Science is Political

I recently finished reading Shawn Lawrence Otto’s book: Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America.  Otto co-founded Science Debate 2008 which was an effort to get the presidential candidates to have a debate on the important science issues affecting the United States.  Despite strenuous efforts, the candidates refused to agree to such a debate.  The only outcome was that the final nominees, Obama and McCain, did finally agree to answer, in writing, not in debate, “The 14 Top Science Questions Facing America.”   I would like to think that there will be an actual Science Debate in 2012, but given that the only Republican candidate who seems concerned about science and the scientific illiteracy of his fellow candidates is Jon Huntsman, a man who has no chance to be the Republican nominee in 2012, this seems improbable.

Otto’s main thesis is that for the last several decades, scientists, while busy doing science, ignored the erosion of the public’s confidence in science and the rise of a belief system that claimed there is no objective reality; that we each create our own subjective ‘reality;’ therefore, the conclusions of science are only one way of viewing the world, and not necessarily the ‘best’ way.  This flight from objective reality may well be why the United States ranks #23 in the 2009 PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) test of scientific knowledge.  In addition, the United States ranks just above Turkey in a graph of countries depicting the percentage of the population accepting the validity of evolution, based on research published in Science. The educational system is failing the United States given that the researchers found that percentage accepting evolution actually declined over twenty years.  Otto is convinced that this is because scientists failed to recognize that science is political; that scientists have to write for and speak to the public in language that will make it clear that science is necessary for the future stability, growth, and well being of the United States.  Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin understood that science was political.  Their goal was to create a country where science could flourish.  They would be appalled to discover that at the beginning of the 21st century, a huge chunk of the population is retreating into the anti-science mysticism of the centuries prior to the Enlightenment of the 18th century.

One of the key concepts that has been lost in the relativistic present is that there are not necessarily two sides to every argument.  Otto points this out in the following example (p. 10):

Journalism: There are always two sides to every story.  Bob says 2 + 2 = 4.  Mary says it is 6.  The controversy rages.

Science:  Most times, one side is simply wrong.  I can demonstrate using these apples that Bob is right.

Politics:  How about a compromise?  New law: 2 + 2 = 5.”

Journalists create controversy where, based on the scientific facts, there is none.  “If one side presents knowledge and the other ‘but faith, or opinion, but not knowledge,’ [John Locke] simply reporting both sides is not balanced journalism and constitutes malfeasance by the press.” (p.204-05) Such malfeasance is in large measure due to the fact that few media sources in the United States actually have scientifically-trained reporters.  In fact, according to Otto, most media sources have cut or cut out their science departments.  This is in contrast to the rest of the world where science news remains a vital part of media coverage.

Otto also discusses de Tocqueville‘s views of American democracy, published in 1835, after his travels throughout the new country.  While impressed by many things, de Tocqueville also saw cause for concern.  He saw Americans as tinkerers/inventors rather than as thinkers.  The focus was on practicality rather than the search to understand the unknown; i.e. pure research without thought of how it might be used.  “His [de Tocqueville's] tale [of 19th century China's retreat from science] suggests the dangers posed by embracing tradition and precedent at the expense of openness and creativity, applied research at the expense of basic science, fear at the expense of wonder, utility at the expense of beauty, and an insistence on financially quantifiable projections before an investment is made, the idea of which runs contrary to the entire process of discovery and creativity.” (pp. 58-9)

“If knowledge does not have primacy in public decision making, then no truth can be said to be self-evident, and we are left with the tyranny of ideology enforced by might (p. 219)…led [by] a generation of leaders that are at once arrogant and ignorant…(p. 134) Ignorance is not bliss.  It’s tyranny.” (p. 252)

Otto points out that scientifically-literate children are most likely to have parents who are scientists or, and this is critically important, parents who are immigrants.  “Fully 70 percent of the finalists in the 2011 Intel Science Talent Search competition were the children of immigrants–a stunning figure considering that immigrants make up only 12 percent of the US population…” (pp. 291-92)

This matters because if the United States continues to restrict immigration and/or makes life difficult for immigrants, these talented students will be lost to the United States, while at the same time providing a ‘brain gain’ to other countries.  If anti-science attitudes continue to prevail in the United States, it will lose the future to other nations, particularly those in Asia.  During the Middle Ages, science burned brightly in the Islamic countries.  But fundamentalist, anti-science views came to dominate in those regions, and science was lost.  To say such a future is not possible in an anti-science United States is arrogant ignorance.