August 7, 2011 | David F. Coppedge

When Science Gets Political

The classic view of the scientist as an unbiased observer of nature was shattered with the development of the atomic bomb.  Suddenly, it became apparent to the physicists working out the equations of nuclear fission that they could not absolve themselves completely of responsibility for the political uses of their research.  Yet since the days of the French Academy of Sciences in the 17th century, kings and other rulers have called on natural philosophers to inform their decisions.  These days, scientific institutions state political opinions at will.  Some recent news items show them inserting their opinions beyond what the data alone might indicate.

Population:  A series on global population in Science at the end of July included a Chinese public policy expert telling China what to do about its one-child policy,1 a demographer at UC Berkeley telling the UN how to project global population trends,2 and another expert discussing the “upside of downsizing.”3

One unusual article in the series was by David Malakoff, a writer (not a scientist), who asked, “Are more people necessarily a problem?”4  He told how the inhabitants of Machaco, “a parching desert of rocks, stones and sand” in Kenya, used to live in miserable poverty and hopelessness.  Today, 1.5 million people call it home, and are much better off.  Social and economic changes allowed the population to “regreen once-barren hillsides, reinvigorate failing soils, reduce birth rates, and increase crop production and incomes,” supporting the counter-intuitive idea “that rapid human population growth, even in some of Earth’s driest, most challenging environments, is not necessarily a recipe for disaster—and can even bring benefits.”  More people meant more innovation, more labor and more political involvement.  He added:

And Machakos isn’t alone. In other hard-pressed regions, researchers are finding that even explosive population growth can be accompanied by some surprising trends—such as increased tree cover, more productive farms and economies, and improved well-being. Such results are adding new fuel to long-standing arguments that sheer numbers alone don’t determine the consequences of population growth, and that a complex mix of culture, socioeconomics, and biology also plays a role. The findings are also renewing interest in the work of a pioneering Danish economist who challenged conventional notions about the dire consequences of more people—and are raising hopes that even the poorest, fastest-growing regions could, with the right mix of policies, ride out the global population tsunami.

This contradicts Malthus, he said.  To Malakoff, Malthusian pessimism should be balanced by the views of Ester Boserup, a Danish economist who died in 1999, who argued that population growth could intensify new technology and more labor to get more productivity out of the land—and even decrease erosion—leading to more sustainability, not less. He added, though, that not all economists agree, and location may play a crucial role in outcome. One point seems clear; more people does not necessarily lead to catastrophe.  “The trick is getting good policy that addresses local conditions and recognizes the needs and knowledge of local people,” one geographer said.  This paper by Malakoff stood in stark contrast to the others with more dire predictions.

Stem CellsNature proudly presented Paul Knoepfler,5 who decided to take his science to the blogosphere and become a stem-cell blogger, taking his views online to argue that success with adult stem cells is not “a panacea that make embryonic stem cells redundant”.  His article did not mention ethics.  A Nature editorial August 4 also presented cautious optimism in support of the recent ruling that allowed federal funding for embryonic stem cell research to proceed.6  “The law has got this one right, but being right is rarely enough.”

Climate change.  In Nature News, Jeff Tollefson championed the cause of scientists who have challenged Joe Bast, a libertarian who, with his Heartland Institute, have led skeptics of human-caused global warming. “The skeptic meets his match,” Tollefson wrote, adding, “Joe Bast and his libertarian think tank are a major force among climate sceptics — but they just can't win the battle over science.”  (Ironically, Andy Coghlan at New Scientist suggested that rapid climate change was responsible for sending Australopithecus out of the trees to begin the rise to humans.)

Evolution.  In a news focus article, Science magazine noted that schools are entering debates about whether to teach anthropogenic global warming as controversial or not.7  A Colorado activist noted, “Evolution is still the big one, but climate change is catching up.”  Writer Sara Reardon made it clear her disdain for members of the public who have conducted a “the century-long assault on evolution” as she called it.

