Saturday, May 12, 2007


Yuval Levin has a fascinating post up at The Corner that I found particularly thought provoking. It is about Science and the left:

...the left actually has a much more complicated set of problems with science that are explored far more rarely than those of the right. Scientific advance, for instance, is the great engine behind capitalism, and is in that respect responsible for much that the left has disliked about the west since the 18th century. Much of what progressives oppose is precisely progress. Science, extended beyond its appropriate bounds, is also the chief contemporary threat to our continued allegiance to the principle of human equality, which has been at the heart of the liberal worldview. Put simply, science seems to demonstrate we are not equal—this after all is the problem many on the left had with The Bell Curve. Of course, it only seems that way if you take a very peculiar view of what the principle of equality actually is. We are equal not in our natural capacities—obviously we are not all equally strong, or smart, or tall, or healthy—but in our standing as human beings in relation to something higher than ourselves. But the left is no longer well equipped to offer that defense of equality, since it requires all manner of premises they have given up.

The assertion that I hear repeatedly in the academic setting 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" (a theory I do not think has sufficient evidence to be included in children's science textbooks) basically represents a rather desperate desire to have their religious views respected in a system that has deliberately and with malice aforethought been excluding them for years. even as other "religions" views are substituted. As examples, consider that even the word "Christmas" is prohibited in schools these days for fear of offending some sensitive leftist's feelings; but these same leftists are eager to make sure kids learn all about Islam (we don't want them to become Islamophobic, do we?), or that the religion of the left-- multiculturalism-- is integrated into the curriculum without so much as a by-your-leave.

We are also subjected to grown women (or should I say "indoctrinated feminists"?) who presume to call themselves "scientists" swooning when a University President suggests the possibility that factors other than sexism--i.e., biological considerations-- might be at work in explaining disparities between women and men in academia. That University president was forced out of his position for daring to have such ideas and expressing them in a spirit of open-mindedness.

I guess some ideas are far too threatening to be freely discussedand debated.

So, which of the above two scenarios has had the most chilling effect on free speech in this country? The debate about intelligent design? Or the lack of one about the biological differences between males and females? I submit that 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.

Meanwhile, no one who advocates intelligent design theory or creationism has ever advocated (that I am aware) that evolution theory be struck from the curriculum and not be allowed in public discourse or debate. All they ask is that their ideas be included in the debate.

Interestingly, on their own (i.e., without the state or religion literally forcing them into people's minds and enshrining them as scientific dogma) crackpot ideas do not hurt science. In fact, a few of them even eventually turn out to have some merit when pursued. And a few that were considered "crackpot" in their day ( like the earth not being the center of the solar system, for example) have turned out to stand the test of time and reality.

What hurts science is when only certain ideas are allowed; or when there is a band of elites who determine what is "crackpot" and what isn't. And, when thinking 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 on it. If there is any merit in the theory, it will come out. After all, there are some pretty bizarre theories out there in astrophysics that don't have much evidence and have not discovered adequate ways to be tested--but I really hate that anyone's ideas to be banned from discussion and refutation.

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 some 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 and know which ideas are worthwhile and which ones are not.

A while back, Virginia Postrel tackled this same question in a column titled "Criminalizing Science":
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 politicization of science is what really threatens science. Making "global warming" the absolute dogma of political policy is just as dangerous to free scientific inquiry--if not more so--than merely objecting because of one's religious beliefs to a specific technical procedure used in science.

Just as Lysenkoism was made official state-sponsored biology by the communists, who saw in it a chance to use science to force people to accept their ideology, today's leftists desire their popular scientific theories to be declared official state dogma. Once that goal is accomplished, then they do not ever again have to refute or deal with any pesky ideas or theories that are not compatible with their ideological agenda.

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

Political opportunists will always try to appropriate science to advance their ideological agendas; but, believe it or not, as long as ideas are able to be freely expressed and investigated, real science will always be able to move beyond the political and filter the bad hypotheses from the good--with or without the opportunists' assistance; and even without state support or sanction!

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