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Does Trump Threaten Science? Part 3

On December 7, the American Association of University Professors issued a thirteen-page statement, “National Security, the Assault on Science, and Academic Freedom,” that attacked President Trump in particular and conservatives in general as “anti-science.” In Part I of this three-part essay, I gave the historical background to the popular leftist attack on conservatives for their “anti-science.” In Part II, I showed that both left and right sometimes act on non-scientific grounds to forestall valid research and scientifically sound applications. “Anti-science” sounds bad, but the term is just a polemical way of phrasing the recognition that science can’t always be left to itself to decide what to do. Other principles of a moral and intellectual nature must sometimes supervene, to prevent, for example, heedless forms of human experimentation. Bringing these principles to bear inevitably involves political action, and in that sense the politicization of science isn’t always bad. It depends on the principles—and the politics.

In Part III, we will look at exactly what principles and politics the AAUP has in mind in its attack on Trump.

China

Nearly half of the AAUP’s report, “National Security, the Assault on Science, and Academic Freedom,” deals with the supposed threat to science posed by the U.S. Government’s efforts to protect national secrets from leaking to hostile foreign governments. At the center of this is U.S. concern about China, and Chinese researchers in America inappropriately sharing research with colleagues in China. One of the co-authors, Temple University physics professor Xiaoxing Xi, was arrested May 21, 2015 on charges that he had disclosed a device called a “pocket heater” to Chinese colleagues. The pocket heater is a patented technology for making “thin films of the superconductor magnesium diboride.” The charges were eventually dropped and Xi is now suing for “malicious prosecution.”

The report cites other researchers likewise charged with stealing secrets or otherwise passing inappropriate information to China, including Wen Ho Lee, Guoqing Cao, Shuyu Li, Xianfen Chen, Yudonng Zhu, and Allen Ho. The charges in most of the cases were dropped or ended in minimal findings. Anyone who has followed the cases closely, however, knows that charges get dropped in spy cases for lots of reasons. After the Justice Department dropped the case against Wen Ho Lee, FBI Director Louis Freeh told the Senate Judiciary and Select Intelligence Committees that “each and every one of the 59 counts in the indictment” could be proven, but a trial “posed serious obstacles to proving the facts without revealing nuclear secrets in open courts.”

The legal presumption of innocence, in other words, has to be taken with a grain of salt, at least in some of these cases. Prosecuting spies is extremely difficult. I’m not quite so ready as the AAUP to consider the U.S. counter-intelligence as comprised of bumbling xenophobic fools, haplessly undermining the legitimate international exchange of ideas.

The AAUP has been unfriendly to national security concerns for some time. In an earlier report, Academic Freedom and National Security in a Time of Crisis (2003), the AAUP observed, “secrecy, an inescapable element of classified research, is fundamentally incompatible with freedom of inquiry and freedom of expression.” That report was issued during the period in which the American Left was recovering from its temporary fit of patriotism in the wake of 9-11 and was finding its new path of anti-American rhetoric. “Still vivid memories of the McCarthy era” show up in the first paragraph, and soon comes the turn to “the premise that freedom of inquiry and the open exchange of ideas are crucial to the nation’s security.”

Most of us would think that a balance can be struck between keeping some matters secret and fostering the free exchange of ideas on everything else, but the AAUP in 2003 was skeptical. It said the Patriot Act shifted “the balance ominously between freedom and security,” and generally recommended that the “threat of terrorism” be met with a redoubled commitment to “the vital and durable values of academic freedom and free inquiry.” How exactly this would deter terrorists wasn’t clear. The AAUP was much more concerned with the any restrictions that might fall on the flow of foreign students and scholars into American universities.

The new (2017) AAUP report reprises the 2003 report while shifting the focus from Middle East terrorists to China. This is accompanied by the usual warnings that the U.S, is falling behind in expenditures on basic research and that science itself is now thoroughly an international enterprise. Obstacles to exchange inevitably mean that the U.S. loses ground.

Trump

In the opening sentence of the new report, the grim specter of Donald Trump is evoked, by way of his administration’s “hostility to science.” That hostility has “exacerbated already troubling threats,” and the report nominates “Chinese or Chinese American scientists [who] have been targeted” as one such threat, and “climate change deniers” as the other. “Vicious attempts to discredit [climate science’s] validity” have “intensified since Donald Trump took office.”

The report then “illustrates the nature of the attacks” with two anecdotes. One is Xiaoxing Xi’s arrest; the other is Michael Mann receiving an envelope of corn starch that could have been anthrax. Xi’s arrest in 2015 and Mann’s encounter with cornstarch in 2010 would seem a bit distant from the malign effects of Donald Trump’s election, but no matter. Trump apparently embodies both the spirit of aggressive law enforcement and malicious harassment. For sure, President Trump through his executive orders has sought to restrict certain kinds of immigration to the U.S., and his appointment of Scott Pruitt as head of the EPA has given a voice to those who are skeptical about some of the extreme versions of man-made catastrophic global warming. Pruitt has ended the system of circular review whereby the EPA called on the same people who advocated a proposal to review it. The dismissal of committee members engaged in this sort of thing has shocked the global warming community, which had grown pretty comfortable in finding all its biases routinely and uncritically endorsed by the supposed authorities.

But does any of this really threaten academic freedom or national security?

