A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

From Abracadabra to Zombies


Mass Media Funk 52

The war on science

March 11, 2006. A few months ago, Chris Mooney' s The Republican War on Science was published. A few weeks ago, Phil Plait (aka The Bad Astronomer) hosted James Randi's Swift column with a piece called "Science is Under Attack." Here's an excerpt:

This current Administration has a long and successful history of science bashing. Global warming, the Big Bang, evolution, alternative energy sources, the environment, stem cell research, contraceptive medicine, HIV/AIDS, and even the most basic platforms of science education have all been abused under Bush’s Administration. These attacks may be motivated by religion, ideology, or possibly as base a reason as money; but they are real, and getting worse.

Did this sort of thing happen under Democratic rule? You betcha, but not on anywhere near this scale. The big difference now is that the day-to-day science of the government is being manipulated politically, and purposely suppressed on a massive scale.

Frankly, I wish Phil would stop beating around the bush and say what's really on his mind.

This week, The New Yorker's Michael Specter "writes about the uneasy relationship between science and government in the Bush Administration" in a piece called "Political Science - The Bush Administration's war on the laboratory." In an interview, Specter says that the Bush Administration "simply doesn’t seem to rely on the advice of scientists on a wide range of issues: climate change, pollution, and biomedical research, for example." Why would they? After all, this is a faith-based government and science supposedly relies on reason, not faith, for its conclusions.

Specter's article begins with the Bush Administration's mishandling of a vaccine developed by Merck & Company that the science indicates provides safe and effective protection for women against the human papillomavirus (HPV), the most common sexually transmitted disease in the United States. "More than half of all Americans become infected at some point in their lives." This virus kills about 5,000 American women every year; it is the main cause of cervical cancer. However, "to prevent infection with HPV, and to minimize the risk of cervical cancer, girls would need inoculations before becoming sexually active." Specter then outlines the kind of thinking in the Bush Administration's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, which, simply put, advises no vaccination is needed when abstinence, if followed, is 100% effective. The vaccination might encourage promiscuity. After all, studies have shown that promiscuity is associated with cervical cancer. (If you don't believe me, ask Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, who agrees with Mr. Bush, apparently, that promiscuity is worse than death or perhaps even that the promiscuous deserve to die.)

Specter comments: "the Bush Administration has been relentless in its opposition to any drug, vaccine, or initiative that could be interpreted as lessening the risks associated with premarital sex." He points out that the Administration's policy requires that one-third of any government money for HIV-prevention programs must go to "abstinence until marriage" programs. No US money can go to any family-planning organization in the world "if they so much as discuss abortion with their clients."

What does this have to do with science, you might ask? Specter notes that the Bush Administration's opposition to anything regarding reproductive problems except abstinence "runs so deep that at one point federal health officials replaced pages from a National Cancer Institute Web site with information that suggested, without evidence, that there might be a correlation between abortion and breast cancer." The Center for Disease Control (CDC) Web site removed a fact sheet about condoms and replaced it with a message "denigrating them." It also "removed a summary of studies that showed there was no increase in sexual activity among teenagers who had been taught about condoms."

Specter also discusses the Administration's policy toward Plan B, discussed here in a previous post. He claims that: "From the start of his first term, George W. Bush seems to have been guided more by faith and ideology than by data in resolving scientific questions." As everybody knows, all presidents have ignored science when it interfered with their "vision." Bush, however, is not just one more in a long line of science abusers: He is the king. Not only has this Administration ignored the scientific consensus on reproductive health issues, it has relied on its own faith in its faith regarding a wide array of issues regarding pollution, global warming, oil drilling, stem cell research, clean air standards, euthanasia, and intelligent design. On climate change, for example, Specter writes: "Global warming is coming—or is already here, depending on your interpretation of the data. The government has responded by worrying about its economic place in the world rather than about the physical future of the world."*

Specter also details how this Administration has abused not only science but the membership of science and ethics committees. He says that "this Administration, more than any in memory, seems very aggressive about making certain that its scientific advisors support its ideas. And, if they don’t, their advice is often ignored."*

Except for the federal-court decision in Dover, which labeled intelligent design as a form of creationism and not science, Specter doesn't see any reason for rejoicing among supporters of science.

However, not everybody is rejoicing at Judge John Jones’s 139-page opinion in Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District. The ID folks at the Discovery Institute, for example, consider the decision to be a defeat for science. Of course, they define science to include supernatural explanations as well as naturalistic ones. It turns out that they have an ally in Notre Dame philosopher Alvin Plantinga, who writes:

...if you exclude the supernatural from science, then if the world or some phenomena within it are supernaturally caused — as most of the world’s people believe — you won’t be able to reach that truth scientifically.

