I know – the answer seems obvious. But let’s put this in context.
Iranian scientists are being killed, apparently in connection to their research on nuclear power. I’ll add that their deaths can’t reasonably be chalked up to collateral damage – say, someone blowing up a facility and a scientist ends up caught in the blast there. No, these are apparently incidents of scientists specifically being targeted and killed owing to what they’re researching and the practical, or at least possible, outcomes of said research.
Now, the particular politics of the Iran situation isn’t what interests me here – what I’m interested in is that some people (indeed, some people motivated largely by secular concerns) think it’s not only permissible to stop a scientist from conducting research, but it can be imperative to the point that killing him is justified. The interesting thing is, if someone is sympathetic to the idea, they seem to be sympathetic to the following claim: scientific knowledge and research needs to be tightly controlled, with some research off-limits for some, possibly all, people. Put another way, sometimes brutally squashing scientific research – being anti-science – is necessary.
There are a lot of interesting questions and considerations that could come up from this line of questioning, but there’s one particular issue I think this draws attention to.
The definition of an anti-scientific belief I’m using amounts to this: any belief that condones or encourages the opposition, active limiting and/or undermining of scientific research, or acquiring scientific knowledge. Refusing to fund this or that project wouldn’t be a case of anti-science under this definition. Blowing up a scientist to keep him from researching something would be. Likewise, anti-science is issue specific – if you love and support funding cancer research but you’re all in favor of jailing scientists for attempting to find ways to create newer, more deadly chemical weapons, you’re still taking an anti-science position among your spread of positions.
I noted above that, if someone thinks it’s permissible or even necessary to kill a scientist in order to keep them or anyone else from acquiring scientific knowledge or engaging in scientific research, that said someone is endorsing an anti-science position. Water it down – maybe you don’t kill the scientist, but you do ensure he can’t continue his research – and you’re still left with an anti-science position. Water it down further – maybe it’s not the knowledge you’re concerned with, but the research methods he uses (say, vivisection of human children, the genetically or socially undesirable, etc). Congratulations – you’re still anti-science with regards to that question.
Now, I can imagine a few responses to this. One would be to claim that my definition of anti-science is incorrect, and anti-science really means (some other definition) which doesn’t brand the examples I listed as anti-science. This would put someone in the position of saying the following: “Just because you blow some scientist’s brains out to keep him from engaging in scientific research doesn’t mean you were anti-science!” By all means, let’s see someone make that case. It will be fun to dissect.
Another would be to claim that not all anti-science positions are equal. And I’d agree: I think there’s a difference between someone who opposes infant vivisection versus someone who opposes animal experimentation versus someone who opposes North Korean scientists researching new, deadly strains of biological weapons. Maybe one anti-science position is wrong and another is right. My reply would simply be that just because a position is right doesn’t mean it’s anti-science. Back to the first example: killing a scientist to stop or suppress his research is anti-science. That a person thinks it was the right thing to do no more changes the anti-science aspect of it than it changes the killing aspect of it.
A third response could be a whole lot of frantic bluster, misrepresentation, subject-changing, and signing off with an empty slogan. My reply here would be, “Hi, Nick.”
Anyway, these possible responses aren’t exhaustive or meant to be. But I think the ultimate take-away lesson is going to be pretty modest: ‘anti-science’, reasonably construed, covers a broad spread of positions. Most people, even most so-called defenders of science, embrace anti-science positions. Why, they may even think physicists should be killed because of the research they knowledge they’re generating for who, or that some biologists or psychologists should be jailed depending on how they’re engaging in their research, or otherwise. I also suspect that some people are going to try and have it both ways – where that guy over there who finds certain research immoral or unethical is anti-science for opposing such research, but their opposition to some research due to it being immoral or unethical is a completely different beast.