Saying no to intolerance

Last week, I found myself pulled into a load of email exchanges on the  topic of John Beddington (UK’s Chief Scientific Adviser). I thought I might as well turn this correspondence into a blogpost.

Why all this talk? If you missed it, Research Fortnight ran a story repeating remarks Beddington had made to a meeting of civil servants earlier in the month:

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.

Context: this was in a (semi) private meeting. I don’t think we should hold Beddington too tightly to these words word as they were not necessarily designed to be public, and it’s noticable that he’s been careful not to repeat them since. Still, a fair bit of cheer-leading in response was public (from people I respect, I might add) and this worried me more than Beddington’s remarks themselves, even if others such as Andy Stirling, Frank Swain and a Research Fortnight editorial noted caution.

Personally, I was quite shocked by the quote above. I didn’t feel comfortable with a comparison with racism and homophobia, and didn’t think it was appropriate for people to say ‘hear hear to all that’ in response. I wonder what victims of racist or homophobic attacks feel about this. I know scientists do suffer forms of attacks by, for example, animal rights protesters, and that many have felt quite severally bullied by climate change deniers. I have a huge amount of sympathy with them, but I’m not sure it’s comparable.

Moreover, simply expressing intolerance of something – even building rules to formalise this intolerance – won’t make it go away. Racist attacks are illegal, and yet they still happen.

Most of all, I worried that Beddington’s remarks lost a feel for what draws people to believe in ‘pseudo-science’, and I worry that a rhetoric of intolerance risks alienating the very people who’s attention he wants to capture. Beddington may well have meant to direct intolerance at those who peddle ‘pseudo-science’ rather than those who follow them, but these aren’t easy lines to draw. This isn’t to deny the problems which inspired Beddington’s outburst (or the frustrations which led people to say ‘OMG, yes!’ and pass it on); just that this isn’t the best way to deal with them.

Scientists have incredibly important things to say, and there are some really dangerous people out there, which is precisely why these messages have to be crafted well. If you want a slightly more constructively voiced stridency on the part of scientists, maybe try recent calls from Jocelyn Bell Burnell, or Paul Nurse (or Beddington himself, with a slightly different tone).

I’m all for scientists standing up for themselves, their evidence and their ideas. However, I don’t think preaching intolerance is the way to do this. Rather than simply demanding respect, I suspect the scientific community would be better served calling for greater funding for education and public engagement activities. Build trust and mobalise grass roots activism, don’t retreat to top-down declarations of authority.

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36 thoughts on “Saying no to intolerance

  1. alice Post author

    … a note on comments:

    I’d LOVE to hear what people have to say about this, and am happy to engage in further discussion, but I may not have access to the internet for a few days.

    I promise to catch up when I’m back.

  2. M.

    Considering the fact that people who peddle pseudo-science cause deaths and harm, I have no problem with a call for intolerance towards them. Let’s not forget that who sell pseudo-scientific medicine PROFIT form harming people – not directly, but by discouraging them from going after genuine medicine that will actually help them. It is important, it is very important, to make a clear distinction between people who sell and promote pseudo-science, and ordinary people who seek help in it, for whatever reasons – them I understand. I understand the desires, the fears, the needs, and the willingness to believe. What I don’t in any way think is justifiable are the actions of people who are willing to take advantage of those people’s fears, needs and beliefs in order to make money or gain some standing. Towards those actions, I think it is perfectly justifiable to be intolerant.

    1. alice Post author

      I’m totally with you on dealing, quite severely, with those who profit from harming people. It’s just a general tone of intolerance which I think is problematic. As I said above: “This isn’t to deny the problems which inspired Beddington’s outburst; just that this isn’t the best way to deal with them”.

  3. Andy

    I didn’t interpret this quotation as being about respecting scientists as people, but rather respecting proper scientific evidence as an idea. So, being a bit charitable, maybe the point he was making is that we have sensible, rational, modern ideas about race and sexual orientation, but still we accept nonsense about science. Nonsense science can be damaging, e.g., by making unsubstantiated claims about race and sexual orientation…

  4. Michael


    It appears you’re dividing “pseudo-scientists” into those who knowingly sell, rubbing their hands with evil glee, and those who sheepishly follow. I don’t think it’s possible to draw such a clear distinction; those two groups do exist, but there are a vast number of intermediate stages. I think a lot of people want to train as, say, osteopaths or naturopaths through a genuine sense of altruism and of putting oneself in service to others (same as common motivations for joining the ministry, for example) and I’m not sure a blanket attitude of intolerance would do anything other than entrench those positions further. I think such an attitude requires a lack of empathy and a rather patronising sense of self-righteousness – which isn’t justified, as we are all human, and all make mistakes.