The AAUP report matches what Mann himself would say about global warming. Whether he drafted this section is unclear, but it comes complete with the sneers typical of Mann’s writing. A skeptic is characterized as a “climate change denier.” Major discrepancies in climate change reports are noted as “swiftly debunked.” And the larger picture is summarized as “The Trump administration is attempting to delegitimize science.” Mann’s presence on the AAUP committee is itself a strong signal that the report aims at something other than a robust defense of the sciences from the threat of ideological manipulation. He is a litigious figure known for stonewalling his critics and for having attracted much contemptuous dismissal from fellow scientists. Mark Steyn notably compiled a 300-page volume, “A Disgrace to the Profession,” consisting entirely of harsh criticisms of Mann’s work from scientists who have Ph.D.s.

Mann, like anyone else in public controversy, is entitled to his defenders, but it is odd to see the AAUP lend its credibility to his cause by appointing him to what amounts to his own jury.

Threats

The AAUP has constructed a box for itself in this report. On one hand, it would like to be a fearless champion of intellectual freedom. On the other hand, it would like to impose restrictions on what others can say. The AAUP’s attempted path out of this contradiction is to treat views that it dislikes as “threats.” Of course, no one condones actual threats under the rationale of intellectual freedom, but the idea of “threat” becomes elastic in the AAUP’s view of things:

“It is not only individuals who engage in such threatening activity. Well-funded and powerful interest groups have also sought to intimidate those conducting scientific research with which they disagree.”

The example the AAUP offers is the request by the attorney general of Virginia for the research records that support Michael Mann’s claim that he had discovered a rapid rise in global temperatures (the hockey stick) in the late decades of the twentieth century. His research is irreproducible in large part because other scientists don’t have access to a great deal of it. Secrecy in science is apparently a bad thing when pursued in the interests of national security, but a very good thing if pursued in the interest of keeping global warming data out of the hands of skeptics. The battle for this data and surrounding correspondence continues in courts, including an important case in Arizona involving Mann’s correspondence with two other climate scientists.

Those matters will eventually be settled under the law. But why are such disputes presented by the AAUP as examples of the sorts of “threats” that allow exceptions to intellectual freedom? The AAUP’s answer is that the attempts by others to get access to the material creates “the possibility of being faced with burdensome, harassing, and intrusive public records requests for internal research notes and emails, which could in turn discourage “open communication among researchers.”

Thus “academic freedom” in the hands of the AAUP’s Committee A has become a “heads I win, tails you lose” doctrine.  Heads, I should be free to share my research with Chinese colleagues or anyone else, free of the nuisances of U.S. Government security concerns. Tails, the American public has no right to see the research that underlies hugely expensive and far-reaching regulations if I decide not to disclose it.

The “Assault” on Science

The AAUP’s new report announces itself as addressing “the assault on science.” Science has been under assault in some form or another as long as it has existed. The AAUP’s definite article, the assault on science, is thus an overreach. The AAUP in this instance isn’t worried by assaults on science coming from identitarian groups demanding equity in science hiring, journal publication, or ideology. It isn’t worried by assaults on science resulting from the deterioration of academic standards. And it isn’t worried about assaults on science coming from people who uphold a vox populi idea of “consensus” as the arbiter of scientific truth.

Instead it is worried that the U.S. Government has tried to stem the flood of America’s most advanced defense-related research to China and other unfriendly foreign powers, and it is worried that the government is less willing to rubber stamp “climate change” research and is instead demanding independent review of such work. These two things have nothing really to do with academic freedom. The phrase seems to be thrown into the report merely to give the AAUP the opportunity to indulge some anti-Trump rhetoric and to continue the false narrative that conservatives are somehow anti-science.

People of all political persuasions can be “anti-science” if science gets in the way of their political visions and interests. Democrats and Republicans, progressives and conservatives, and even scientists themselves turn anti-science at moments. And some of those so-called anti-science moments are justified. Research has no conscience of its own. Science always needs ethical guidance. Dr. Frankenstein—or worse—is always waiting in the wings to perform unspeakable experiments. In that light, anti-science (or at least extra-science) is a corrective. It tells us what we ought not to do. When anti-science speaks, we have to weigh its arguments with care.

Science properly pursued sets rigorous, testable hypotheses. It regards all theories as open to question and revision. It worries about contradictions between otherwise well-tested theories, such as the famous incompatibility between relativity and quantum theory. Some scientists long for a “complete” science in which some version of universal determinism is upheld, but that wish is not itself scientific. Real science is open-ended.

In that light, accusing the other side of an argument as “anti-science” ought to be dismissed as cheap rhetoric. The academic left’s version of this, whether it is launched at conservatives in general or President Trump in particular, just lowers the level of intellectual debate. We can do better. And the AAUP in its eagerness to tag Trump as anti-science has just blundered rather badly.

4 replies
  1. vb
    vb says:

    I am not a scientist, nor do I intend to spend the rest of my life measuring tree rings or NASA temperature data. I suspect that applies to most activists and politicians. What I am smart enough to see is that those who defend the CO2-caused climatechange based on scientific studies never apply the same standards to evaluating all their mitigating programs. It is boring scientists and engineers who will have to solve the problems of energy storage and transmission even if we do manage to capture all of the solar energy in the summer. The people who will really solve our future problems don’t have time to protest and demonstrate.

  2. John Willson
    John Willson says:

    Invoking the “Still vivid memories of the McCarthy era” is enough in itself to discredit the silly (and dangerous) report of the AAUP, an organization whose history is mired in pseudo-progressive ideology rather than any principled understanding of academic freedom. Fortunately, this time around we have Peter Wood and the NAS to call them on their hysterical defense of left-wing privilege.

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