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Does Trump Threaten Science? Part 2

On December 7—a date presumably chosen because it is Pearl Harbor Day and thus resonates with general alarm—the American Association of University Professors issued a thirteen-page statement, “National Security, the Assault on Science, and Academic Freedom.” The aim of the statement is to call out President Trump in particular and conservatives in general for their “anti-science” attitudes and policies. In Part 1 of this three-part essay, I gave the historical background to the popular leftist attack on conservatives for their “anti-science” positions. In Part 2, I take a closer look at what “anti-science” really means.

Passions and Padlocks

In principle, science padlocks political passions in a cage from which they cannot escape to disrupt experiments or analysis. But that principle is often violated, and it also turns out not even to be all that good as a principle.

Sometimes those political passions protect science from running off the rails. Our rules that prevent involuntary human experimentation, for example, are grounded in respect for human life and dignity, not in science. Science pursued entirely as a quest for knowledge has no capacity to distinguish right from wrong. Curing a disease and creating a new disease are indistinguishable as far as the ends of science go. We rely on our human passions and non-scientific human reasoning to prevent science from going off in malign directions, and we rely on politics to give organization and force to those positive passions.

But once having granted the legitimacy of some non-scientific principles to govern the aims and uses of science, where do we stop? This is the deep question lurking behind most of the political contention over science.

Fracking. There is scant evidence that hydraulic fracturing is dangerous to humans or to the environment, yet politicians in some blue states, including New York, have banned it. Their position is “anti-science” plain and simple, though few would openly use that term. The opponents of fracking act on an irrational fear—though again, few would own up to its irrationality. Instead they would spin a web of “what ifs” and “maybes.” Is this this a case where an irrational fear should be given weight in light of a larger non-scientific principle? It is hard to say what that principle would be. Some prominent members of the movement avow their hostility to the extraction of any hydrocarbons from the earth on the grounds that growing concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere pose a danger to health and safety. This indeed is a principle but one that stands on conjectures, hypotheses, and models that have not been treated kindly by the accumulating facts.

Nuclear energy. By a long margin, nuclear power is among the cleanest, safest, and most abundant sources of energy over which humans have control. Yet the United States has been paralyzed for nearly half a century in building new nuclear power plants. The problem is fear of radiation from accidents and spent radioactive materials. This fear is wildly disproportionate to the danger and therefore irrational. Opposition to nuclear energy is also “anti-science” plain and simple. Is there a valid non-scientific principle that should take precedence over exploiting nuclear energy? It is very difficult to find anyone who gets beyond repeating the fear that something could go wrong. The fear is justified: things can go wrong, and sometimes have gone very wrong indeed. But the fact remains that nuclear power is far safer than the alternatives that are either proposed or already in use.

Vaccination. Vaccines vary in the dangers they pose to recipients, but most vaccines pose some minor risk of serious side effects. Some parents hold wildly exaggerated ideas about the risks of childhood vaccinations; some hold fears plainly at odds with the facts; and still others object to vaccinations on religious grounds. But failure to vaccinate poses a danger to the whole community. Scientific reasoning would argue strongly that vaccination ought to be mandatory for all. Making exceptions is “anti-science.” Are there valid ground for letting irrational fear or religious freedom outweigh public health?

Global warming. A body of established scientists argue that man-made and potentially catastrophic global warming is upon us. A separate body of scientists disagree, many of them over the amount of global warming that has already taken place, and some on other issues, such as whether the warming is part of a natural cycle and not significantly the result of human activity. Still others disagree on whether the warming is likely to be catastrophic. Some believe increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will, to the contrary, be beneficial. All sides of this debate claim the authority of science for their positions. The effort to characterize the dissenters from global warming orthodoxy as “anti-science” is polemical rhetoric, not a scientific judgment. When scientists disagree with one another on both the legitimacy of the data and the proper analysis of the data, is there any warrant for granting either side the power to call the other “anti-science?”

