The dichotomous Kochs: why “anti-science” is a useless label

Publicly controversial issues in science can be incredibly frustrating, whether you’re a scientist, communicator, nephew, or neighbor. We have an expectation of rational decision-making and discourse from others, so when people form opinions that contradict scientific understanding, we get mad. Some get patiently mad; others, less so.

As in other cultural disagreements, this frustration can lead to name-calling and labeling. Perhaps the least useful label out there is “anti-science”– often applied to those who loudly reject evolutionary biology or climate science. In doing so, they often cite ideological motivations– the science of evolution is wrong because the Bible says so, or climate change isn’t real because those scientists are all socialists. It’s unscientific thinking, and so the unscientific thinkers are dubbed “anti-science”. After all, if they were “pro-science”, they’d take the science seriously, right?

But exceedingly few of these people will actually disavow all support for scientific inquiry and the rewards thereof. Their rejection is compartmentalized. “Of course science works out all kinds of things,” they might say, “but the science of x is flawed!”

There is, perhaps, no clearer demonstration of this than David and Charles Koch. The fossil fuel industry billionaires are probably the leading boosters of climate misinformation. They help fund groups like the Heritage Foundation and the Heartland Institute (among other conservative think tanks) that have led the way in opposing climate science. Then there are other political groups, like the tea party Americans for Prosperity, which has leaned hard on any Republicans who dared to accept the science of climate change (see: Bob Inglis). The Kochs are critical benefactors behind these efforts, among the most organized and effective sources of public politicization over climate change.

But at the same time, they have donated absolutely astounding sums of money to support other fields of science. Cancer research, especially, benefits from the Kochs generosity, as have a number of universities. And NOVA, the wonderful science program on public television, is now “made possible by” Koch family money.

It can be a reasonably jarring sight, watching those credits. If the Kochs aren’t the kingpins of the “anti-science” movement on the issue of climate change, nobody is, and yet here they are, going out of their way to be extraordinarily pro-science. Should the brothers change their surnames to Jekyll and Hyde, or is the “anti-science” label showing its uselessness?

You can’t fit people into these two boxes: rational & scientific, or irrational & unscientific. We’re all a little bit of everything (though some end up with larger servings of one buffet item or the other). We compartmentalize our thinking. On some topics, we’re right there with the best science, and for the right reasons. On other topics, we might harbor doubts that money has infected the whole thing and those shills in lab coats can’t be trusted. The Kochs obviously think they’re doing a great service by enabling all this opposition to the scientific consensus on climate change. In reality, they’re doing a great disservice. We all make mistakes. Most of us just aren’t able to fund them quite so handsomely.

Now, so what? It comes as no surprise to most that a label used in a contentious public debate isn’t the most fair or accurate. What good does reflecting on this do?

Name-calling obliterates the value of a discussion pretty much instantly. It’s great for succinctly expressing your frustration with a group of people, but not so great for trying to talk to those people. Even if it’s not intended as a called-name, the “anti-science” label has the same effect. Generalized labels like that act as replacements for reasoned arguments and explanations. (We know those arguments aren’t likely to persuade, so we skip ’em and throw a satisfying punch instead.) Obviously, not all labels are fightin’ words- some are mild descriptors- but it’s wise to examine the ones you use so you don’t score too many own goals.

The nature of the public controversy over climate change isn’t scientific, it’s cultural. If you don’t understand where people who disagree with you are coming from, you will never leave square one. Calling them “anti-science” is a fantastic way to not understand them.