    The “indirect harm by discouraging people from going after genuine medicine that will actually help them” model is a plausible theoretical pathway between alternative medicine and unnecessary adverse health outcomes, and there is certainly anecdotal evidence of it coming to pass generally. Clearly there are some contexts in which alt med is more damaging than in others, but do you really propose that we should treat the local shiatsu practitioner or the naive homeopathy undergraduate and the pushy “vitamins-for-AIDS” salesman or the anti-vaccines scaremonger with the same degree of contempt?

    1. M.

      Just because there are differences between individuals within a system, doesn’t make the whole system less harmful. The entire system of belief in unscientific and unsupported methods of healing is something we need to actively fight against. We may try that through education, but I don’t really think that alone will work without changing the general social perception of alt med so that it is precisely identified as misleading, unhelpful and frequently potentially harmful. And you really can’t make a serious case that alt med is all those things, without expressing intolerance.

      1. alice Post author

        Nope, I my point that you can make a serious case without being as simplistic as intolerance (though we may be going nowhere with definitions of intolerance here…). Moreover, you cannot black-box ‘pseudo science’ as a singular system like that, any more than you can for ‘science’ or ‘the public’ or ‘the media’ (or any of the racial/ sexual identities that might have been alluded to in Beddington’s talk). Society simply doesn’t look like that.

        Stridency and articulation of danger (even the articulation and punishment of fraud) does not equal intolerance.

        1. M.

          I don’t understand. Can you proclaim clinging to fanciful beliefs as potentially dangerous and misleading, and still be tolerant of them and allow their practice? If you identify something as not desirable and wish to prevent it, that is what I understand as intolerance.

  5. Mike McRae

    The problem occurs when there’s an assumption that pseudoscience is practiced with deliberately offensive intentions, something that is typically suggested without a lot of supportive evidence (but a lot of aggression). There’s this cultural myth believed by a lot of passionate rationalists that society can be neatly divided into those who are scientists and those who are pseudoscientists, with the former being rational and righteous and the latter being selfish, stupid and ignorant.

    There are indeed cases where people use the illusion of science to commit fraud. However, where alternative medical culture is concerned, this is rarely the case. The issue is one of placing certain social values over logic and reason – something we are all capable of doing. Calling them out as committing fraud and labeling them as murderers is not only ineffective, it’s misleading the core issues and risks overlooking ways that scientific values can be promoted amongst people who would otherwise sooner think of them as isolating, impersonal and inferior to instinct and gut feeling.

    1. M.

      Pseudo-scientist don’t need to have deliberately offensive intentions for their actions to be harmful. At the end of the day, their intentions are far less important then the effects of their actions. And the same goes for scientists.

        1. M.

          Well, Alice, I am sure that in some situations compassion is needed in order to establish successful communication, get through to someone etc. But, equally, sometimes it’s hard to be compassionate when you argue with a stubborn person and you point out evidence, and demand some sort of evidence from them but never get any, and at the end of the discussion the other person decides that they simply “know they are right”, without even a smidgeon of doubt, despite the fact they have completely failed to prove it. And then that same person goes on to proclaim they have the right to tell other people how they should live and what they need to do in order to get better or healthier or not end up in hell or whatever. What use is compassion there? Does it open the door for conversation? CAN it open the door for conversation, if the conversation is between a rational person and an irrational person, and as such completely impossible because they don’t even operate with the same conceptual tools? Of course this doesn’t mean we cannot be compassionate. Just that it might not get us very far sometimes.

          1. alice Post author

            I think the problem here is talking about things in general imaginaries rather than specific real case studies.

            That said, personally I think compassion is always useful. You may well disagree.

      1. Mike McRae

        Yes and no. It depends on what your targeting. If your intention is to communicate your ideas to them or an audience that is sympathetic to their values and beliefs, then alleged intentions are certainly significant. Labeling them as frauds or framing their actions as carelessly or deliberately harmful won’t get you very far, and in fact will probably do more to polarise the discourse than anything. Especially if you’re wrong.