Creationism. This one is especially difficult to write about. Belief in evolution as a thoroughly established and adequate principle to explain biological diversity is plainly an article of faith for many Americans. So let me preface my comment by saying that I am an anthropologist who finds evolution an indispensable intellectual tool of immense explanatory value. And yet…

Every known religion has a narrative of how the world began. So does contemporary science. In fact, most religions have multiple stories about origins, some explaining the birth of the cosmos, others explaining human origins. Science likewise has multiple origin stories: the Big Bang theory and human evolution. The “science” in both cases is substantial but far from complete. The Big Bang theory offers a cogent picture of the beginning of space, time, and matter but it is a theory with many loose ends and as yet unanswerable questions. The theory of human evolution is also rich and compelling but it too is very far from complete. New scientific research is constantly modifying our understanding of it. Only in the last few years have we learned that non-African humans are partially descended from Neanderthals, and in some cases from another species as well, the Denisovans, whose ghostly genetic afterlife wasn’t discovered until 2010.

As it happens, one of the five-member committee that wrote the AAUP report, Mary Jane West-Eberhard, is well-known for her contributions to evolutionary biology that, as historian of science James Barham puts it, “turn mainstream Darwinism on its head.” He adds: “West-Eberhard’s work helps to upend that project [Darwinian elimination of purpose from evolution] by showing how purposiveness (or target-directedness) lies at the heart of any realistic explanatory framework in evolutionary biology. In other words, her contribution consists in demonstrating that, far from eliminating purpose from nature, evolution in fact presupposes it.”

The deeper questions of how we came to be fully human are thus still matters of conjecture and intense debate. Is it “anti-science” for some people to believe that the emergence of humans reflects the will of God? It is definitely “non-science,” but hardly anti-science. But there are parties on both sides of this debate who carry their positions to extremes that subvert scientific inquiry. The evolutionists include a faction who dogmatically pretend the theory is far more settled than it really is. In one generation we have moved from a theory of straight-line evolution, with one species of proto-humans supplanting another, to a theory of several (or perhaps many) species hybridizing over long periods. We are still without a convincing explanation of where human language came from. And we don’t really know how the resiliency of individuals (what West-Eberhard calls “phenotypical plasticity”) plays into human evolution.

Pretending to scientific knowledge we don’t yet have is as unscientific as invoking supernatural explanations. We should be careful in drawing the lines.

Other matters. This list of controversies could easily be extended. I’ve left aside abortion, fetal tissue research, human cloning, end-of-life decisions, and many other hotly debated matters. But just the four examples sketched above point to the danger of caricature and ideological extremism. Neither the political left nor the political right has valid authority to say of itself that it speaks for science and that the other side is anti-science. When it comes to fracking and nuclear power, it is the left that tends to be “anti-science.” When it comes to global warming, there is a Mexican stand-off. On creationism, the political right is more prone to fall into a doctrinaire anti-science position, but the left has a doctrinaire un-scientific position of its own that is in play.

We need a robust practice in the sciences of keeping ordinary political passions locked out, but nonetheless allowing principles from outside the sciences back in to give moral and intellectual direction to scientific inquiry. The balance is important but plainly difficult, since it requires judgment—based on what?—over the when, where, and how these interventions should take place. We have a political system that puts the power to do that in the hands of elected legislators and executives as well as jurists. And we have freedom of speech that allows the rest of us to voice our views. But that is just a way of acknowledging that scientific inquiry often has a rough road in our republic. It is surrounded by the cacti of prickly politics and acrimonious opinion.

Continue reading this series with Part 3.

27 replies
  1. Walpurgis
    Walpurgis says:

    It’s pointless to argue against an official socialist construct. Truth is not the end and the means are anything they want to do or say. And the socialists know it isn’t true in the first place.