Utopia.  Shadows of utopian dreams lingered behind an article on PhysOrg called, “Helping to map the foundations of a ‘Big Society’.”  Members of an institution called the Third Sector Research Centre (TSRC) in Southampton, UK, a “broad interdisciplinary mix of academics,” are “bringing together a wide range of evidence to analyze the uneven capacity of communities, and are seeking to relate these patterns to underlying social and economic conditions.”  Third Sector refers to non-government organizations.  The TSRC appears ready to inform governments about how to allocate public funding.  Its director said, “This calls for creative thought about how we match community needs, with people who have the time and resources to contribute voluntary effort.”  The TSRC website sees its vision as “informing civil society.”

PhysOrg even had an article about a professor advising the UK about religious education. The overlap of science and politics is a fact of life since World War II.  In many cases, as with the French Academy or NASA, science can provide benefits and national prestige.  Individual scientists, too, have just as much right to political involvement as any other citizen. What becomes worrisome is when scientists and their institutions become blind to their own biases, or think that their opinions are somehow superior because they are “scientific”—a word that has become loaded with political overtones.

1. Xhise Peng, “China’s Demographic History and Future Challenges,” Science, 29 July 2011: Vol. 333 no. 6042, pp. 581-587, DOI: 10.1126/science.1209396.

2. Ronald Lee, “The Outlook for Population Growth,” Science, 29 July 2011: Vol. 333 no. 6042, pp. 569-573, DOI: 10.1126/science.1208859.

3. Dennis Normile, “The Upside of Downsizing,” Science, 29 July 2011: Vol. 333 no. 6042, p. 547, DOI: 10.1126/science.333.6042.547.

4. David Malakoff, “Are More People Necessarily a Problem?”, Science, 29 July 2011: Vol. 333 no. 6042, pp. 544-546, DOI: 10.1126/science.333.6042.544.

5. Paul Knoepfler, “My year as a stem-cell blogger,” Nature News 475, 425 (2011) | doi:10.1038/475425a.

6. Editorial, “Safe, not secure,” Nature 476 (04 August 2011), page 5,    doi:10.1038/476005b.

7. Sara Reardon, “Climate Change Sparks Battles in Classroom,” Science5 August 2011: Vol. 333 no. 6043 pp. 688-689, DOI: 10.1126/science.333.6043.688.

We would not deny any scientist the right to speak out and vote.  We just think that Nature, Science, and many of the scientific institutions should be more forthcoming about their biases, and allow more balance in their publications. Usually, everything they write is pro-embryonic stem cells, pro-abortion, pro-human caused global warming, pro-evolution, pro-big government, liberal-leftist, globalist and elitist.  The Malakoff article was a rare exception; but even so, it failed to point to the real problem about sustainability: corrupt governments.  When people have freedom and strong moral principles, the world is a bountiful gift from the Creator to faithful stewards.

Incidentally, notice how scientists can be blind to key factors in their investigations.  Medical Xpress noted that religious beliefs have a profound effect on worry, with patients having faith in a loving God faring much better than those who see God as punishing or indifferent.  Would natural science have thought of that factor?  The author of a study noted that psychologists rarely ask about their patients’ beliefs.  “That’s crazy.  We don’t even ask.  We aren’t trained to.”

Scientific institutions need to stop pretending to be the rational advisors to the world.  They need to open the doors to those outside the one-party-rule castle they have erected, and let the sun shine in.  Sunshine is a good disinfectant.

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  • RedReader says:

    Note there are no arithmetic skeptics.  The first person who doubted 2 + 2 = 4 was promptly quieted by a simple proof.  This shows that people are not stupid.  “Show me the proof.”  Easy.  But, evolution, climate change, embryonic stem cell advocates,  bluster, ridicule and quote each other RATHER than offer the simple 2+2 proof that would seal their case.  Why?  Because they don’t have proof, they have only their faith(s).

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