March 17, 2016 | David F. Coppedge

Corruption in Big Science Exposed

A commentator chastises scientists and their leaders for contributing to the destruction of the civilization that nourishes them.

Colin Macilwain, a commentator for Nature, is of a rare breed willing to expose the biases of his bosses. He attended the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) last month and had a great time. The sessions were stimulating, the fellowship was great, and lots of good ideas were shared about “how to engage the public,” the theme of the meeting.

The only trouble was what was going on outside the hotel — in the United States and the world at large.

In fact, the AAAS meeting took place in a sort of semi-conscious never-never land. The science-policy crowd talked a great game even as the pillars of the republic crashed noisily down around their heads.

And thus he launches into a sermon to fellow scientists about their role in current events. His opinions about Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz or France’s “far-right politician Marine Le Pen” are, as could be expected, along a liberal line, but that’s not as important as his opinion about his scientific colleagues. In their “semi-conscious ever-never land” bubble, his colleagues at the AAAS meeting were oblivious to the role their own institutions have played in worrisome trends Macilwain sees as threatening western civilization. Supporters of Trump, Cruz and Sanders, he notes, were not involved in the discussions.

They never are. Senior scientists are instead inextricably linked to the centrist, free-market political establishment that has tended to rule, but which is now falling dangerously from public favour.

Whether his assessment of blame is on target or not, Macilwain is more upset with Big Science. Western civilization is on the rocks, falling like Rome, and all scientists want to do is keep returning to the government for money to support their own interests.

Many laboratory researchers perceive this, I fear, to be someone else’s problem. But it isn’t. If the West is really in its decline-and-fall stage, its Caligula stage, its Donald Trump stage, then this isn’t just an issue for political and financial elites. It’s also a problem for the ‘experts’ who crawl around after these elites, massaging their egos and defending their interests.

Trump supporters will certainly be outraged at being associated with Caligula! Nevertheless, Macilwain doesn’t care so much whether it is Trump or Sanders who is at fault. Scientists are the ones who need repentance. They pretend to be above it all, but they are as guilty as everyone, thinking themselves impartial and above the fray.

The problem extends down into the community itself. We like to talk about ‘engaging the public’, but many scientists really just want to talk at them. And too many ordinary scientists hold politicians in utter intellectual contempteven though it is the scientists who have chosen a career that allows them to pursue relatively simple problems (such as building a machine to detect gravitational waves) rather than genuinely difficult ones (such as running a social-care programme in a small town).

And those senior scientists who do engage with the government or public — as scientific advisers, for example — often take up highly political positions without acknowledging that they are doing so. For example, they support free-trade agreements that cede the right of democratic governments to control things such as cigarette advertising or pesticide use without hard, scientific evidence. This is a political position that is pursued with great dedication by global corporations — and that is haplessly bought into by many scientists without a thought for its consequences.

His hyperbole should hit a nerve. What? Detecting gravitational waves is simpler than running a social care program? Doesn’t Colin know how expensive the detector was, and how many years of work that took? His point sinks in on reflection. Real people outside the walls of establishment science are facing real-life problems that are difficult for them. They couldn’t care less about gravitational waves. Yet scientists proudly “talk at them” about reality, pretending to know what’s important. As elitists, they fail to recognize or acknowledge their own political biases.

Some individual scientists or groups of scientists are counteracting the isolationist trend that is hastening the collapse, he notes.

But at the top, there is paralysis: leading scientific organizations do little except chase money and reinforce the ruling nexus of politics and finance — even since the financial crisis of 2008, which discredited the free-market philosophy that underpins that nexus. I argued years ago (see Nature 479, 447; 2011) that scientific leaders had failed to respond in any meaningful way to that collapse, and I’m still waiting.

The political structure of the West is in deep trouble, and should it fall apart, there will be plenty of blame to go around. Most will go to political and financial elites, or to rowdy mobs. But some will belong to people in the middle who have taken public funds, defended elites and then stood back and watched as democracy got ridden over a cliff.

Macilwain is sketchy about his political and economic philosophy. At one point he seems to say that free markets undergird science; here he seems to say the collapse of 2008 discredited the free-market philosophy. It appears he’s portraying an unholy alliance between politics and finance (i.e., big banks). In that case, scientists have been co-conspirators. They take public funds and defend the very elites who collapsed the market and have wrested political power from the hands of citizens. What matters for science is a stable society. You can’t have that in a collapsed civilization run by mobs or by Caligulas.

Update 3/17/16: See Wesley J. Smith’s take on Macilwain’s editorial at Evolution News & Views.

If you are a conservative, don’t be overly distracted by Macilwain’s mischaracterization of America’s conservative candidates who repeatedly, vociferously advocate for free markets, prosperity and the rule of law (including the end of “crony capitalism” and other forms of corruption). What’s valuable in his editorial is his rare willingness to criticize Big Science. Scientists pretend to want to “engage the public” but the dialogue is all one way. They hold politicians in utter contempt, but run to them for money. They defend elites but fail to recognize their own elitist attitudes.

Macilwain, a Brit, was able to state this about the Americans. But we wonder if the Editors of Nature felt he was hitting a little close to home. He was, after all, speaking about western civilization, not just American civilization.  We hope his job is safe; scientists need his voice to shatter their illusions of self-righteousness and intellectual superiority.

Still, key factors were missing from his editorial. His country has become utterly secularized. What does that do to the Protestant work ethic that undergirds a market economy? His country has been invaded by Muslim immigrants, many of whom hold western civilization in contempt and prefer a Sharia dictatorship worse than any Rome under Caligula. And while many European countries are retreating from socialism, an America under avowed socialist Bernie Sanders would run up a debt and deficit so rapidly on entitlements, it would quickly dry up scientific funding. Maybe he should think again about those “right wing” candidates and listen to what they really believe about the Constitution, liberty, and free markets. Neither a bankrupt economy nor a dictatorial regime is likely to provide a safe place for science to flourish.

We’re not endorsing a candidate in the lively American political scene going on now. We would only like to remind those readers who fear God that the Apostle Paul instructed Timothy to instruct his church: “First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (I Timothy 2:1-4). A civilization conducive to a “tranquil and quiet life” is good not only for Christ followers, but also for scientists and for social workers in small towns. And need we remind everyone that knowledge of the truth (a goal of science) presupposes a standard of truth that secularism cannot provide? If truth evolves, it’s not the truth. Scientists need to ponder the origin of truth.

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