        If vilification is the goal, knock yourself out. If it’s harm reduction and promoting a favourable view of science, tolerance and compassion will go much further than generalised accusations and aggression.

        1. M.

          Vilification is not my goal. And, like I said above, I don’t see how you can be tolerant of something that you think is undesirable, misleading and/or potentially harmful. It’s like when Catholic priests say (as have some in my country) that homosexuality is unnatural and sinful, but that they’re all for tolerance towards the gays. (lol)

          1. Mike McRae

            Perhaps the priests in your analogy can distinguish between a behaviour and the individual practicing the behaviour.

            In select cases, a person’s behaviour can be considered dangerous. A doctor who is selling poison as cough syrup should be actively stopped. A yoga teacher who is telling her students they can give up their medication if they think pure thoughts demands intervention. ‘Tolerance’ is not the same as free rein, and ‘compassion’ is not synonymous with silence.

            Discrimination of homosexuality, by its very nature, denies people their sexual rights. Generalising pseudoscience to be universally dangerous and therefore not to be tolerated is impossible to demonstrate. Arguing otherwise is much like stating that because one gay person gave another gay person HIV, homosexuality is inherently dangerous.

            1. M.

              Oh yes, I have heard many convoluted attempts to “distinguish between a behaviour and the individual practicing the behaviour” from people who say homosexuality is unnatural and sinfull (and pronunciations like these from figures of authority open up space for others to justify not only their intolerance but also violence), and in the same breath claim that they are not intolerant towards homosexuals as people. Nice try, but does not fly.

              Tolerance, you are right, does not mean free rein, it means agreeing that other people have the right to live their life in accordance with their beliefs and preferences, as long as they’re not harming anyone, and viewing their way of life as equally valid as your own, even though your preferences and beliefs differ. But that is impossible if we take the view that people who sell poison as cough syrup and sugar pills to sick people are doing harm.

              Your analogy in the final paragraph doesn’t work. It’s not homosexuality that is inherently dangeous, but promiscutiy. You may not get HIV when you have sex, but if you have lots of sex with multiple partners, you expose yourself to the risk. (Which is why we teach people to use protection and get tested.) Similarly, believing in magic may not hurt you when turn to a homeopath, but if you do so every time you’re ill, you expose yourself to the risk that eventually you’ll suffer serious medical consequences because you take a sugar pill instead of a medication you need. (Which is why we should teach people to seek medical help from qualified physicians instead of homeopaths and similar folk.)

  6. StevePenfield

    Like Beddington, I believe that the debate over pseudoscience has to move beyond engagement, and to methods for the removal of the influential platforms being given to ‘unengagables’ across the mainstream media. Stating publically that there is a limit to what can be achieved by engagement is the taboo that Beddington has broken, and hence the outpouring of here heres. The key, I believe, is to realise he’s talking about the media and popular culture.

    The problem is that those interested in pseudoscience are not at all interested in engagement, and it is not possible to ‘capture’ them. The question then becomes, if engaging is ineffective, what then is the next step. Let’s be clear here that we are not talking about engaging with kids, students, politicians, ngos and potentially free-thinking individuals, but with people with belief systems that make them intrisically ‘unengagable’. These ‘unengagables’ widely permeate maintsream culture, and are given platforms by journalists (sometimes unegagables themselves, but more often because it’s easy and they can) in print and broadcast media, and this legitimises their views in the eyes of the public.

    At the risk of putting words into his mouth, Beddington is asking why pseudoscience is so widely tolerated in the mainstream media, when homophobia and racism are not. Using a legal argument for the latter two is not rational, because they are only enshrined in law because of previous societal intolerance. Racism and homophobia are basically removed from mainstream publications and broadcasts (whether they are present at some level in society is irrelevant). Beddington wants to move to into a period where the mainstream media has a similar intolerant attitude to pseudoscience.

    If we assume (for the sake of argument) that it’s possible all the time to differentiate between science and pseudoscience, then what would we lose by increasing our intolerance of pseudoscience, and would that be out-weighed by the gains?

    1. alice Post author

      Nah, I don’t think Beddington was taboo-breaking on engagement at all. I might have had more respect for him if I did. I think he was accidentally making sightly silly remarks he later regretted. Otherwise, why didn’t he repeat them? Do note the big change in the S-Word post.

