Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Science in America: decline and fall

Here's another article in New Scientist about science in America. I hadn't seen this before I blogged about the companion article yesterday, and this one seems to contradict that first article in some ways.

In particular, this one, by Shawn Lawrence Otto, is a lot more pessimistic. While the first article made a point of how "pro-science" America still is - an observation I struggled to accept - this is, well, the "decline and fall" of science in America.

Some excerpts:
"The big thing we are working on now is the global warming hoax. It's all voodoo, nonsense, hokum, a hoax." So said Michele Bachmann, a candidate for the Republican nomination for president, in 2008. Bachmann also thinks that the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine can cause mental retardation and that science classes should include creationism. "What I support is putting all science on the table and then letting students decide. I don't think it's a good idea for government to come down on one side of a scientific issue or another, when there is reasonable doubt on both sides."

Bachmann's rival, Texas governor Rick Perry, advocates biblically based abstinence-only sex education. He argues that evolution is "a theory that is out there - and it's got some gaps in it". On climate change, Perry says "the science is not settled... just because you have a group of scientists that have stood up and said here is the fact... Galileo got outvoted for a spell".

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich tells voters that embryonic stem cell research is "killing children in order to have research materials". Rising Republican star Herman Cain claims there is no scientific evidence that homosexuality is anything other than a personal choice.

Republicans diverge from anti-science politics at their peril. When leading candidate Mitt Romney said: "I believe based on what I read that the world is getting warmer... humans contribute to that", conservative radio commentator Rush Limbaugh responded with "Bye bye, nomination". Romney back-pedalled, saying, "I don't know if it's mostly caused by humans."

Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman argued that "the minute that the Republican party becomes the anti-science party, we have a huge problem". Huntsman has since been marginalised by Republican pundits.

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. Elsewhere, elected leaders harass and intimidate scientists they disagree with, inaccurately claim that scientists say carbon dioxide is a carcinogen, pass resolutions stating that Earth has been cooling and instruct teachers to teach their students that astrology controls the weather. Absurd comments are now not only politically acceptable, but passionately applauded. What could be happening?

Note that it's not just Republicans. That's important to remember. On the other hand, it's far, far worse in the Republican Party. San Francisco's board of supervisors might be Democrats, but outside of San Francisco, they have little power in the party.

But in the Republican Party, we're talking about national leaders, even presidential candidates (all but Huntsman, who polls almost nothing in the GOP). Unscientific, even anti-scientific, thinking can be found on the left and on the right, but it's only on the right that it has real power. That's important to remember, too.
This is where Thomas Jefferson's assumption about a well-informed public poses a problem. Jefferson believed that it required "no very high degree of education". In today's world, dominated as it is by science, can democracy still prosper?

Judging from Congress, the answer may be no. Less than 2 per cent of its 535 members have professional backgrounds in science. In contrast, there are 222 lawyers, whom one suspects largely avoided science classes in college. Lawyers are trained to win arguments, and as any trial lawyer will tell you, that means using facts selectively for the purposes of winning, not to establish the truth. No wonder ideology and rhetoric have come to dominate policy discussion, often bearing little relationship to factual reality. ...

Contrary to recent claims, the US was not founded as a Christian nation. The early settlers were Puritans seeking freedom from authoritarian Christianity. To be a Puritan was to study both the Bible and the book of nature in order to discern God's laws, a process called "natural philosophy", which today we call "science". In 1663, 62 per cent of the members of the Royal Society were Puritans, including Isaac Newton.

The writings of Newton, Francis Bacon, John Locke and David Hume deeply influenced Jefferson as he drafted the Declaration of Independence. Newton teased out the difference between belief and knowledge. Bacon laid out how we could build knowledge using inductive reasoning. Locke defined how knowledge is different from and superior to "but faith or opinion". Hume defined freedom as the ability to choose to do something or not.

Jefferson incorporated these ideas in America's founding document and they laid the philosophical and legal foundations of the US. If every human had the potential to build knowledge about reality and truth using science, no king or pope could claim a greater authority than an ordinary citizen. All men were created equal. This justified a secular government that respected and tolerated religion, but did not base its authority on religion - instead basing it on liberty, reason and science.

As I said yesterday, I think the fundamental problem is ignorance about the scientific method - not just ignorance in Congressmen and other politicians, though that certainly doesn't help, but ignorance in the general population.

If you understand the scientific method, and understand why it's necessary, you'll realize that for laymen, the only rational course when it comes to scientific issues is to accept the scientific consensus. Picking out a particular scientist to believe, or even choosing to believe a minority position in science, is just deciding what you want to believe first, and then finding someone to back that up.

