“The anti-science sentiment is entirely the fault of well-funded Koch brothers and people like them.”

Picture of cells

I was helping out with the petition to get Obama’s attention on the issue of biomedical research funding.  Amongst the flurry of emails, I got one that said essentially this:


“I’m trying to get people to sign this petition, but some people are pushing back because they’re not really sure of the value of science.”  The email then went on to point to this article that discussed how conservatives have been steadily becoming anti-science, while other groups still thinking science is OK.


That email coincided with another interesting and related event.


I saw a Facebook post by a conservative person that I know.  (Yes, I actually know some conservatives! The horror!)


The mentioned a blog article that was about a woman in Pennysylvania who’d recently had a baby.  She’d intended to have that baby with a midwife at home, but the midwife couldn’t make it in time due to the speed at which the woman went into labor, so she called an ambulance.  So she had the baby in the hospital parking lot, inside the ambulance.


Doctors took the baby from her.  They made excuses for why they weren’t returning the baby.  Then, finally they told her this: we’ll return the baby, but first you have to authorize a Hepatitis B shot. The woman says to them: um, no, I want to have my husband here, and baby should be tested for Hep B first, to see whether the baby is even at risk.


At that point, a clueless hospital social worker called the police, confiscated the baby (WTF??!?!), and ejected the woman from the hospital.  The “reasoning” (if you can call it that) is that the woman wasn’t properly looking out for the welfare of the child by authorizing the Hep B shot.  So, the rationale goes, the child needs to be taken care of by authorities.  Obviously they’ll be better at caring for this child than a mother that refuses a Hep B shot!  She must be totally off her rocker!


The mom was allowed to come back in to feed the child every three hours, but had to sleep in the car.  After childbirth.


The next day a judge said WTF?!? and released the baby back to parents.  After the hospital had already given the Hep B shot, against parental wishes. So there!


What’s this story got to do with the petition, science, and biomedical funding? They’re linked in an important way.  But one more story, before we bring it all together here.


As I write this post, I’m on a plane, headed back from Mississippi.  It’s the poorest state in the union.  I was there helping them out with a program that is designed to get more underrepresented groups into biomedical research.


I heard stories like this: “When we first started the program, many of the colleges didn’t even have a basic science lab.  We had to beg and plead with administrators to get them to consider sparing space for this.  The kids who participate in our summer research programs often have never seen a pipette before.  They don’t know how to dress for work, don’t know how to do a Google search, don’t understand even the most basic elements of doing research.  And, there are some entire counties here that don’t even have a single MD!”


The efforts of these folks to develop more MD’s and scientists is laudable.  It’s a big uphill battle.


So, back to the first email.  After that email came, I made a point-in-response.  The point was this: we scientists need to take some responsibility for the anti-science trends.  We need to become better at communicating about and doing outreach for science.  If we don’t do that, then the anti-science trend is going to continue.


In a series of quippy emails that followed, one person kept saying: no, there is ZERO blame on the part of scientists for this situation.  This is ALL the fault of well-funded, anti science interests like the Koch brothers.  It is all due to these people who want to strangle science because it gets in the way of industry, by bringing up pesky issues like climate change. They are well funded, and it’s the only reason for the trend against science now.  Let’s not take responsibility, let’s fight.


No culpability.  No admittance that we scientists could be doing a better job.  Only finger pointing. “It’s THEIR fault! They’re wrong! We must do away with THEM and their wrongdoing! Then it will all be better!”


The adamance and arrogance of this very superficial opinion by a fellow scientist really startled me.


Here’s why: the two other science-related stories I tell above have nothing to do with the Koch brothers, but everything to do with the anti-science trend.


In the case of the woman whose baby was stolen, it’s simple: there was a clash of beliefs.  The hospital staff believes it is best for everyone, without exception, to have a Hep B shot.  The woman-with-baby believes that a Hep B shot should be given only if absolutely necessary, and is concerned about the risks (there are risks, BTW).  She is part of the growing anti-vaccine movement.  I know several anti-vaccine folks.  Each one of them truly believes that vaccines are dangerous, and that they are doing what’s right for their kids.


We scientists might argue that the facts are on our side, and that kids should be vaccinated. (I vaccinated mine, BTW).  Yet, in the one such debate I’ve heard, the anti-vaccine person was eloquent and passionate, whereas the pro-vaccine scientist (an epidemiologist) was dry and factual.  Guess which person won that debate, by swaying more people to her side?  Yep – the anti-vaccine person.  This is not Koch brothers, this is passion and eloquence versus dry statistics.  Passion and eloquence will win, every time.