      (I wrote a post for research blogs about the need to be more critical about “engagement” last year, I not some sort of unapologetic cheerleader for the term).

      You need to think about this issue and who your target(s) might be in detail, and not make sweeping remarks about “those interested in pseudoscience”. Talk about individuals and say why you think those specific individuals aren’t worth “engaging” and I might well agree. Vague refs, and I think it’s best to play line as above.

      By all means ask why the range of things you may choose to collectivise under the term ‘pseudoscience’ is tolerated by the mainstream media, but please don’t compare it with racism and homophobia. It’s not appropriate, and I don’t actually think it’s helpful either (see SciencePunk’s post, for example).

      I’d still what you want it people to want evidence, not to want to avoid seeming to avoid it. As you imply at the start of your comment, ‘taboos’ in scientific discourse aren’t especially productive.

  7. Bishop Hill

    You need to think about this issue and who your target(s) might be in detail, and not make sweeping remarks about “those interested in pseudoscience”. Talk about individuals and say why you think those specific individuals aren’t worth “engaging” and I might well agree.

    This is a very wise remark. The scientific establishment is playing with fire on this issue. It needs to be recognised that many scientists have a vested interest in hyping their work – this is not to say that they all exaggerate, but Beddington himself has noted that some do. This being the case, the academy has to be open to challenge from the outside.

    1. alice

      Mmm, terms like “the scientific establishment” are all very easy to bandy about, but I suspect you are over simplifying here.

      I’m also not sure where exaggerating comes into things, neither was anyone saying that the academy wasn’t being open. It’s how you deal with people you disagree with (and, more to the point, think are dangerous).

  8. StevePenfield

    Yes, I agree with the above, and wasn’t meaning to justify Beddington’s comparison which in a political arena was an unfortunate choice and one I am sure he must regret. And of course you are both right that in practise detailed targets would need to be identified, rather than taking some broad brush approach, which is not what I meant to advocate.

    The shame is that we are having a debate about his semi-private ‘gaff’ rather than the real issue, which is how society should deal with an influential but dogmatic and unegagable individual using a distortion of science to their own ends?

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  10. Bishop Hill

    You say the question is how to deal with people you don’t agree with and who you view as dangerously wrong. We have had several people raise this issue of what to do about (let’s put it politely) non-mainstream scientific views in recent weeks – Paul Nurse, Brian Cox and now Beddington. The BBC’s review of science coverage is to come. I think it is fair to say that the scientific establishment is pushing a view here.

    The only proposal so far seems to be to pressure the media into sidelining non-mainstream views. Brian Cox’s suggestion was that views defined (by whom?) as non-mainstream should carry some sort of health warning. Cox rather astutely observed the parallels between what he was proposing and something out of George Orwell. Surprisingly this doesn’t seem to have made him reconsider the idea, but the upshot would almost certainly be to make it much harder to challenge the Academy.

    I’m therefore confused by the idea that one shouldn’t take a broad brush approach – if the aim is to design a system of guidance for the media, how else can one do it?

    As an aside I might mention that I responded to Paul Nurse’s call for scientists to engage with their critics by asking him to do an interview for my blog. He didn’t reply. Perhaps he is one of the “dogmatic and unengageable” people mentioned by Steve. ;-)

    1. alice Post author

      I’m not trying to find a system to guide the media. I quite like that they are independent.

      Also, just because Paul Nurse hasn’t got time to do a blog interview with you doesn’t mean he is “dogmatic and unengageable” – I suspect he has other things filling his time.

  11. Bishop Hill

    Sure – the bit about Nurse was a joke!

    It’s good that you are not trying to design a system – as I note, I think there are other people around who are. Your point about the independence of the media is an important one, which is why I find Brian Cox’s call for an Orwellian solution at the BBC is so wrong. I think you hint at the answer to your question of what to do about people you think are wrong and dangerous – there is nothing you can do except persuade others of how wrong and dangerous they are.

  12. Michael

    Intolerance is located somewhere in the emotional area, right?
    How does that sit with Science?
    Are scientists intolerant of mathematical mistakes? No, they just show they’re there & move to correct them. And so on and so forth.

    Intolerance equates to unreason, in my opinion.

    When scientists as a body (more or less, I don’t mind) take telepathy seriously as an unknown quantity, they’ll be the better for it.

    They can always remain intolerant, though.

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