When I was growing up, I thought I was going to be a scientist.
I watched a documentary (probably an installment of “Nova” on PBS) about quarks and supercolliders, and I was convinced I wanted to be a physicist. Astrophysicist. Nuclear physicist. I wasn’t quite sure, but I knew I wanted to study the most intricate mysteries of the universe.
That was before I figured out I wasn’t such a big fan of advanced mathematics.
It was also a time when scientists (and teachers, for that matter) were treated with respect and not as hoity-toity dinguses who are to be treated with only the utmost contempt — especially if they are on the government payroll. At least that’s how I remember it.
These days, there is a certain strain of the populace that seems to pride itself on ignorance. But strangely enough, these people also seem to think that their ignorance makes them an expert in everything. It’s an amazing achievement in self-serving logic.
For myself, if I know nothing about a subject, I tend to think the only logical thing to do is go to the experts in that field. Until I’ve got some basis of knowledge upon which I can rely to disagree with them, who am I to criticize people who have studied it at length?
So if you take this population that prides itself on ignorance, and is essentially anti-science in some cases, and you pair it with corporate interests who want to actively deceive people when it serves them, you’ve got a recipe for disaster.
Scientists are ringing the alarms:
Most scientists, on achieving high office, keep their public remarks to the bland and reassuring. Last week Nina Fedoroff, the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), broke ranks in a spectacular manner.
She confessed that she was now “scared to death” by the anti-science movement that was spreading, uncontrolled, across the US and the rest of the western world.
“We are sliding back into a dark era,” she said. “And there seems little we can do about it. I am profoundly depressed at just how difficult it has become merely to get a realistic conversation started on issues such as climate change or genetically modified organisms.”
The remarks of Fedoroff, one of the world’s most distinguished agricultural scientists, are all the more remarkable given their setting.
She made them at the AAAS annual meeting, an event at which scientists normally revel in their latest accomplishments: new insights into marine biology or first results from a recently launched satellite, for example.
But this year there has been a palpable chill to proceedings. Yes, good work was reported to the 8,000 who attended the various symposia and lectures at the meeting in Vancouver.
However, these pronouncements were set against a background of an entire intellectual discipline that realises that it, and its practitioners, are now under sustained attack.
As Fedoroff pointed out, university and government researchers are hounded for arguing that rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are changing the climate. Their emails are hacked while Facebook campaigns call for their dismissal from their posts, calls that are often backed by rightwing politicians. At the last Republican party debate in Florida, Rick Santorum insisted he should be the presidential nominee simply because he had cottoned on earlier than his rivals Newt Gingrich or Mitt Romney to the “hoax” of global warming.
“Those of us who grew up in the sixties, when we put men on the Moon, now have to watch as every Republican candidate for this year’s presidential election denies the science behind climate change and evolution. That is a staggering state of affairs and it is very worrying,” said Professor Naomi Oreskes, of the University of California, San Diego.
The article above also makes reference to a new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists on the subject of corporate influence on science. It lists the following methods of abuse:
Corrupting the Science. Corporations suppress research, intimidate scientists, manipulate study designs, ghostwrite scientific articles, and selectively publish results that suit their interests.
Shaping Public Perception. Private interests downplay evidence, exaggerate uncertainty, vilify scientists, hide behind front groups, and feed the media slanted news stories.
Restricting Agency Effectiveness. Companies attack the science behind agency policy, hinder the regulatory process, corrupt advisory panels, exploit the “revolving door” between corporate and government employment, censor scientists, and withhold information from the public.
Influencing Congress. By spending billions of dollars on lobbying and campaign contributions, corporate interests gain undue access to members of Congress, encouraging them to challenge scientific consensus, delay action on critical problems, and shape the use of science in policy making.
Exploiting Judicial Pathways. Corporate interests have expanded their influence on the judicial system, used the courts to undermine science, and exploited judicial processes to bully and silence scientists.
On a related note, I just listened to the newest “Point of Inquiry” podcast in which an interview is conducted with Michael Mann, a climatologist who is on the front lines of the battle against climate change denial. It’s worth a listen.
When honest attempts at science are under attack, it does not bode well for the future. It only helps many people deny reality, which may work in the short term but does not stand the test of time.