Observing methodological naturalism thus hamstrings science by precluding science from reaching what would be an enormously important truth about the world. It might be that, just as a result of this constraint, even the best science in the long run will wind up with false conclusions.

It is true that most people believe that the world was supernaturally caused, but is it relevant to whether scientists should consider such causes when they are doing science? Plantinga says yes and supports his point by reminding us that

Newton was perhaps the greatest of the founders of modern science. His theory of planetary motion is thought to be an early paradigm example of modern science. Yet, according to Newton’s own understanding of his theory, the planetary motions had instabilities that God periodically corrected. Shall we say that Newton wasn’t doing science when he advanced that theory or that the theory really isn’t a scientific theory at all?

Of course not. Newton was doing science as it was practiced in his day. Even Darwin compared his own naturalistic explanations with supernatural ones in trying to gain support for natural selection. But are these facts relevant to whether supernatural causes should be considered alongside natural causes in science today? So what if Newton brought in an invisible friend to keep his planetary motions stable? Does that mean we should do so, too? Isn't the truth that Newton was wrong? That doesn't mean he wasn't doing science when he brought in his invisible friend to work a miracle and save his theory, but it does mean that he wasn't doing very good science at that particular point.

It would not be considered appropriate for a physicist today to bring in God to work a miracle at a place in his or her theory where the data don't fit. Of course, it's possible miracles occur and it's possible there is some sort of omnipotent being who has snuck secret messages into the flagellum of bacteria for humans to decode and thereby prove His existence. It is possible that everything is a dream and the dream is full of errors that seem to us to be absolutely certain truths.  But these possibilities are best left to the speculative disciplines like philosophy and theology.

Plantinga also criticizes Judge Jones's definition of science. Now, I will admit that when Plantinga speculates about his invisible friend working miracles, he can call it science, philosophy, theology, or whatever he pleases. And when Michael Behe or William Dembski do their intellectual gyrations in defense of "irreducible complexity" or "specified complexity," they can call it science or voodoo or whatever they want. In private affairs, such labels don't matter. But the law has to define things like science and religion. Legal definitions should bear some resemblance to ordinary usage but they need not be dictionary definitions nor need they be definitions that most scientists or religious people would accept in their daily lives. I find it interesting that Plantinga thinks Judge Jones erred because the ordinary meaning of science includes supernatural explanations and the judge defined science as being restricted to naturalistic explanations. Frankly, I think the judge is more correct than Plantinga. Historically, Plantinga is correct that for much of the history of science, there was no hard line between the natural and the supernatural in science. However, I think Jones is right that today science does not include speculation about miracles and the supernatural.

In the days when scientists were supported by their own wealth or by donations from benefactors, there was no pressing legal reason to define science. Today, science is taught in public schools and is funded by public money. Furthermore, in the U.S. there are dozens of different religious traditions, many of them conflicting with the scientific consensus regarding the origin and history of the universe and all the fine stuff in it. We have departments of biology, physics, chemistry, and so on. We have Science Divisions or Departments in our schools. We have to have some way of defining the various disciplines. Frankly, if a historian wants to call Thales a physicist, that is fine by me. But I would not let a group of modern day Thalesians teach in my physics department; nor would I allow, much less require, my physics teachers to consider the Thalesian view, which has been offered as a scientific alternative to the theory of matter and energy. I wouldn't care if there was an institute that had hundreds of PhDs who all believed in the Thalesian vision that everything ultimately is water and who had published several peer-reviewed papers to that effect.

Plantinga is correct in pointing out that creation science rejects evolution in favor of a direct creation of species by God 6,000 years ago, while ID does not explicitly reject evolution. ID simply asserts that some things are too complex to have evolved by any natural means and were probably designed by an intelligent being. But Judge Jones was right, too, in claiming that—in Plantinga's words—"ID is just creation science in drag." As Judge Jones pointed out: everyone from Aquinas to Behe to Dembski has taken this intelligent designer to be God. The ID movement tries to get God the Creator into the biology classroom, just as the creation science movement did. However, one thing Plantinga fails to mention is that even though the ID proponents do not explicitly deny evolution, their goal has been the same as that of the creation science folks: to undermine what they take to be godless materialistic theories like natural selection. Plantinga is either being disingenuous or is ignorant of the history of the ID movement when he claims that ID supports the notion of divinely guided evolution. The ID folks have been as relentless as the creation science folks in their claim that evolution is equivalent to godless materialism. The fact that the ID folks don't claim we should be teaching our kids Genesis in the biology classroom does not mean they don't push the same kind of false dilemma (or "contrived dualism") as the creation science folks. Both hold that one must choose God or evolution.

The one criticism of Judge Jones made by Plantinga that I agree with is that the judge should not have tried to define ID as nonscientific because its claims are not falsifiable. That is an area of science and philosophy of science that he should have left alone. The judge belies this fact when he admitted that for all he knows ID is true. It might also be false and, for all we know, somebody might prove it to be false someday.