And guess what’s going to happen with the story of the mother whose baby was taken away? More fuel for the anti-vaccine fire!  This is the worst possible public relations blunder by the supposedly pro-science hospital that this woman interacted with.


Does this have anything to do with well-funded anti-science people like the Koch brothers?  Nada.


It’s about a clash of beliefs, where one side is eloquent and passionate, and the other side is dry, boring, and authoritarian.


Unfortunately, this clash makes science look bad.


How about the visit to Mississippi?


More than anything, the problem with science there is lack of access. Lack of relevance.  Lack of interest.  Lack of knowledge.  The culture in the many impoverished areas sees no direct impact of science on their lives.


Again, is this due to the Koch brothers or other well-funded anti-science people?  That’s hard to believe unless you’re a tin-foil hat wearing conspiracy theorist.  And if you are the tinfoil type, then let me tell you the real cause: little brown men from Mars!


In seriousness – both of the above cases of things trending away from science, there’s only one antidote.  It’s not going out and doing head-on battle with the Koch’s of the world. That’s impossible, anyway, unless you’re a multi-billionaire.


The real way forward is simple: communicating better about the value and benefit of science.


If that damned hospital social worker had, instead of trying to force the vaccine, done some very effective education and persuasion, the long-term effects on the likelihood of the kid getting vaccines would be greater.  As it is, she probably alienated the parents permanently from visiting hospitals or medical workers, and she gave a rallying cry to others who just don’t trust the science behind vaccines or the workers who administer them.


In Mississippi, the effort I was supporting is all about educating people: getting people from impoverished areas training in the biomedical sciences.  Some of those people have already gone to med school and graduate school.  Many of them have vowed that, once they’re finished, they’ll come back to their communities to help.


This is about education and communication.


Even in the case of “doing battle” with the anti-evolution folks and the climate change deniers, that battle can only be fought with effective words, education, and persuasion.


Unfortunately, a lot of scientists either don’t feel that we have the time for that, and/or we lack training in the effective doing of that.


And that’s where our culpability comes in.  If we want things to change so that the anti-science trend doesn’t continue to erode funding and support for science, then we’ve got to change our ways.


We must become passionate advocates for science.  We have to become vocal and well spoken in support of science.  We have to learn how to “market” the value of science.  


If we don’t admit the problem, and vow to do better, then we will lose. If we point a finger at others, we will loose.


This is not a battle that we can afford to loose.

Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment, and use those little social widgets above to let your friends know.



15 thoughts

  1. Let me suggest “Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens the Future of America” by Chris Mooney et al. His take is very similar to yours. He is not a scientist but has written three books on the topic. On the other hand some of the most popular cable channels are Discovery and History. Americans enjoy science if it is presented well.

  2. From what I’ve seen, besides anarchists and luddites, very few people are purely “anti-science” at all, including the Koch brothers or Intelligent Design believers. They are anti-scientific-consensus-on-a-specific-topic. The Koch’s disagree with the climate change consensus. Their business area alone (oil) fuels things created by modern science – it would seem nonsensical for them to oppose the development of new machinery or methods of finding oil. Most IDers embrace medical research and the Internet to spread their ideas, they just don’t believe in evolution. This tossing about of broad labels such as “anti-science” hinders meaningful dialogue. In particular, as scientists, I would argue we have a responsibility to be as concise and data-driven as possible when making political statements.

    And, yes, we should be more engaged in the public arena, but ultimately this is an issue of people believing what they want to believe. You can throw all the data at them in the world, but they will question your motives, ethics, understanding or whatever they need to keep the water muddy on that side. Our best defense is to prevent political hijacking of any issue. Climate change, unfortunately, has become politically charged. Who’s fault is it? I don’t care and neither should you – let’s just fix the problem and leave the blame-casting to the blogosphere.

  3. Great article, Morgan. Scientists like to think that we are ‘above this sort of thing,’ and that people are just too ignorant to understand what we do, anyway. We need to make an effort to reach out to people. Most of the science done in my university is paid for by tax dollars–so we need to be responsible to the tax payer and let them know that they are getting their money’s worth.

    I have yet to meet a school teacher, Cub Scout leader or 4-H club who turned down a visiting scientist.

