made its way to Europe, and finally in Germany where they ran it to the extreme. The problem in this scenario is not science; after all, Thomas Hunt Morgan discovered genetic mutations in 1915 and the concept of pure hereditary eugenics was rendered scientifically inaccurate. But, of course, knowledge didn’t travel so far and wide a hundred years ago — it’s hard enough even today: 46% of American’s don’t believe in evolution. But as Steven Pinker says, the problem is not per se the science (which was woefully incomplete), it is the social engineering aspect: “it’s not an emphasis on genes or evolution that is dangerous. It’s the desire to remake humanity by coercive means (eugenics or social engineering) and the belief that humanity advances through a struggle in which superior groups (race or classes) triumph over inferior ones.” Eugenics is not science run amok, it is culture and politics run amok, just as it was with Lysenkoism in the Soviet Union. Mix incomplete or bad science with an immature, immoral, and ignorant cultural, racist, and political class, and you’ve got all the recipes for a disaster. This isn’t a mark against science, from 1915, we knew hereditary inheritance had its faults, but small facts like this are often ignored when they are found conflicting with racist ideologies as eugenics was. Lynching’s were still commonplace up until 1920s, are we to blame science for that too? Or the racist culture from which it came? Quite obviously, the latter, and no one is today calling American’s racist and idiotic because of the White over-class a century ago.
Another one I recently heard was in response to comments I’ve made that went much like this; in a few posts, I’ve mentioned that science and technology have made slavery irrelevant, and this is for the most part true. The general responses have been; well, slavery still exists, so science didn’t do anything. In some backwards part of the world, there is indeed still slavery. (Hmm, what might solve that? Since people are forced into slavery usually to do menial labor, if the technologies were made available to do it for cheaper, the practice would stop, as it has in the rest of the world. And, what is technology? Applied science.) Sexual slavery is not uncommon in parts of SE Asia and the richer parts of the Middle East. Context is however, key here. In Ancient Rome during Julius Caesar’s time, Rome had a population of 3 million people: 300,000 of whom were citizens and 2.7 million were slaves. It is estimated that between 30-40% of the greater Roman empire were slaves. Are there are any cities today with such inequality? Very elucidating. Closer to the recently departed 20th century is this quote by David P. Forsythe: “The fact remained that at the beginning of the nineteenth century an estimated three-quarters of all people alive were trapped in bondage against their will either in some form of slavery or serfdom.” That’s just over 200 years ago that 75% of people were slaves or serfs. Today, that number is roughly 0.004%. (That figure is using the highest estimate, which ranges from 2.4 million to 27 million people in bondage worldwide). Why did the disgusting institution of slavery decline as we moved into the 20th century? The Industrial Revolution. What made the Industrial Revolution possible? Newtonian Mechanics. What is Newtonian Mechanics: science.
This just goes to show that we are still unable to properly place blame. Science, a body of knowledge as well as, and more importantly, a way of thinking, is amoral. The world is the way the world is, if you don’t like it, bad luck. If by uncovering the secrets of the world as science does, and some ignorant person, people, or culture then uses it nefariously; that is not a mark against a body of knowledge or the methodology used to uncover it. When a roof collapses and kills the people underneath it, do we blame gravity? No, we learn how to build better support structures while being aware of the fact gravity will always try to bring it down — gravity is what gravity does. When infected by a virus, do we blame the virus? Well, you can, but that won’t get you anywhere. A virus does what a virus does. Better instead to use medicine the next go-round. You can’t get rid of the natural world. You can’t pretend that it doesn’t exist. (Well, you can, but no civilization has survived for very long by ignoring it.) Science is the best methodology we have for uncovering the laws underlying our reality. Sometimes it gets it wrong, no doubt, but the way that it is set up is so the closest answer approximating reality eventually wins out (the scientific consensus), and answers that reflect it less, or not at all, eventually get thrown out (sometimes — homeopathy is still around for some reason).
To summarize, it doesn’t matter what anyone said 50, 80, or 2,000 years ago. If it’s wrong, it’s wrong. The problem, the real problem, lies in our human need for final answers. The eugenicists used a very incomplete science to justify their social and cultural policies, or extend them in most cases. In the case of cigarettes, the science was quite well-established in the 50s, but nobody listened to the data; then as now, we like to listen to the contrarian voices. The media exacerbates the situation by providing false balance. Remember that there aren’t two sides to everything: evolution, biotechnology, and many more have a scientific consensus, and a scientific consensus is more than an opinion. Even if they didn’t, what someone, scientist or not, said last year, decade, or century matters not a whit. It only matters what the evidence says, the real evidence, and all of it, not little sections here or there.
The war against science is as futile as it is stupid.