  2. tz1
    tz1 says:

    I miss how me not vaccinating my child threatens your vaccinated child. Worse, apparently they aren’t effective as the college mumps breakout shows (which is serious as it can sterilize men). Also, why do you deny the constitutional right to a jury trial (anything over $20) if my child is injured, instead I have to go to a kangaroo vaccine court and might get at most $250,000 no matter how seriously injured. And the other questions like why turn newborns into pin-cushions to vaccinate against STDs? Are the dozens of vaccinations needed (v.s. simply suffering through things which in 2017 USA aren’t likely to be deadly even with complications). What about all the other crap in the vaccines? Break a CFL, you need to evacuate because of the mercury vapor, but injecting it into newborns is ok? You call that science? Squalene, Polysorbate 80? Why can’t there be something like the bifurcated needle used for smallpox where pricking the skin works? Why can’t there be more oral vaccines like the original Salk vaccine?

    STDs are also a public health issue if it is expense – 100 million Americans have them, some are incurable, most don’t have vaccines, many are getting antibiotic resistance (at least to the cheap and easy ones), but no one will talk about the “science” of the hookup culture. But what happens when syphillis can’t be cured – go back and see what happened before antibiotics. So while you are in a tizzy over those parents that don’t want to take a chance on damage from their children having dozens of injectiions of crap into the bloodstream all at once, you completely ignore something which is far worse – an actual pandemic. Sandra Fluke didn’t want “birth control” that would also be a barrier to STDs, she wanted to be a Typhoid Mary Nymphomaniac, just not get pregnant even if she got any of the now dozens of STDs – in my Grandparent’s days, it was just Syphilis and Ghonorhea. Now it is AIDS which only costs $100k/yr to treat for the rest of the patient’s life.

    My problem with evolution is two fold. First, if humans evolved, eugenics is true, but any attempt to follow the science (e.g. The Bell Curve, ask why Asia and Africa has different cultures, much less Swedes v.s. Greeks) is met with screechy accusations of racism. But the one thing that CANNOT be true is any equality between races subject to different survival pressures – those with Neanderthal DNA SHOULD be measurably different from those without. Second, instead of teaching a lot of interesting and noncontroversial stuff in Biology, it has to be shoved down your throat that GOD DOES NOT EXIST! You are just soulless primates – here are some condoms so you can practice safe rutting. They probably can’t identify even 5 phyla, name 3 internal organs, describe how protein synthesis in a cell works, but they will all parrot “we evolved”.

    • Altalena
      Altalena says:

      “I miss how me not vaccinating my child threatens your vaccinated child. ”

      Herd immunity. Some vaccines are somewhat ineffective on the first inoculation; others lose effectiveness over time.

      • tz1
        tz1 says:

        Then why don’t you keep shoving the crap into your child and leave mine alone. Aren’t they totally safe and effective?
        No, you don’t want to risk your child having a bad reaction including being maimed or dying, you want my child to bear the risk.

        • Doctor Bass Monkey
          Doctor Bass Monkey says:

          This kind of idiocy is exactly why diseases that were virtually wiped out like measles, TB, and plague, have had a resurgence in the US.

          • tz1
            tz1 says:

            Because the vaccines fail, or we allow 3rd world immigrants without ANY immunizations here who carry disease (measles, TB, Plague) to come here and walk among us to spread the disease.
            We won’t quarantine. That is another “public health” matter no one will talk about.
            We can wipe out Measles, TB, or Plague in the USA, but if we keep bringing in 3rd worlders who have it, they will bring it here.

          • Doctor Bass Monkey
            Doctor Bass Monkey says:

            Congrats, you’re as stupid as the original commenter. Guess what happens when you bring in Third World disease-carrying individuals to a population where unimmunized children are free-riding on a population where the disease was wiped out by immunization? It makes a comeback exactly like I said.

      • Marshall Gill
        Marshall Gill says:

        I am sorry that you are a member of a herd. As a human being, I am an individual and not cattle.

        You mean “collective” “immunity”.

  3. TboneAgain
    TboneAgain says:

    When it comes to fracking and nuclear power, it is the left that tends to be “anti-science.” When it comes to global warming, there is a Mexican stand-off. On creationism, the political right is more prone to fall into a doctrinaire anti-science position, but the left has a doctrinaire un-scientific position of its own that is in play.

