A virtuous intolerance

John Beddington, Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK government, has had enough and isn’t going to take it any more. He’s urging a more vigorous response to the creeping woo.

“We are grossly intolerant, and properly so, of racism. We are grossly intolerant, and properly so, of people who [are] anti-homosexuality… We are not—and I genuinely think we should think about how we do this—grossly intolerant of pseudo-science, the building up of what purports to be science by the cherry-picking of the facts and the failure to use scientific evidence and the failure to use scientific method.”

“One way is to be completely intolerant of this nonsense,” he said. “That we don’t kind of shrug it off. We don’t say: ‘oh, it’s the media’ or ‘oh they would say that wouldn’t they?’ I think we really need, as a scientific community—and this is a very important scientific community—to think about how we do it.”

Beddington said that he intends to take this agenda forward with his fellow chief scientists and also with the research councils. “I really believe that. . . we need to recognise that that is a pernicious influence, it is an increasingly pernicious influence and we need to be thinking about how we can actually deal with it.”

“I really would urge you to be grossly intolerant,” he said. “We should not tolerate what is potentially something that can seriously undermine our ability to address important problems.”

That is what we need: more activist scientists who point out the stupidity of our opposition. I know, Beddington will be taken to task by mealy-mouthed well-meaning apologists who’ll declare that direct conflict is bad and won’t persuade anyone, but I have to disagree — the constant backing off and making apologies for nonsense is what creates an environment in which lies can grow.

For a beautiful example, look at this article on the Huffington Post, AOL, and anti-vaccination movements. The HuffPo is still making excuses for defending the possibility of a vaccination/autism link, and is saying that the denialists have a reasonable position. Why, no they don’t: you might as well be arguing for a link between autism and anal probes by Martians in flying saucers. At this point, there’s no legitimate reason to refrain from accusing the HuffPo of peddling patent lies, and we need more people doing that.

There’s also a vast difference between being intolerant of people, which no one is advocating, and intolerant of bad ideas, which is expected of every scientist. We simply need to move that skeptical attitude out of the lab and into the wider sphere of public engagement.