  4. I have served on multiple sites and services that answer questions for people curious about science. Right now, I am part of the HHMI “Ask a Scientist’ program. My answers have been featured on the website and one will be in the Bulletin next month. In my travels, ineracting with a wide range of people, I have found very little ‘anti-science’ attitudes, but a great resevoir of ignorance and lack of information about it. I also believe that we, as scientists must share the blame for some of this. We should be more willing to communciate and advocate. I have lobbied on capital hill for research funding, and have found the congressional staffers to be literally starved for good sciencitifc information divorced from an agenda. Similarly, when I put on my ‘traveling show’ (about how the brain works) in local schools and other places, there is an intense enthusiasm from both students and adults. The Society for Neuroscience had an annual outreach activity: ‘Brain Awareness Week’. All of our societies and associations should develop similar programs.and we should all be willing to do what we can. Morgan has a good point.

  5. Having a historic bent and being a conservative (in the Jefferson Democrat sense) scientist, I’ve advocated a return to ‘Natural Philosophy’. I think ‘science advocacy’ will be easily regarded or misconstrued as ‘science zealotry’ (much like religious advocacy).

    You are right in that it’s about figuring out how to use your left brain to communicate with their right… and vice versa. However, it’s a science-centric view that it’s just about winning or losing. How you conduct yourself, win or lose, is just as important. It’s about realizing that science doesn’t, and shouldn’t, have all the answers, unilaterally, over all other organized belief systems.

    As soon as questions of will or decision or reason or choice of action arise, human science is at a loss. -Noam Chomsky

    Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten. -G.K. Chesterton

  6. You are, of course, correct. I believe we scientists need to think about this issue of anti-science sentiment from a broad perspective. Sure the hot-button campaign issues like global climate change, creationism, environment, women’s reproductive rights, and vaccines cry out for a passionate and concerted counter strategy from scientists, but the real battles to win peoples’ minds is going to be won or lost at the local level. There is a need for scientists to become more involved in community matters related to science, regardless of the issue. It is at the local and personal levels that hearts (and then minds) are going to be “won”. Every community is likely to encounter its own toxic waste “crisis”, water safety issue, or inoculation debate. But even more to the point of winning “hearts” and minds for science, we should be getting involved in local schools, particularly those with large percentages of disadvantaged students. We can offer to accept promising students places in our labs where they can learn to about science first hand. Better yet, organize a group of your colleagues to set up a Summer minority science “fellowship” program to facilitate this outreach and uplift program. We can win hearts and minds one at a time while inspiring a talented, but disadvantaged, student to have a priceless research experience, and in the process improve their chances of getting a scholarship to college or university because they can add this experience to their application. If you help a 16-17 year old student, you will win over his/her family and relatives. If you inspire a young person to be the first in their extended family to go to college, you will have cultivated a new spokesperson for science within that community. Never underestimate the power of a passionate young person who becomes a role model for their community or neighborhood. If you can do that with one Summer student, think of what you can accomplish if you do that each Summer; one student at a time. I’ve been doing this for almost 20 consecutive years and every one of these Summer students have been a blessing to me.

  7. I agree with both Morgan and Jonathan. It does a disservice to lump everyone that disagrees into an anti-science label. Having said that, there are many, many people who say they distrust science and scientists, yet happily partaking of the benefits that they want without ever seeing the contradiction. We also need to make sure we have the data and facts to support our positions. Spending our time blaming others is not productive either. Too often we waste time fixing blame when instead we should be more carefully identifying the real problem. Many people think these are part and parcel of the same thing, but as Morgan was saying, blaming others is a distraction from what really needs to be addressed.

    However, it is perfectly justifiable, and Morgan’s point, that rather than blaming others, we look at ourselves to see if we are doing our part. If we aren’t, we have only ourselves to blame. We become part of the problem and we should be blaming ourselves for our failure to act.

    It is also required, but not enough just to have the data and facts. You can tell people all the facts in the world, but unless you have gotten them to listen to you, they do no good. Many scientists start off antagonistic to other people’s views and thus have already lost because no one listens to a person they feel threatened by. There are a few things that have to be done before meaningful ialogue can be reached. 1) People want to be heard. If they feel their opinions are not heard, they will not listen to anyone else’s, no matter how much better supported the other person is. 2) An emotional appeal must be made, some connection, some commonality must be made because people do not seriously listen to the statements made by those viewed as outside their group. If they don’t connect with the speaker, they will not agree and support them.
    I know this goes against the grain for most scientists, who would prefer to let the data speak for themselves, but we are not dealing with computers. We are dealing with people, which are inherently illogical, emotional, and tribal. This goes for the scientists too, however much we may try to deny it. If you can’t sit down with somone who doesn’t accept the science, discuss their beliefs with them in a nonthreatening way, convince them you understand their concerns, and only then ask them (not tell them) if they have thought about the problem from a different perspective, only then bringing all the data to bear, you have already lost. Yes, it takes time, but there is plenty of evidence to show it is a requirement.

