Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The War On Science

I was going to put up something about this yesterday, but I had the crazy idea I should spend time with my wife and kids. I'm such a nut.

At Alan's place, called "Some Amusing Blog Pun" (for some reason I left out the "amusing" part when I put it on my roll), he has a tidbit on the on-going war against science by the Bush Administration. A few days ago, Parklife posted two variants on the theme of right-wing fear and misunderstanding of what constitutes knowledge and science (my favorite was the link to the blogger who wrote the following: "As I always say, the myth of Global Warming can be easily debunked by the use of simple common sense and logic.") I used to think that the on-going war against scientific openness and real scientific research was simply a non-starter as an issue. How hyped up can the general public get about the way research results are or are not promulgated? How incensed are most people by the fact that most of the "scientific" proposals of this Administration, from the Moon-to-Mars program at NASA to abstinence-only sex education are scientifically untenable? Yet, there is far too much time and energy spent by those on the right on Intelligent Design, denying global warming, demanding an end to embryonic stem cell research, and frothing over Al Gore's Nobel Peace Prize to think these are the precincts of the specialists. The right-wing War on Knowledge, fed by an almost comical (if not for the horrid results for national policy) scientific illiteracy, is an important issue, and should not be shunted off to the side, even in the face of war, recession, and the various illegalities of the Bush Administration.

Part of the reason, I think, that there is so much confusion about any number of these issues is there is a lack of understanding of what, exactly, science is. Stemming from the Latin word for "knowledge", science is usually considered to be just that, a body of knowledge, irrefutable, indisputable, and rooted in an understanding of the way the world really is. In fact, science is a specific way of understanding certain aspects of the physical world. It is, in essence, nothing more than a term denoting a method of learning. The remarkable thing about modern science, since its inception in the late Renaissance is the way it often violates what we think of as "common sense". When Copernicus postulated that astronomical calculation might work better if we put the sun, rather than the earth, as the center of celestial motion, the results of his calculations were only slightly better than geocentric astronomy, and had not yet done away with various epicicular motions that Ptolmaic astronomy continued to insist were necessary to explain the movement of planets. When Galileo peered through his telescope, some thought him either mad or possessed by demons or perpetrating a hoax because he saw things through the telescope that no one else could see . . . except through the telescope. When Isaac Newton offered up gravity as the "unmoved mover", a universal power acting at a distance, he was stumped when he tried to explain what, exactly, gravity was. He was uncomfortable with the notion of action at a distance; it seemed occult. Effects had to have identifiable causes, and simply saying something happened "because of gravity" was no more an explanation than saying opium put people to sleep because it had certain properties that made one sleepy. Yet, he refused to let the idea go, even though it violated common sense, because it was the only explanation that made sense.

More recently, such non-scientific ideas such as creationism and intelligent design have managed to survive the repeated destruction wrought by both law and science because they are often presented in the guise of some scientific enterprise. Creationism "Journals" are printed, including long articles with all sorts of equations in them attempting to prove carbon-dating wrong; intelligent design is based on the old deist "clock-maker" thesis, appealing to a notion of hierarchy and increasing complexity in nature that seems obvious - even commonsensical - to most people. Global warming is often attacked in the name of science using either trumped-up data, misunderstandings of the nature of various physical and chemical processes, or (failing that) the invocation of the smallness of humanity in the face of the wonders of nature, and our ignorance of so much of the world.

Any appeal to ignorance, however, reveals the true nature of so much of the anti-science mind-set. Scientists are extremely knowledgeable about all sorts of details of the world. Creationists demand examples of evolution; there are detailed fossil records of the evolution of all sorts of animal genera, from whales, dogs, and human beings, to such soft-tissue parts as the eye (still the sine qua non of examples used by creationists to deny evolution, as if scientific literature on the eye simply didn't exist). This example, more than any other, is revealing. They do not know the literature on these topics is vast, detailed, and vetted thoroughly. The most amazing spectacle lies in the fact that, despite being debunked again and again, the same old, tired arguments ("Evolution violates the second law of thermodynamics!"; "The fossil record isn't the same everywhere on the planet!"; "How can global warming exist when I've got snow on my lawn?") they continue to crop up. It is one thing to raise serious, substantive questions about the accuracy or predictability of this or that scientific theory; science does that all the time. When the forces of anti-science continue to trot out the corpses, and even skeletons, of various war horses long defeated, one should be pretty clear on what one is dealing with.

The Bush Administration's war on scientific openness, specifically in regards to global warming, is well-documented. Its root causes most likely lie in two things that are hallmarks of the past seven years - an affinity for energy companies that fear any legislation curbing carbon-based fuel consumption; a penchant for secrecy. Aided by well-funded forces of ignorance and anti-science, we have the spectacle of a multi-front struggle in which the scientific establishment is under siege. The results could be devastating, not just from the perspective of our national economy (with basic research in all sorts of areas tied to all sorts of non-scientific restrictions, the federal money pool has dried up), but also just from a consideration of what is our human heritage of understanding about the world, about life and its development, and about our ability to cope and deal with this world that too often violates common sense. The political manipulation of scientific research should be an offense against the most basic principles of what it means to be an American.

No Presidential election, or Administration, will ever be judged by its approach to scientific matters alone. Yet, the way the Bush Administration, and its socially and culturally conservative allies treat science and technological research is of a piece with their approach to the rest of society. Understanding the war on science, on both a political and social level, will go a long way to understanding the larger war on American principles of freedom and openness that Bush and his Administration have been waging since Jan 20, 2001.

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