Friday, October 14, 2005

The Real Threat To Science

Over at The Corner, Tim Graham notes the following (and it excellently demonstrates one of the major reasons why I have come to believe that PBS is a waste of taxpayer's money):

A friend passes along how liberal authors see public radio as the most
natural part of their product pitch. On his blog, Chris Mooney noted he
would be plugging his book "The Republican War Against Science" on Tuesday with
host Ben Merens on the "Ideas Network" at Wisconsin Public Radio. "I'll be talking about the book, which they're using as a premium in their pledge drive." If you listen to the first minute of the show, Merens promised a copy of the book with any $150

Well, I have not read his book (and in all honesty it doesn't appeal much to me) but Virginia Postrel makes a cogent argument why Chris Mooney is full of it--without even mentioning him or his book:

At a business conference this summer in Toronto Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class, told the Canadians again and again how wonderful they are--how open to new ideas, how tolerant, how diverse and therefore how potentially creative. Unlike the U.S., which is afflicted by divisiveness and the religious right, Canada is a model country. That was his story, at any rate.

A few hours later I picked up a newspaper and got a different view. On the op-ed page a scientist was pleading for Canada to repeal its law against cloning human embryos for research. In tolerant, open-minded, diverse and creative Canada therapeutic cloning--defined as creating an in vitro embryo with the same chromosomes as any other individual--is a crime punishable by ten years in prison.

In the divisive, religiously addled U.S. a similar measure has failed repeatedly to become federal law. (Some states ban therapeutic cloning.)

U.S. scientists and their supporters tend to assume biomedical research is threatened by know-nothings on religious crusades. But as the Canadian law illustrates, the long-term threat to genetic research comes less from the religious right than from the secular left. Canada's law forbids all sorts of genetic manipulations, many of them currently theoretical. It's a crime, for instance, to alter inheritable genes.

And the law has provisions the fabled religious right never even talks about. It's a crime to pay a surrogate mother or to make or accept payment for arranging a surrogate. It's a crime to pay egg or sperm donors anything more than "receipted expenses," like taxi fares. Since eggs are used not just in fertility treatments but in research, this prohibition stifles both.

Meanwhile, in backward, intolerant America objections to embryonic stem-cell research and therapeutic cloning are less politically persuasive than they were a few years ago. With the support of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Congress is close to a veto-proof majority to expand federal subsidies for embryonic stem-cell research. Many conservative leaders are uncomfortable opposing potentially lifesaving research.

And a few scientists are beginning to explore ideas for producing embryonic stem cells while respecting religious scruples. It might someday be possible to clone embryonic stem cells without creating and destroying otherwise viable embryos.

That's not an argument for banning embryonic research. But it's a promising route toward a nonpolitical solution to the dispute. As long as religious conservatives object to a specific procedure--destroying embryos--rather than to genetic research or life extension in general, it's possible to treat their concerns as a technical problem.

You can't say the same for the antibiotech left. In liberal Canada, in fact, the law defines cloning expansively. Future procedures that might avoid religious objections would still be illegal. The goal is to stop certain research altogether.

The assertion that I hear repeatedly in academia is that science is "under attack" from the religious right. Yet what I actually observe time and again is that it is the secular left that is intent on suppressing ideas and research that aren't ideologically pure.

I witnessed this same phenomenon in the Soviet Union, during my visits there while doing research at NASA. The secular Soviets continually ridiculed religion, yet in their own scientific writings, the first couple of paragraphs were given to praising and humoring the secular god of Communism.

"GLORY TO SOVIET SCIENCE" huge banners would proclaim, on the outside of Soviet research institutions. And "WORKERS OF THE USSR APPLAUD THE ADVANCES OF SOVIET SCIENCE." Woe be it to any scientist that was interested in testing an hypothesis that might in any way reflect badly on "official" state-sponsored communist ideology (a perfect example is the Lysenko theories in biology which held glorious Soviet biology back for decades).

One thing you can say about the religious right is that their desire to teach "intelligent design" (which I happen to disagree with) is basically a desperate desire to be heard in a system that has deliberately and with malice aforethought been excluding them for years. (You can't even use the word "Christmas" anymore in most schools for fear of offending some sensitive liberal's feelings).

OTOH, on the left, you have women who presume to call themselves "scientists" swooning when a University President suggests the possibility that factors other than sexism might be at work in explaining the state of women in academia.

Which of the above two scenarios has had the most chilling effect on free speech in this country? I submit that it is the latter, which had serious repercussions on that particular University President and effectively warned anyone who might want to explore theories other than sexism that they would be appropriately persecuted.

Crackpot ideas do not hurt science. In fact, a few of them even eventually turn out to have some merit when pursued. What hurts science is when only certain ideas are allowed. When there is a band of elites who determine what is "crackpot" and what isn't. When thinking certain things or exploring certain ideas are considered not politically correct.

I happen to think that intelligent design is a "crackpot idea" for various reasons, but I don't see the harm of pursuing it to its scientific conclusion. Let anyone who wants to come up with a way of testing it or studying it. Have institutes that support research in it. There are some pretty bizarre theories out there in astrophysics that aren't much better in the testing department. But I would hate for anyone's ideas to be banned from discussion.

Even in the Soviet Union, if Lysenko's theories had not been enshrined by the communist state, then science could have moved on--as it tends to do--and taken the interesting parts of Lysenko's thoughts and either disproved or amended them. In other words, Lysenko's ideas were not a threat to science until they became recognized by the politburo as being the one and only "politically correct" answer to all biological questions.

In the religious right's case, we have a group who has ideas and who wants to be heard (so what if I think they verge on the "crackpot" side of things--I am not omnipotent. Something valuable might come out of research and study in this area) . In the secular left's case, we have a group that is intent on silencing all opposing viewpoints. They believe implicitly that they are omnipotent, obviously.

Now, ask yourself, which group presents the real threat to free scientific inquiry?

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