    The statements may be true, but one of the most aggravating facets of all four “debates” is the left’s hair-trigger labeling of its opponents as “anti-science” in every instance, even when it is the left that is obviously denying or ignoring scientific facts. As the stakes become higher, the big guns come out. For example, those who disagree with man-made global warming — or merely point out that it hasn’t been, and likely can’t be proven — threaten the left’s stance on an issue that almost literally represents the Holy Grail for them. (It is rightly seen as a way to establish political control over the global economy.) So such heretics are treated to the special epithet “climate deniers” in order to vilify them by likening them to those who deny the Holocaust.

    In general, I’ve long said that science and politics can’t coexist; in fact, a mixture of one part politics and 99 parts science yields 100 parts politics.

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  4. Bill Robbins
    Bill Robbins says:

    Just write “To increase diversity, inclusivity and tolerance” in the Study Goals section of your grant application and you’re good to go. The money will flow like water.

  5. Marathon-Youth
    Marathon-Youth says:

    Generally lecturers depend on the research done by some Scientists to back their point of view. Those research papers are built on research done by others. Often one group of researchers do not check the empirical evidence that went into the research of another group. In short Scientists often back up the work of other scientists and no one verifies the empirical research, but all take these opinions as valid.
    Politics does drive science. I see that in our space race with the Soviet Union. It was one of the most politically driven Science programs and it paid well.

  6. D4x
    D4x says:

    I am surprised Peter S. Wood does not factor the foundational belief in the Precautionary Principle into his analysis of ‘anti-science’: “When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically”

    The Wingspread Conference on the Precautionary Principle was in 1998, but the Precautionary Principle has been the Rule for the environmental movement since the “United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), also known as the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit, the Rio Summit, the Rio Conference, and the Earth Summit in 1982.”

    Same precaution, pre-emption has migrated to most science issues, and regulations , including public health: GMOs to vaccines. The scientific progressive state wants to protect everyone from everything.

    • Marshall Gill
      Marshall Gill says:

      Control, not protect. If they cared about protecting they would be large and loud in promoting the use of DDT to eradicate malaria. They are not.

  7. Marshall Gill
    Marshall Gill says:

    “But failure to vaccinate poses a danger
    to the whole community. Scientific reasoning would argue strongly that
    vaccination ought to be mandatory for all. Making exceptions is

    This is an express lie, or fantastic ignorance. Small pox was eradicated because of a 100% vaccination rate? 99%? 95% The number was less than 80%. Not having a vaccination is STILL not a disease vector. So, like a PoS Leftard, you are willing to like to control others. And call it science instead of “collectivism”.

    Vaccinations fascinate me. Since it was hardly 100% that was vaccinated to eradicate small pox, why the insistence that everyone do it? Control. Is it surprising that those who wish to control every aspect of your life also wish to force you into vaccinations? It isn’t “science” but simply wanting to tell your fellows what to do.

  8. tz1
    tz1 says:

    One aspect of vaccination and public health I forgot about is ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION, or even refugees
    Look at who is having to be treated with 6 figure sums because of XDR Tuberculosis. Who is getting measles? Where is any call for everyone who can’t prove their immigration status to be immediately injected with the two dozen or so vaccinations as soon as they have their fingerprints taken? Where is the requirement for the Sudanese, Syrian, or Somali refugees to have the same multiple injections before they board the plane to the USA.

    If you really believe in vaccination, instead of worrying about citizens who might have “a right to their body”, worry about those who aren’t citizens, might be carrying differnt diseases including parasites, and some shouldn’t be here anyway.

    Oh, and science! We know about unborn babies, and what we know should lead to an immediate ban on all abortions and abortifacients. A human zygote is human, not a lobster, bee, or marmoset. They have a heartbeat in 3 weeks. They aren’t part of a women’s body. They can feel pain (would you be bothered if I took a torch and cutting tools and slowly tortured a kitten to death over an hour or so? Should cruelty to unborn babies be illegal?). Then there’s partial birth abortion which was shocking enough to be banned.

