Response to "The Causes of Anti-Science Views"

By Johnny Wei-Bing Lin

Eos, Vol. 82, No. 15, April 10, 2001, p. 178.

Copyright © 2001 by the American Geophysical Union. Further electronic distribution is not allowed. This online version may differ from the published version in some minor wording changes. (last updated April 18, 2001)

I thank R. Stephen White for responding to my Eos Forum article and appreciate the opportunity to have a dialogue with him regarding these issues.

He argues that populism is not the primary cause of anti-science thinking. Rather, public sentiment toward science is one of implicit acceptance. Anti-science thinking and actions are cultural anomalies, possibly the result of conservative political activism, religious schooling, or lack of intellectual rigor.

Certainly, I agree that history shows many examples of times when such forces have contributed to the rise of anti-science sentiment. These forces likely had an important role in the specific case of the Kansas Board of Education decision. But these forces do not act in a vacuum. They are intimately connected with a cultural context, and this context can at times be more important than the forces noted. I suggest that populism plays such a role in framing and sustaining anti-science sentiment, and that the historical record, when examined over the course of not just a few decades, but a century (or more), strongly supports this hypothesis.

Perhaps the difference between White's position and my own is one of emphasis. He focuses on proximate causes--for example, political activism--while I suggest the cultural context--that is, populism--is more important. It seems to me, however, that the difference may run deeper.

My impression from reading White's reply is that his emphasis on the behavior of groups of individuals is motivated by the belief that science is a unique and privileged way of knowing. This privilege is based upon its objectivity, reproducibility, and self-correcting nature. Thus, any reluctance to accept the conclusions of science must be the result of misguided thinking caused by ignorance or irrationality. Because science is "epistemically privileged," people will naturally accede to its authority if they are properly motivated.

While I certainly agree that science is a powerful way of knowing, I cannot agree with the contention of epistemic privilege. Science, like all systems of knowledge, has strengths and weaknesses. The rise of modern science occurred during the Enlightenment, when optimism in the power of human rationality predominated. As a result, for around two centuries, many have ignored the weaknesses of science as a way of knowing and have focused instead on just its strengths. The work by historians and philosophers of science in the past several decades has helped to correct this lopsided view and has provided a view of science that while more nuanced is also richer. The classic starting point for this analysis is Kuhn [1962]. Bauer [1992] presents a brief summary of arguments against the notion of the epistemic privilege of science and offers a constructive and helpful analysis of how that belief has impacted scientific literacy.

If the notion of scientific epistemic privilege is no longer defensible, then on what basis should we build our arguments against anti-science sentiment? Answering that question will require us scientists to expand our vision and enter into dialogue with our colleagues in history, philosophy, and theology, who have already been studying these issues for quite some time. The result will be a response that, I hope, will be more balanced and effective, because it has a more accurate understanding of the role and nature of scientific knowledge.


Bauer, H. H., Scientific Literacy and the Myth of the Scientific Method, 180 pp, University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 1992.

Kuhn, T. S., The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 172 pp., University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1962.