    1. “I know this goes against the grain for most scientists, who would prefer to let the data speak for themselves, but we are not dealing with computers.”

      You aren’t a computer. You don’t have to tell people what is and is not a computer. Data rarely, if ever, speaks for itself.

  8. Jonathan Haidt has a lot to say about the reasons for why passion beats facts and logic. Most people make decisions emotionally. If reason rules, it is only after the fact. Haidt frames his narrative in terms of liberal vs conservative political choices, but the applicability is wider. Many of the anti-vaccine people are liberals or environmentalists, so the anti-science divide transcends the political divide. You can hear Haidt’s theories in his TED talk. https://www.ted.com/talks/jonathan_haidt_on_the_moral_mind.html

  9. I totally agree that collectively scientists need to get much better about marketing the value of their science. However, the question that always resonates with me is “How?” Particularly, on the individual level, how would an academic scientist communicate/market the value of his/her research? Is it through community events or talks? Blogging? Social media? What are your thoughts on this?

  10. I absolutely agree. Some fellow colleagues may not feel comfortable having to passionately defend facts, but humans do react to passion, not to reason. We have to be better at it: show that we are right and show it in a way that will make the point.

  11. I am a conservative (which once was called liberal in the sense of the French revolution). Freedom from the King, whether we call him George, Mao, Bush or Obama is appealing. Science gets itself in trouble by overpromising (as do candidates for office). Much of what we do is speculative and we have to do it to find out what will happen, what will work, what will explain. Pushing very hard on the genome project’s implications for disease is an example. We will get there, but it will roll out over decades. The public is disappointed. Even scientists talk about “believing” in climate change. That’s the wrong word. the climate has changed and will continue to change. Doing something about that is not a scientific question, but rather an economic and political question. Science has a few doubters to contend with, but nowhere near the number who have doubts about various religions, political parties, health care reform, education reform, etc. We are lucky to be held in relatively high esteem.

    (Making stuff up in published papers is not helping to reinforce the integrity of science. We look like Wall Street, the New York Times and politicians when we pull such stunts.)