    Another thing is you can correlate problems and cortisol levels consistent with abuse when infant males are circumcised. Should that be banned too? There is no provable benefit.

    Austrian economic is always right but never believed. We think we can control the economy with a fiat currency, but it is a fraud and only causes inflation. But the pseudo-science bans gold as money. Socialism must fail (Mises proved – market prices transmit supply/demand info) but we still refuse to believe reason, logic, and the years of history, so can’t see why Venezuela is failing. Or Cuba or NK.

    No, no one wants real science when it conflicts with their pet views. Especially Dogmas that are enforced by the government and the police. But when it agrees, it can’t be challenged.

    Africa and India has an average IQ under 80. Research says you need a minimum of 90 for a democracy (remember those below the average have the same vote – Forrest Gump gets the same vote as Albert Einstein). So what do we do? Just screech “racism!” and ignore facts?

    • Marathon-Youth
      Marathon-Youth says:

      “Africa and India has an average IQ under 80”
      Could you tell me how an IQ test is carried out on 1 billion 300 million people in India where the test itself is unknown? That is a population larger than the Americas (1 billion 100 million)
      or Africa with a population of 1 billion 150 million and again where this test is unknown?

      • tz1
        tz1 says:

        Statistics, and there are simple, universal pattern based tests independent of language. A statistically significant group was measured.

        Or should I dismiss that there are ANY neo-Nazis in America because you didn’t interview over 100 million whites individually?

        • Marathon-Youth
          Marathon-Youth says:

          I have an IQ between 64 and 74. When I first came here as a kid the test sheet was simply given to me with no explanations. Some pages made no sense to me and I did not even complete them.

          I was already fluent in English and was ahead of my class that by the end of the year I skipped a grade. Yet my IQ is in that range.

          With that low IQ I have done better than most Americans in almost every endeavor I have undertaken.
          There are few subjects that I cannot debate and win even if your IQ is several times higher than mine.

          • tz1
            tz1 says:

            I think the key debate is whether vitue or intelligence is more important, and I would clearly defend the former as the more important.
            I think the IQ test (you gave no details) was in error. It happens, and not infrequently. But if your IQ was erroneous, it proves nothing, no more than a miscalibrated breathalyzer shows someone who is clearly sober to be falling down drunk.
            Do you have a SAT score?
            As to debate and “win”, it depends on how points are scored. A screechy SJW black debate team that just claimed everything was nonsense and racist once won over a team using reason and logic – because reason and logic was not the basis of scoring.
            The real world with science and mathematics isn’t so flexible. It isn’t cruel. It is perfectly just. You can either calculate to a right answer or not. If you can, so much the better. If you can’t, putting too much or too little medicine will kill a patient. Your house will be too big or too small. You will need a warehouse, or run short. Reality is merciless.
            You have not listed your endeavors. If it is to be a Gender Studies professor, I can only laugh. If you are a mathematician, physicist, chemist, or something similar, kudos.

          • Marathon-Youth
            Marathon-Youth says:

            I have no idea if those results were right or wrong and I don’t care at my age.
            College was a stop start stop process.
            What I meant by winning a debate is using reason, logic common sense effectively. I am not the best but pretty decent.
            The skills of the Subcontinent are highly developed. So much is hand made
            The talent that goes into the artistry of textiles to jewelry to various art requires intelligence.
            Coming up with practical solutions by the common man shows to me that this 80 score is incorrect.
            As for Science yes it can be exacting but when it comes to theories then debate becomes possible.

          • tz1
            tz1 says:

            We are probably on the same page. I’m rather bothered that urban dwellers seem to be inept at most things. I live in the country. Most here can fix anything that can be fixed. Crafts are normal including rather elaborate things. There is something about knowing nature – the land, the things used in crafts, just how to make something or grow something. This kind of knowledge is and will be more important if things start to break down, and things are so brittle I can’t imagine it not breaking

          • Marathon-Youth
            Marathon-Youth says:

            BTW the abysmal state most of South Asia is in has little to do with the intelligence of the common man. India is a monstrous artificial behemoth that should not even exist.

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