Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Americans Sick of Partisan Science?

Are Americans anti-science? No, they just don't like arrogant, undemocratic scientists.

Ever since George W. Bush was elected in 2000, the Republican Party has been attacked for waging a war on science. It had restricted human embryonic stem cell research, had described evolution as just a theory, was sceptical of global warming, had protected tobacco companies, had reduced biodiversity and so on.

Republican front-runners for the presidential nomination are being criticised for their ignorance, too. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman is dismayed. “The odds are that one of these years the world's greatest nation will find itself ruled by a party that is aggressively anti-science, indeed anti-knowledge. And, in a time of severe challenges – environmental, economic, and more – that's a terrifying prospect.

Is this a uniquely Republican problem? Barack Obama, who entered the White House promising to restore scientific integrity, has not fulfilled expectations either. His policy on stem cell research was a messy compromise; environmentalists are unhappy with many of his decisions; and he failed to support medical marijuana.

Alex B. Berezow, the editor of RealClearScience, noted recently that “for every anti-science Republican that exists, there is at least one anti-science Democrat. Neither party has a monopoly on scientific illiteracy. Indeed, ignorance has reached epidemic proportions inside the Beltway.”

While Republican Michele Bachman may have been pilloried for asserting that the human papillomavirus vaccine can cause mental retardation, vaccine refusal is highest in states which are fervently Democrat: Washington, Vermont and Oregon. And as Berezow points out, it is “progressives” who are blocking the construction of nuclear power plants, which most scientists believe are safe.

So the latest explanation is that America is inherently anti-science, not just Republicans. So says Shawn Lawrence Otto in his new book Fool Me Twice: Fighting the assault on science in America. The influential magazine New Scientist was so impressed with his theme that they made it a cover story.

The notion that America is scientifically illiterate and in thrall to superstition and religion seems to be gaining traction. A number of recent books have pushed the same line, with titles like The Republican War on Science, Unscientific America, Merchants of Doubt, The Body Politic, and Denialism.

Otto is a Hollywood scriptwriter and producer who is passionate about science advocacy. He doesn’t speak for the scientific community, but he laments their fading prestige:

The intellectual rot runs wide. Ninety-six of 100 newly elected Republican members of Congress either deny climate change is real or have signed pledges vowing to oppose its mitigation. This July, San Francisco’s board of supervisors, all Democrats, passed an ordinance requiring cellphone shops to warn customers about radiation hazards such as brain cancer, despite no scientific evidence…Absurd comments are now not only politically acceptable, but passionately applauded. What could be happening?

Otto fingers three culprits: religion, democracy, and post-modernism.

The religious right sought to denigrate science to counteract falling numbers in the pews. Its criticism was accepted because the terrifying threat of nuclear annihilation and awareness of environmental degradation had made Americans suspicious of technology.

Religion is a familiar suspect, but the idea that democracy itself is incompatible with science is unsettling. Otto complains that there are too few scientists in Congress to give input for legislation. Furthermore, American scientists have been too complacent. Because American scientists were so respected and so well funded after World War II, they withdrew from civic engagement. Besides, perhaps modern science is just too hard for the public to understand.

Then there is post-modernism. The success of science humiliated the humanities, which retaliated by spreading this toxic virus which teaches innocent students that objective truth is a myth, science is culturally determined and you can create your own reality. The consequences for journalism were baneful. Instead of truth, the media sought fairness by balancing climate scientists against denialists. As he warms to his theme, Otto becomes shriller and shriller:

With every step away from reason and into ideology, the country moves toward a state of tyranny in which public policy comes to be based not on knowledge, but on the most loudly voiced opinions.

All of these observations have some merit, but Otto is woefully ignorant of intellectual history and philosophy. The problem of the “Two Cultures” has been simmering away in Western culture for hundreds of years – ever since the British philosopher Francis Bacon taught that knowledge is power and that only empirical science offered reliable knowledge. Many – not all, by any means – of today’s scientists believe that science captures all of reality. In their eyes whatever can be verified by empirical investigation is reasonable; what escapes the senses is not. Facts interpret themselves without the need of religion or even philosophy or ethics.

But this is nonsense. Science can only interpret the natural world because it is structured in a reasonable way which escapes empirical analysis. Scientists need metaphysics to understand and justify their own endeavours. Furthermore, it is profoundly inegalitarian and undemocratic. Because scientists are smarter, better educated and better funded than the hoi polloi, they create a priesthood of expertise. Nor can science tell us what makes all citizens, however ignorant they may be, fundamentally equal.

The baneful consequence of scientism – the belief that science explains everything – is its fearful arrogance. Whatever can be done is permissible; ethics – and even politics – are irrational limitations. This is the attitude which supported the use of the atomic bomb, abusive medical experiments, and the devastation of the environment. It was Mao’s kowtowing to science which accounts for the biggest human rights abuse after World War II, China’s one-child policy.

Scientists tend to forget that their work is an all-too-human endeavour which can be tainted by their failings. Back in 2010, after attending a conference of America’s leading neuroscientists, New York Times columnist David Brooks reported in awe that science would make morality redundant. According to the organiser,

For the first time, we have the tools and the will to undertake the scientific study of human nature… In 1975, [biologist E.O.] Wilson… predicted that ethics would someday be taken out of the hands of philosophers and incorporated into the ‘new synthesis’ of evolutionary and biological thinking. He was right.

He was proved wrong very quickly thereafter. One of the leading speakers, Marc D. Hauser, told listeners that evil was “an accident of our brain's engineering”. A few months ago the so-called morality expert was booted out of Harvard for falsifying important research data. This doesn’t prove that science is flawed, but it does suggest that scientists are not demigods whose every word must be treated with awe.

Science is perhaps the greatest achievement of the last two hundred years. But it must recognise its own limits. Is it any wonder that many Americans are sceptical if scientists and their Daleks insist that complete and unconditional surrender by religion, politics and ethics is the price of progress?

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.

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