  12. I am not a scientist, however I am a mother , who researches and understands all factors presented scientifically,medically, anti, and pro with researched data and information attained from accredited government and educational sites including the fda, cdc, nvic, and other resources, i also in my research have read personal experiences from both those who are anti vac and those who are pro vac or who were anti vac but changed to pro vac and vica versa .I would not put mercury on my childs plate and force him to eat it, i would not put a fetus on a plate and demand he feel no guilt or pity . I believe vaccines should be made more organically and more safely and should NOT be forced or bullied on others against there will, i believe all accurate information should not be withheld , and lying about something immediately discredits any research. just as forcing your will upon another is wrong and will discredit. so is misinformation. I am also against forced psychiatric medication and care. and believe alternatives should be made as there is such a thing as mental illness however most medications cause far more harm then good, the benefits do not outweigh the cost,and often there is no benefit medicine is meant to heal, not cause more problems and death. Zyorexa fir example causes excessive accelerated weight gain,and other conditions that are crippling. . Lets get down to facts now, Many vaccines have caused death, many psychiatric drugs have caused death…..medicine is meant to be lifesaving, and should have no unwanted conditions associated with them, Plus forcing, fear , manipulation , imprisonment , is terroristic behavior.not something i want from my health professional, and the bashing must stop.. I love science as there is always research being done to prove or disprove the statistics and facts, why at one time was it bad to eat eggs and now its the best thing for you. Questioning and using your discerning brain should not be looked down upon. take into consideration why people are anti science, take into consideration how scientific data has been perverted to force others against there will, raping them of there human rights, using fear and imprisonment , snatching there children away. look at all the damage. and pain caused, I am anti vaccine and anti psychiatric for a reason, My first son was ripped from my womb i was falsely imprisoned because my mother could no longer conceive and wanted my unborn child to raise with her boyfriend . all she had to do was invite me over, and while i slept put a knife beside me and call 911 stating i had tried to abort my unborn child and tried to commit suicide. I awoke to being pulled from the bed and strapped to a garney hand cuffed on hear say. , I lost my job, my home and my human rights and my right to parent my unborn child on hear say. I wasn’t evaluated, I wasn’t tested, I wasn’t asked questions, i was told to take 16 different medications including zyprexa that balllooned me from 125 lbs to 700 lbs in a matter of 3 months , 3 months i was unrecognizable i was a drooling , almost blind incoherent vegetable. I went from seeing colors to seeing everything in black and white in slow motion i could barely make out peoples faces. luckily nurses put there foot down to the psychiatric doctor, so he lessened my pills to 6 zyprexa , 2 clonapin and 5 abilify a day.. my weight gain steadily shot up till i was transferred to a psychiatric hospital for the safety of my child as i had refused in the beginning to take any of these drugs and asked to be evaluated and tested to prove i had bipolar disorder alll ignored. at the psychiatric hospital they at first lessoned me to 1 zyprexa a day then due to even more weight gain they took me off all psychiatric medicine. They all agreed i was not suffering from any psychiatric illness but because i would soon be delivering having no home, no means of supporting myself losing everything based on a lie so they said that it would be best for me to stay and refused to release me for his safety instead of allowing me to go back out into society and use resources like homeless shelters, and work programs. . so my son, who i desperately tried to protect was taken from me, I was deemed a danger to him. on hearsay. he is 8 years old now and will soon be 9 and i don’t even know what he looks like. i was never allowed to see him. he came out and they snatched him from the room. i only was able to see his hand as he screamed , was able to get some information and thanks to the drugs he had vericose veins all over his body,and had to be rushed to nicu for not being able to breath at 10 lbs 8 oz he suffered the negative effects of these drugs that was sworn to me not to transmit through the placenta. . when he was born i was released on my own to fend for my self, homeless, jobless, and no where to go. how is that going to build any trust? I now have three other sons who i am raising with my husband, every time i take them to a doctor, they try and shove vaccines down my throat and threaten dcf intervention, dcf doesn’t even bother as it is NOT abuse. so i go to a new vaccine nazi doctor. and so on . Might i add i have gone to other psychiatric doctors and therapists who all deem me not to be suffering from a mental disorder, but do say i was violated, and unfairly treated and do advise i file a lawsuit. I have become what the drugs were meant to treat, depressed over the loss of my child and what i experienced , fearful of intolerant medical professionals and , non trusting of them . i am fearful of going out and having my children snatched from me, but i do. i do it every day and when someone trys to bully me or force me , i get a lawyer to DEFEND my rights. So people are not so much anti science they are against those charged to protect our health who pervert the data and use fear tactics to get what they deem right done.forcing others to their will. Things should be done humanely ,ethically, and safely . and not at the cost of health and violation of rights. I may be off base but maybe sharing my story will get some voices heard as to why people are so fearful.

  13. Please research Koch brothers funding of University/College systems.
    Please research Koch brothers funding of county school boards.Please research Koch brothers funding of so called “think-tanks”. Please
    observe disrespect of seperation of church and state in public governance. Please note that all major TV networks outright owned by major corporations.
    Observe citizens united. observe Koch brothers funding anti-union organizations. All of above well-documented by many sources. please read.
    It is high time for the upper middle classes, the academics, the scientists, the journalists/publishers, higher civil service, wealthy artists, to understand that
    your state of grace now rests on disclosing truth. This takes courage.You might risk your cozy position. Change is uncomfortable, brings about cognitive dissonance. The super-rich are out of control and are manipulating the religious and ignorant. Your scientist friend might retain the classic dispassionate platform of reason. Perhaps you might be well served to do the same. as well as the rest of us. 800 billion in military,an we are cutting already over-burdened school teachers. Pat Robertson retaining tax exempt status, AM talk radio deregulated of Fairness Doctrine by Ronald Reagan, Fox News allowed to go unchallenged by the educated under guise of everyone entitled to one’s
    own opinion? effective sex education being removed from public schools, (SIECUS.org) attack on contraception. carbon footprint. fiat money. Sounds like the poor are being blamed for being ignorant too.

    1. It’s funny that this comment refers to “the classic dispassionate platform of reason” – yet the comment itself displays not so much of that same “dispassionate platform of reason.”

      Reason is always based on beliefs. It’s true in science, and it’s true in everything else.

      The problem with “dispassionate reason” is that this assumes a so-called “correct” belief set.

      But there is no “correct belief set.” At least not any that can be proven to be correct. Talk to Gödel about that one.

      What the commenter needs to grasp is that he’s not right and everyone else wrong. It’s simply a difference in beliefs.

      And at the end of the day, the people with the most passion and the best communication are more likely to sway everyone else towards their set of beliefs.

      So, if you want to do something about it, then learn to be a better communicator for your beliefs about global warming and whatever…

      I believe that a solid science education is very important. But it ain’t gonna happen from bitter diatribes in the comments on blog posts.

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