April 9, 2008 | David F. Coppedge

Big Science Fights Its Customers

Has “Big Science” lost contact with the public it serves?  Several recent reports show the scientific establishment (as represented by the leading journals) taking positions at polar opposites of the majority, and wagging the dog of the body politic.

  1. Chimeras:  Even though ethicists have called it “a monstrous attack on human rights,” to blend human embryos with animals, UK scientists created the first chimera of cow and human genetic material, reported PhysOrg.
  2. Stem cells:  Induced pluripotent stem cells apparently have all the benefits of embryonic stem cells and none of the ethical problems.  Why, then, does Nature continue to argue that embryonic stem cell research must continue?
  3. Presidential pressure:  At the same time Nature and Science have been stifling debate on intelligent design and stem cell research, they have been calling for a “science debate” among the US presidential candidates.  While science policy is certainly a major topic for any presidential campaign, it’s apparent from the Science Debate line-up of supporters (mostly liberals) that the pressure is not so much to give the public and its candidates a chance to freely express their views on the role of science in society, but to find out which candidates align with the goals of the science establishment, and to use their statements as campaign fodder.
  4. Expelled:  If anyone thought for a moment that the scientific establishment would be taken aback by the popularity of Ben Stein’s upcoming documentary Expelled (see 03/29/2008, 04/07/2008), and perhaps feel a little fear or remorse at this public backlash against scientific intolerance, they need only look at today’s post on the Nature blog.  A spirit of contempt exudes from every line of the entry.  “Meanwhile, for those not utterly tired of Expelled, the National Center for Science Education has launched an Expelled Exposed website.”  The motives of those wanting to open the debate about evolution were suspect: “religiously motivated politicking” and “subterfuge for injecting the religious beliefs held by some into the science classroom” – but no such motive-questioning in the other direction could be found.  Presumably, Nature and the NCSE always act from pure motives.1

Scientific institutions were founded to serve humanity through research, innovation, national prestige and improving the health and safety of its citizens.  Open inquiry, debate, and academic freedom have always been the heart and soul of science.  Many individual scientists still exemplify those ideals.  Judging from the “official” positions of the leading journals and institutions, though, has Big Science fallen into a self-serving body with its own political agenda, and the power to marginalize and stifle the views of those who disagree with official positions?

1.  In science, the motives of a person making an argument are supposed to be irrelevant to its validity.  Even if Nature could prove that religion played a role in motivating some of the backers, neither the Academic Freedom Act nor the Expelled movie advocate teaching intelligent design in the science classroom; they only argue that scientific criticisms of Darwinism should not be forbidden.  Besides, the leading spokespersons for Darwinism admitted on camera that atheism motivated their antagonism to intelligent design.  Nature failed to criticize that religious motivation – or even mention it.

Big Science has lost its innocence.  Scientific institutions were once clubs of citizens who did scientific experiments out of their love for knowledge and desire for truth.  In the 20th century, especially after World War II, science became a necessity for national prestige, military success and economic innovation.  Through the advocacy of scientists like Vannevar Bush, the government began to pour millions of dollars into pure and applied science.
    Power corrupts.  The momentum gained by scientific institutions invariably turned their interests inward.  What used to consist of small, privately-funded associations is now Big Science: huge institutions, feeding at the public trough, with a political stake in their ability to maintain a monolithic consensus as they lobby the government.  Almost vanished is the heroic individual of yesteryear, the Faraday or Kepler revealing new knowledge to the world.  A practicing scientist today needs to know how to work the system.  He or she must belong to the right associations, attend the right conferences, and say the right things.  Individuals get swept up into the funding rush and herd mentality in order to survive.  The managers at the top of the food chain are far removed from the worker bees at the bottom.  Science institutions these days are like small cities with their own official press core, employment agencies, affirmative action boards, diversity and inclusion departments and P&P (policies and procedures) dictums.
    Intelligent design represents one of the biggest threats to Big Science (not science itself) in recent decades.  The leading advocates of ID, all with impeccable academic credentials, know how to make an inference to the best explanation based on the collective evidence available from astronomy, paleontology and cell biology.  They also know that all pretence of epistemic superiority by modern science has been undermined, not by religious claims, but by the best thinkers in philosophy of science for over a century.  They see through the phony, outdated “scientism” that persists in public perception.  And so they defy the consensus.  They demand a return to academic freedom and debate.
    Reason, empiricism, argumentation about the evidence – one would think scientists would welcome this.  Instead, Big Science flexes its muscle and says that anyone outside The Wall is ignorant, stupid, wicked, or (worse) religiously motivated.  Their behavior is reminiscent of the self-serving communist party bosses who did whatever they needed to do to hang onto their cushy jobs.  Knowledge, ethics, integrity – those are lost in the system.  Maintaining power is what matters.
    Reader, please see what is going on.  Sad as it seems, you must jettison your beloved old preconceptions that today’s Big Science institutions represent neutral, unbiased, honest, sincere seekers after Truth.  Look at them now like the other large political pressure groups – Big Labor, Big Education, the Military-Industrial Complex, Big Entertainment, and Big Wall Street.  Each of these bodies has upright individuals who do the best job they can.  But the scientific institutions are about consensus and politics and money.  They are incorrigible.  All dissent will be crushed.
    What is to be done?  For one, vote your conscience.  Write letters.  Support academic freedom, like the Academic Freedom Petition.  Get involved with your school board at the grass roots level.  Support a good turnout at the Expelled movie, to raise awareness of the problem.  Encourage politicians to stand up to the Big Science lobbyists.  Become a Citizen Scientist.  And wherever you can, hold Big Science to the fire of its conscience.  Science was born in a culture of openness, individuality, integrity, and above all, a love for knowledge and a desire to help people.  It sought for the truth about the world.  It was willing to follow the evidence wherever it leads, recognizing its own limitations.  Sad to say, Big Science needs to be shamed back to those core values.  They are supposed to be accountable to the people.  Stand up to them.  Don’t be intimidated by the NCSE and other dogmatists; point them to the battle going on in their own conscience.  When they contradict their own core values, call them on the carpet for it.  Half the battle will be over when you get the Big Science bureaucrats, KGB and propagandists to shut their loud mouths and blush a little.

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