Monday, 12 December 2016

Giving wedgies to the nerds: anti-science jeering from the left

Can't say I'm a big fan of a certain strand of lefty acting like high school jocks 'giving wedgies to the nerds' when it comes to some aspects of the natural sciences and science communications.

Every now and then, I read some smug, self-congratulatory posts (or more commonly the comments beneath them) from often postmodern humanities-trained individuals describing scientists as sexless nerds with no social skills. It’s dispiriting coming from people who say they want a kinder, more egalitarian world. Relatedly, in recent months, I've seen multiple articles in leftish publications jeering at artificial intelligence research, the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, the simulation argument, human enhancement, synthetic biology, neuroscience, space exploration, and even gifted (progressive) science popularisers like Neil Degrasse Tyson and Bill Nye.

This comes atop the already widespread irrational fears of many of these same people of 'teh kemikalz', genetic engineering, nuclear energy, vaccination, and so-called electro-pollution. The only areas within the natural sciences that seem to get a free pass from some quarters of the left are climate science and conservation biology. Perhaps this is because such people erroneously believe that the findings of these researchers are endorsing their assertion that modern life is rubbish.

There are convincing arguments as to why artificial general intelligence or strong AI might be further away than some people think. The many worlds interpretation is not a consensus position in physics, and many argue it is unfalsifiable. There are thoughtful disagreements with the simulation argument. Even as the alleviation of terrible suffering from some genetic disorders may soon be possible, ethical quandaries abound. Security is a legitimate concern with synthetic biology and how accessible it is becoming. There is certainly some less-than-rigorous neuroscience research that tends toward the deterministic and less than replicable at best and outright quackery at worst. Private space exploration is likely promising much more than it can deliver. And science popularisers should probably read a little more philosophy before they start suggesting it is a waste of time.

There are lots of very interesting social, economic, ethical and political conversations to be had about all these subjects, and many of those most familiar with them -- the researchers themselves -- are indeed having these very conversations. But the rhetorical equivalent of stuffing geeks into their lockers is not just mean-spirited; the wilful ignorance on display is as embarrassing as boasting that you can't read.

It’s also a sure-fire way to push natural scientists into the arms of the libertarians.