Science and politics

In State of Fear, Michael Crichton drew our attention to the way a pseudo—science can establish itself as gospel in even the most hallowed institutions, averred as 'scientific truth' beyond dispute. His example is Eugenics, a pseudo—science

that warn[ed] of an impending crisis, and point[ed] to a way out

Crichton continued,

This theory quickly draws support from leading scientists, politicians and celebrities around the world. Research is funded by distinguished philanthropies, and carried out at prestigious universities. The crisis is reported frequently in the media. The science is taught in college and high school classrooms.

The list of those who embraced eugenics and disparaged those who refused to buy in is quite eye—opening. You will recognize many names if you follow the link.

Nobel Prize winners gave support. Research was backed by the Carnegie and Rockefeller Foundations. The Cold Springs Harbor Institute was built to carry out this research, but important work was also done at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford and Johns Hopkins. Legislation to address the crisis was passed in states from New York to California.

These efforts had the support of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Medical Association, and the National Research Council. It was said that if Jesus were alive, he would have supported this effort.

All in all, the research, legislation and molding of public opinion surrounding the theory went on for almost half a century. Those who opposed the theory were shouted down and called reactionary, blind to reality, or just plain ignorant. But in hindsight, what is surprising is that so few people objected.

Now we are engaged in a great new theory that once again has drawn the support of politicians, scientists, and celebrities around the world. Once again, the theory is promoted by major foundations. Once again, the research is carried out at prestigious universities. Once again, legislation is passed and social programs are urged in its name. Once again, critics are few and harshly dealt with.

Once again, the measures being urged have little basis in fact or science. Once again, groups with other agendas are hiding behind a movement that appears high—minded. Once again, claims of moral superiority are used to justify extreme actions. Once again, the fact that some people are hurt is shrugged off because an abstract cause is said to be greater than any human consequences. Once again, vague terms like sustainability and generational justice ——— terms that have no agreed definition ——— are employed in the service of a new crisis.

I am not arguing that global warming is the same as eugenics. But the similarities are not superficial. And I do claim that open and frank discussion of the data, and of the issues, is being suppressed. Leading scientific journals have taken strong editorial positions of the side of global warming, which, I argue, they have no business doing. Under the circumstances, any scientist who has doubts understands clearly that they will be wise to mute their expression.

One proof of this suppression is the fact that so many of the outspoken critics of global warming are retired professors. These individuals are not longer seeking grants, and no longer have to face colleagues whose grant applications and career advancement may be jeopardized by their criticisms.

In science, the old men are usually wrong. But in politics, the old men are wise, counsel caution, and in the end are often right.

The past history of human belief is a cautionary tale. We have killed thousands of our fellow human beings because we believed they had signed a contract with the devil, and had become witches. We still kill more than a thousand people each year for witchcraft. In my view, there is only one hope for humankind to emerge from what Carl Sagan called "the demon—haunted world" of our past. That hope is science.

But as Alston Chase put it, "when the search for truth is confused with political advocacy, the pursuit of knowledge is reduced to the quest for power."

That is the danger we now face. And this is why the intermixing of science and politics is a bad combination, with a bad history. We must remember the history, and be certain that what we present to the world as knowledge is disinterested and honest.

Ed Lasky   10 05 06

In State of Fear, Michael Crichton drew our attention to the way a pseudo—science can establish itself as gospel in even the most hallowed institutions, averred as 'scientific truth' beyond dispute. His example is Eugenics, a pseudo—science

that warn[ed] of an impending crisis, and point[ed] to a way out

Crichton continued,

This theory quickly draws support from leading scientists, politicians and celebrities around the world. Research is funded by distinguished philanthropies, and carried out at prestigious universities. The crisis is reported frequently in the media. The science is taught in college and high school classrooms.

The list of those who embraced eugenics and disparaged those who refused to buy in is quite eye—opening. You will recognize many names if you follow the link.

Nobel Prize winners gave support. Research was backed by the Carnegie and Rockefeller Foundations. The Cold Springs Harbor Institute was built to carry out this research, but important work was also done at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford and Johns Hopkins. Legislation to address the crisis was passed in states from New York to California.

These efforts had the support of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Medical Association, and the National Research Council. It was said that if Jesus were alive, he would have supported this effort.

All in all, the research, legislation and molding of public opinion surrounding the theory went on for almost half a century. Those who opposed the theory were shouted down and called reactionary, blind to reality, or just plain ignorant. But in hindsight, what is surprising is that so few people objected.

Now we are engaged in a great new theory that once again has drawn the support of politicians, scientists, and celebrities around the world. Once again, the theory is promoted by major foundations. Once again, the research is carried out at prestigious universities. Once again, legislation is passed and social programs are urged in its name. Once again, critics are few and harshly dealt with.

Once again, the measures being urged have little basis in fact or science. Once again, groups with other agendas are hiding behind a movement that appears high—minded. Once again, claims of moral superiority are used to justify extreme actions. Once again, the fact that some people are hurt is shrugged off because an abstract cause is said to be greater than any human consequences. Once again, vague terms like sustainability and generational justice ——— terms that have no agreed definition ——— are employed in the service of a new crisis.

I am not arguing that global warming is the same as eugenics. But the similarities are not superficial. And I do claim that open and frank discussion of the data, and of the issues, is being suppressed. Leading scientific journals have taken strong editorial positions of the side of global warming, which, I argue, they have no business doing. Under the circumstances, any scientist who has doubts understands clearly that they will be wise to mute their expression.

One proof of this suppression is the fact that so many of the outspoken critics of global warming are retired professors. These individuals are not longer seeking grants, and no longer have to face colleagues whose grant applications and career advancement may be jeopardized by their criticisms.

In science, the old men are usually wrong. But in politics, the old men are wise, counsel caution, and in the end are often right.

The past history of human belief is a cautionary tale. We have killed thousands of our fellow human beings because we believed they had signed a contract with the devil, and had become witches. We still kill more than a thousand people each year for witchcraft. In my view, there is only one hope for humankind to emerge from what Carl Sagan called "the demon—haunted world" of our past. That hope is science.

But as Alston Chase put it, "when the search for truth is confused with political advocacy, the pursuit of knowledge is reduced to the quest for power."

That is the danger we now face. And this is why the intermixing of science and politics is a bad combination, with a bad history. We must remember the history, and be certain that what we present to the world as knowledge is disinterested and honest.

Ed Lasky   10 05 06