Even when you think you're listening to "both sides," our biases keep us from being completely objective about it (or even objective at all). Of course, scientists - being human, too - have the same problem, but there are mechanisms in the scientific method which are specifically designed to overcome that. And, of course, they have access to a lot more information than you do, when it comes to their particular field of expertise.

(Note that some issues aren't scientific. But even then, we can take lessons from the scientific method. At the very least, when it comes to economics, for example, we can look for evidence. And we can listen to what economists say.)

So where are we now?
The situation was worsened in 1987 when the Federal Communications Commission set aside the fairness doctrine. Until that time, broadcasters who use the public airwaves were required to present controversial subjects, and to present them fairly. Once the doctrine was set aside, a new breed of radio and television newscaster took over. Rush Limbaugh and others earned massive ratings by voicing outraged opinions on political matters. At the same time, cable TV and the internet were coming online, providing innumerable alternative news platforms.

News shows now had to compete with entertainment, and so became more emotional and opinionated. A generation of journalists with a postmodern education decided that "objective" reporting was simply getting varying views of the story, but not taking a position on which represented reality. "It's not our role," explained White House correspondent David Gregory when asked why he didn't push George W. Bush on his lack of a rationale for going into Iraq. This problem, called "false balance" now pits, for example, climate scientists against deniers. This gives undue exposure to extreme views - a situation that has been compounded by the elimination of most science and investigative reporters from cash-strapped newsrooms.

Finally, there is the influence of vested interests. Between January 2009 and June 2010, for example, the energy industry spent half a billion dollars fighting climate change legislation. They spent an estimated $73 million more on anti-clean energy ads from January through October 2010. Much of the effort was to cast doubt on the findings of climate science or impugn scientists' reputations and motives. It worked, largely because the news media allowed it to.

Lovely, huh? And yes, I said this was more pessimistic than yesterday's article, so if you're not worried enough yet, how does this strike you?
Anti-science ideology has taken hold before, differently, but history may provide some lessons. The fundamental elements were similar when the Soviet Union elevated the ideology of Lysenkoism ahead of the warnings of geneticists, whom Trofim Lysenko called "caste priests of ivory tower bourgeois pseudoscience", not unlike Sarah Palin's characterisations of global warming as "doomsday scare tactics pushed by an environmental priesthood". Soviet agriculture was set back 40 years.

The political right in Weimar Germany called Einstein's theory of relativity a "hoax" and said he was in it for the money - much as climate deniers argue today.

During the Nuremberg trials, Hitler's Minister for Armaments, Albert Speer, recounted the use of new technology to deliver a uniform ideological message, much like today's political echo chambers: "Through technical devices like the radio and the loudspeaker, 80 million people were deprived of independent thought." In other words, "Dittoheads".

In his Great Leap Forward, Mao set forth a plan to transform China into a modern society in 15 years. Scientists who advised against his ideas were harassed or jailed. Mao's policies led to the greatest famine in human history and the deaths of over 40 million people.

The US is obviously nowhere near any of these situations, but is reaching a crisis point uniquely its own. 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.

PS. There's a final paragraph I want to point out. This doesn't have anything directly to do with the article, I suppose, but it shows how the Republican Party has changed:
The Republicans used to be the party of science. Abraham Lincoln created the National Academy of Sciences in 1863; William McKinley won two presidential elections, in 1896 and 1900, over the anti-evolution Democrat William Jennings Bryan. McKinley supported the creation of the forerunner to today's National Institute of Standards and Technology. Bryan's campaigns against evolution led to in the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, and drove more scientists toward the Republican party. In 1923, an exasperated Republican, Nobel physicist and California Institute of Technology president Robert A. Millikan, wrote that creationists were "men whose decisions have been formed, as are all decisions in the jungle, by instinct, by impulse, by inherited loves and hates, instead of by reason. Such people... are a menace to democracy and to civilization."

How did this change happen? Once again, I think this is the result of Republicans wooing white racists, in their notorious "Southern strategy," after the Democrats passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Politically, it was a huge success. The Republicans took the entire South away from the Democrats. From being solidly Democratic, the South became solidly Republican. True, this explicit racism lost them the African-American vote, which they'd had since Abraham Lincoln. And it lost them the Northeast, formerly a Republican stronghold. But the South more than made up for that.

But the South is also the Bible Belt. Wooing white racists had other implications than the obvious. These people were overwhelmingly faith-based, not evidence-based. And although mainstream Republicans tried to use these people, and to keep the real crazies on the fringe, now they're the Republican base. Now, they control the Republican Party.

So, was wooing white racists the wrong thing to do? I suppose that depends on what matters to you. If the truth matters, it was a terrible move. If doing the right thing matters, it was certainly a terrible move. But if political advantage matters the most to you, I suppose it was brilliant - at least in the short term.

You decide.

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