Many activists on the front lines of championing change rooted in science simply have little idea what they are talking about.
The vast majority of Yalies correctly believe that man-made climate change is an imminent threat to society. But when asked to explain the rationale behind climate change science, these scientific activists — often graduate students in STEM! — are unable to identify peer-reviewed studies or rigorously explain findings that researchers use to draw their conclusions. This brand of underinformed scientific conviction, all too prevalent at Yale, is deficient and has the potential to do great harm.
Affiliation and consensus alone are insufficient justifications for educated individuals to champion a cause. Activism, by its very nature, is rooted in persuasion. If activists cannot rigorously defend the rationale behind a cause independently, they have no business convincing legislators. Scientific consensus, while powerful, has been wrong in the past — take, for instance, heliocentrism and luminiferous aether.
Independent reflection on scientific literature — especially by individuals in STEM — is essential for meaningful activism. For example, in a 2000 paper in The Lancet, informed activists Mark Harrington and Charles Carpenter boldly proposed HIV treatment policy that was contrary to established medical consensus. Their ideas subsequently spurred a re-evaluation of the medical standard, shifting the paradigm for clinical treatment that resulted in better treatment for innumerable patients. Most activists, regretfully, do not adhere to this standard.
Today, people often blindly champion causes because they’ve been indoctrinated in a line of thinking rather than because they’ve actually studied the details. This herd-mentality approach is both dilutive and antithetical to progress. Uninformed agreement undermines the very premise of independent peer-reviewed inquiry, which forms the foundation of modern science. Moreover, it is not difficult to conceive of a scenario in which blind advocacy can have disastrous consequences. Skeptics of this line of thought need look no further than the ill-founded anti-vaccination movement that has caused the re-emergence of deadly diseases like measles and pertussis.
Anti–genetically modified organism activists serve as another example. Decades since the GMO controversy emerged, evidence has overwhelmingly discredited claims that genetically modified foods are detrimental to health and the environment. To the contrary, GMOs have been shown to have tremendous agronomic benefits and have been vital in addressing worldwide nutritional and hunger epidemics. Genetically modified golden rice, for example, can be instrumental in treating vitamin A deficiency, which kills over 600,000 children each year. Consequently, promulgating unfounded sentiments in the realm of medicine and nutrition without evidence can have catastrophic consequences globally. Yet the number of educated individuals that partake in baseless punditry about the health detriments of eating GMOs is baffling. While regulatory concerns exist, no critique of GMOs rooted in health has substantive scientific backing. Yet, blissfully misinformed, the anti-GMO lobby marches on.
The ongoing People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals protests are the most recent incarnation of this same ignorance. With threats and egregious mischaracterizations, PETA harassed Yale postdoctoral researcher Christine Lattin at her workplace and home for her research on stress responses in birds. More recently, they disrupted a speech by University President Peter Salovey in Seattle. One sympathizer wrote in a letter to the News that Lattin mercilessly “wounded birds without providing pain relief” and reiterated the facile claim that her work does not have relevance because the physiology of birds is different from humans. Even a cursory reading of Lattin’s published works reveals researchers anesthetize birds using isoflurane, as per guidelines. Furthermore, the overwhelming majority of biological research relevant to humans is studied using model organisms. If PETA and its supporters — most of whom have no background in research — want to engage in virtue signaling, they must first understand the realities and basic facts of science. In mischaracterizing information, PETA has lost credibility, even though the welfare of animals is a honorable cause.
I am not against activism. Some of the most valuable change in society has been the result of informed advocacy. However, outrage should not eclipse reason; we have an obligation to have rigorous and informed justifications for our convictions. An example of such advocacy can be seen in the efforts of Treatment Action Group, an activist group that has been instrumental in addressing the HIV epidemic in New York City through a militant reliance on scientific evidence.
Bertrand Russell once said, “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.” His insight has never seemed more relevant.
In the coming years, society will face increasingly complex scientific findings with broad ethical, legal and economic ramifications. Well-reasoned evidence-based justifications based on an independent understanding of the science will be a prerequisite for meaningful scientific advocacy. Informed reflection on the literature will be key. Let’s hold ourselves to a higher standard. Let’s know what we’re talking about.
Raj Basak is a graduate student in the Department of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Correction, Oct. 30: A previous version of this column incorrectly stated that genetically modified golden rice has been instrumental in treating vitamin A deficiency.