Unfortunately, we may be moving back toward the days when there was no hard line between the natural and the supernatural in science. If the current trend toward trying to make science the handmaiden of faith-based politics and Christian evangelicalism continues, we may well see the day when broadminded judges who think like Plantinga will dominate our federal courts and define science broadly to include not only ID and the equally convincing Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, but the ranting of Rael, L. Ron Hubbard, and Zecharia Sitchin. And Thomas Jefferson Elementary may become a Christianized version of a Wahabism school with the Ten Commandments posted in all the classrooms and "in God we trust" carved in stone over the front door.

further reading

postscript: November 26, 2008

A summary of the continuation of the war on science by the Bush administration can be found in Sharon Begley's Nov. 5 Newsweek column: Bring On the ‘Reality- Based Community’. Here are a few excerpts:

The truly poisonous legacy of the past eight years is one that spread to much of society ... : the utter contempt with which those in power viewed inconvenient facts, empiricism and science in general....

It turned out that the Bush administration had about as much respect for scientific facts as it did for facts about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq....

The message that expertise and facts do not matter has had a poisonous effect on young people's desire to go into science, which has played no small part in America's losing its competitive edge in R&D. It has also undermined public trust in the integrity of science.

To solidify his legacy as the anti-science president, Bush is making a number of political appointments to permanent federal jobs with responsibility for making or administering scientific policies. Bush's actions in his last days in office have evoked a vitriolic response from the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Kent Garber of U.S. News and World Report says that environmental groups are hoping president Obama can undo some of the damage of the Bush administration and its systematic attempt to emasculate the EPA. "They have watched with dismay—and often disgust—for eight years," writes Garber, "as the Bush White House took apart decades-old protections and gutted the agency's authority."

The Christian Science Monitor (25 Nov 2008) reports that environmentalists fear that Bush will enact a number of rules and regulations before he leaves office to ensure that he eviscerates the Clean Air Act.

Throughout his tenure, Bush has been criticized by scientists for having a "morality-based politics" that "ignores scientific evidence, distorts facts and leads to outright censorship of reports and scientists." At least one blogger has referred to Bush as the president of Fantasy Land for thinking he can ignore the facts in favor of his own views of what he'd like nature to be like.

I've watched for eight years as nearly everything Bush touched was corrupted or destroyed: science, education, the environment, the economy, foreign affairs, fighting terrorism, morality, immigration, the rule of law, the U.S. Constitution. How long will it take to get back on track? I don't know, but I thought of Mr. Bush when I was playing monopoly with a 7-year-old and landed on a place that said I had to pay a tax equivalent to the $200 I had just received for passing go. I uttered a fitting verse of opprobrium but was promptly told that I didn't have to pay the tax because his rules were that nobody pays taxes. I asked him if he was the architect of the Bush economic plan, but he didn't get my drift. The no-tax rule in monopoly reminded me of Bush, who is promoting the idea of using government money to prop up all kinds of businesses that have made really bad business decisions (to be generous) and lost tons of money. I thought in a free market, which Bush says he supports, failed businesses are an expected price some have to pay. How else to encourage good business practices than to punish the failures with elimination? Now I find out that Bush claims the free market is stronger than ever. He says pumping hundreds of billions of government money is needed to protect the free market. Of course, free market seems to have taken on an entirely new meaning: get big enough and screw up royally and you get a free ride thanks to the government. Even language has been thoroughly corrupted by the man. Free market, indeed. Brought to you by the folks who keep claiming that government should not interfere with the market.

On the bright side, Bush has been in command since 9/11 2001 and there have been no more terrorist acts on American soil under his watch. He was also on watch on 9/11 2001. Maybe his intention in invading Iraq was to draw potential terrorists away from our homeland.

Also on the bright side, Bush pushed for lots of money to go to Africa to fight the AIDS epidemic. Unfortunately, one-third of the money spent on prevention of the disease had to go toward promotion of sexual abstinence.

I think Leonard Pitts Jr. put it as well as it can be put:

For my money, of all the things [Bush] has done that have damaged this nation -- we're talking lies and alibis, torture, the loss of American prestige, watching passively as New Orleans drowned, censoring science, politicizing the Justice Department, a ruinous war of choice in Iraq, spending with all the discipline of an 8-year-old in a candy store -- arguably the most damaging legacy this president leaves is that he has undermined truth itself. After eight years of Bush/Rove politics, we live now in a nation where fact doesn't mean a whole lot, where it is OK to believe the ''truth'' that serves your political ends and jettison any that does not.

In Bushland, the Bush doctrine is: "I'm entitled to my own facts as well as my own opinions. I believe it and so can you."

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