Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Time to Defend Science

Needless to say, I am appalled that 3 of the 10 Republican candidates openly reject evolution. What bothers me even more is that Chris Matthews, the moderator of that debate, did not follow that revelation with any questions to those who don't believe; he just moved on to the next set of questions. That sort of statement should evoke the same reaction as if they had said the Earth is flat.

The fact that evolution is debated at all is indicative of the state of science (and expertise generally, for that matter) in our country. It gets no respect.

There are myriad examples of scientists being muzzled because their expert opinions are politically or ideologically problematic. I have written about this before and will doubtless do it again, but I would just like to point out that what offends me most is often not the individual cases of science abuse themselves, but the pervasive attitude that it is okay to reject a fact if it is inconvenient. Anyone who cares to know more -- actually anyone, period-- should read The Republican War on Science, by Chris Mooney. It is superbly researched and argued, and is fairly comprehensive on the biggest contemporary issues. More importantly, it is not merely a list of factual allegations, like "X administration cut funding to NIH by Y percent in year Z." Although funding cuts are certainly detrimental to science, Mooney details a far more insidious brand of anti-science: the manufacturing of controversy where none exists.

The opponents of science have realized that they don't have to prove scientists wrong, they need only to muddy the waters sufficiently so that the public is too confused to hold well-informed opinions. Using techniques reminiscent of Nick Nailor in Thank You For Smoking, they have effectively sowed confusion on issues from birth control methods to global warming. Mooney's book is essential reading for anyone who cares about basing decisions on facts, and its value and relevance are not limited to the issues he covers, because it is not simply a debunking or clarification of existing anti-science conflicts. Rather, it is a tremendous case study of the rhetorical ploys and PR strategies used to mislead the lay public.

If you care about science at all, if you think it has any place in public life, you need to read this editorial. It is far better than anything I could write. Perhaps it will convince you to join the movement to defend science.

Below are some comments generated by the editorial linked above in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

I am not a scientist, but I strongly believe in the value of the scientific method and deplore the attempts by our current government to subvert the proofs of science to an imagined view of reality.
--Margaret Meyer, Ramsey County Public Library

Very few things are as important as teaching our children science. It is disheartening that it has become necessary for scientists to defend themselves against those who would replace that which we can test and KNOW to be true with theories that are nothing more then thinly disguised religious agendas. It is science that has saved my life and that of my children. It is science that can show us the true beauty, wonder and richness of all that exists. It is science that provides the hope for our future.
--Kathleen Nelson, Mother of 3

It is becoming evident that enlightened, open minded reflection about the world we live in is not a freedom that, as Americans living in a free society, we should assume will always be a given.
We should expect that open and honest intellectual pursuit of the nature of our existence should not be an activity which would be a threat to personal liberties but history has shown otherwise.
--William L. Pedersen, Hospital Administrator (ret), Minnesota

I look askance on leaders who declaim that they do what they feel is right. We should subject that which we FEEL to the full light of scientific inquiry. Anything less is arrogance.
--Richard Tice, Mdiv, Ret, The United Methodist Church

Also, an excellent essay on a Christian's obligation to spurn intelligent design. Here's the crux:

Joe, evolution is key to crop research, livestock research, and medicine. These are not debates with no stakes. It’s not just philosophy. It’s cancer cures, diabetes treatment and cures, boll weevil eradication, grapefruit farming, wheat breeding, rice enrichment. Every dime spent to advocate ID over evolution is a dime spent against a cure for cancer. Every minute spent advocating ID over evolution before a state school board is a minute spent advocating ignorance.

Under the circumstances, an ethical person of any religious persuasion is being kind in calling ID merely “misguided.” Claiming that ID has the imprimatur of Christianity behind it raises it to the level of abomination. Christianity has no book calling for a triumph of dogma over truth in any enterprise.

You can dismiss Dr. Myers well-formed and accurate criticisms for no legitimate reason. Yes, he’s atheist. It’s a sad day for the church when atheists are leading the way to ethical behavior, and Christians resist. We have a duty to other people to stick to the truth. We have a duty to the integrity of the church not to advocate untruth in the church’s name. We have a duty to God to get the facts right. Pay attention when Myers’ calls the pursuit dishonest — he’s right, and we need to fix it. (original emphasis)