Dispatches From the Moderate Left

Saturday, September 17, 2005

A Conservative Embrace of the Fringe

There's a fascinating overview of a book over at Salon. The book is entitled "The Republican War on Science" and it's about, well, the Republican War on Science. It's such a well written article that I don't have much more to say on the subject, so I'm just going to quote bits of it. If you're interested I really recommend you red the whole piece:
"The Republican War on Science" is nothing short of a landmark in contemporary political reporting. Mooney compiles and presents an extraordinary mountain of evidence, from several different fields, to demonstrate that the conservative wing of the Republican Party has launched an unprecedented and highly successful campaign to sow widespread confusion about the conclusions of science and its usefulness in political decision making. Using methods and strategies pioneered under the Reagan administration by the tobacco industry and anti-environmental forces, an alliance of social conservatives and corporate advocates has paralyzed or obfuscated public discussion of science on a whole range of issues. Not just climate change but also stem cell research, evolutionary biology, endangered-species protection, diet and obesity, abortion and contraception, and the effects of environmental toxins have all become arenas of systematic and deliberate bewilderment.
...
Perhaps most effectively of all, the right's war on science has exploited the mainstream media's fetish for journalistic "balance," regardless of its relevance to reality. Despite the overwhelming consensus of mainstream science on global warming, newspaper articles and TV reports still dutifully call upon the shrinking universe of contrarians like Michaels. (Like most climate change skeptics, Michaels has slowly retreated, along with the polar icecaps. He used to claim that global warming either wasn't happening or wasn't caused by human activity; now he admits to both, but argues that it can't be stopped and that its potential effects have been exaggerated.)
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Perhaps most effectively of all, the right's war on science has exploited the mainstream media's fetish for journalistic "balance," regardless of its relevance to reality. Despite the overwhelming consensus of mainstream science on global warming, newspaper articles and TV reports still dutifully call upon the shrinking universe of contrarians like Michaels. (Like most climate change skeptics, Michaels has slowly retreated, along with the polar icecaps. He used to claim that global warming either wasn't happening or wasn't caused by human activity; now he admits to both, but argues that it can't be stopped and that its potential effects have been exaggerated.)

Similarly, the media has passed along reports emanating from the right-wing fringe suggesting a link between abortion and breast cancer, although virtually no mainstream scientists see any evidence to support such a connection. News accounts about the herbicide atrazine, which is widely used by American corn growers and may be connected to the worldwide decline of frogs and other amphibians, have suggested that the issue is muddled and controversial. If that's true, it's only because the chemical industry and its supporters have made it so: Research suggesting that atrazine interferes with the endocrine systems of amphibians has been published in major peer-reviewed scientific journals, while virtually all the conflicting studies have been funded by Syngenta, the company that manufactures atrazine.
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Tozzi's bill, known as the Data Quality Act, has done what Newt Gingrich's 1994 "Republican Revolution" was unable to do: It has reformed the regulatory process such that big money almost always has the upper hand. As Mooney puts it, the Bush administration has interpreted the act as "an unprecedented and cumbersome process by which government agencies must field complaints over the data, studies and reports they release to the public. It is a science abuser's dream come true." Essentially, business interests are now empowered not merely to challenge government regulations (they could already do that) but to challenge the value of "scientific information that could potentially lead to regulation somewhere down the road."

Any time a scientific study emerges that industry doesn't like -- on the effects of secondhand smoke, the link between atrazine and frog deaths, the near extinction of an endangered fish in a dammed river -- lawyers and lobbyists can now tie the science in knots for years to come, requesting reviews and re-reviews and even challenging the findings in court. Aided by friends like Fox News online columnist Steven Milloy -- who seems to view all claims of dangerous pollution or species endangerment as "junk science" -- corporate advocates can effectively swamp any potential regulation in a mixture of public confusion and "paralysis by analysis."
...
In the words of Rep. George Brown, a California Democrat who has been a leading science watchdog on Capitol Hill, congressional Republicans with little or no scientific background seem to have convinced themselves that "scientific truth is more likely to be found at the fringes of science than at the center."

The author puts the blame for this trend at least partially on the post-modern philosophy of science field, which I'd agree with. The ultra-pomo lecturer I referred to in an earlier post was a major subscriber to those ideas, going so far as to declare "germ theory" (ie that germs make disease) a western construct. Anyway, an article well worth reading.

Oh, and my guess for the answer to this implied question...
We can't know right now which current scientific belief will look stupid in the 22nd century, but we can be pretty sure something will.

Dark matter and dark energy. I don't know anything more about it than what I read in New Scientist, but the whole idea sounds as thoroughly implausible to me as the idea of an "ether" and I'm just waiting for the moment when cosmologists and physisicst collectively slap their forehad and realise what they've been missing all along. But I'm probably wrong :)

3 Comments:

  • Dark matter? Dark energy? Don't these sound like ad hoc inventions to shore up a pleasing theory that is not being bourne out by empirical data?

    Everytime we get a look further out, scientists are astounded by what they see. But rather than consider new theories and paradigms, they try to tweak the prevailing dogma to account for the new observations.

    This is intellectual dishonesty of the highest order.

    By Blogger Charles Watkins, at 4:41 AM  

  • Charles - I actually disagree with you on that one. The reason these 'fudge factors' are being included in the existing theories isn't because people are scared to get rid of the old theories, but rather that, in general, the new ones that people are coming up with don't *actually* work. Yes, they are completely ad-hoc inventions - but they modify the theories in such a way as to do a reasonable job of describing what we can measure to be 'reality'. Whether what we're able to measure and what is actually 'real' are the same thing is a fundamental issue in physics, and one I don't have the time (or brain!) to try to discuss in detail.

    Anyway, here's a slightly more fundamental question for you: We know that Newtonian physics isn't absolutely correct. Yet we still use it, because it works in most situations. We know that Special Relativity isn't absolutely correct, and yet we use it to fill in some of the gaps in Newtonian physics. We know that there are things General Relativity can't explain, but it's the best we've got, so we use it to the fullest extent of its capabilities to try to fill in the remaining gaps. What are we then to do with the (tiny) fraction of cases that aren't covered yet? Do we throw out these existing theories entirely because they don't work in a few cases, or do we try to build on what we know, using some constructs that may or may not be somewhat artificial, to try to figure out exactly what it is we're missing? Too many data will always destroy a theory - but by poking around the edges and adding bits on, we can possibly get some sort of a functional extension tothe existing theory. The main problem is that this is one like one of Rumsfeld's 'unknown unknowns' - we don't actually know what it is that we don't know, so it's really hard to understand it. Sure, the theories aren't perfect, but it's the best we can do at the moment, and is designed *specifically* as a stepping-stone to something more accurate. It's not intellectual dishonesty, it's the scientific method.

    By Blogger John Provis, at 2:36 AM  

  • John -- I appreciate what you are saying, but why can't we just say that the main parts of Newton (and Darwin) look to be well established and that there are other parts that we haven't figured out? To address a failing by formulating some ad hoc agent is like the Norsemen saying that lightning was due to Thor's magic hammer.

    The problem is compounded when these little inventions begin to be soaked into the dogma of the main theory, inviting bad theories to be formulated on top of them, or even worse, discouraging the formulation of good theories that don't happen to conform to the dogma.

    There's one more I'd like to offer: the extra six (or ten?) dimensions that had to be created just to make string theory work. Now that's more than some minor addition.

    By Blogger Charles Watkins, at 4:28 AM  

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