We are living in an age of politicized science. That’s nothing new — science has always been politicized to some extent — but the way it’s being politicized today is medieval, not modern. When science was politicized and modern, it was a respected tool; think the Manhattan Project. Scientific findings were accepted, even exploited, to advance political ends. Today, a more medieval mood prevails whereby science is forced down to the level of opinion and debated as if it’s equivalent with superstition, personal opinion, or demagoguery.
There are many reasons for this. In some cases, science has been conflated with show business (An Inconvenient Truth, Michael Moore movies), which oddly makes it seem less authoritative and creates a politicization of its own. One could argue that science is weaker when it has a soundtrack and box office.
But the reactionary religious right and its blunt political machinations are the real sources of the medieval mindset assaulting science these days.
Recently, two topics — the Big Bang and evolution — were excised by the National Science Board (NSB) from a National Science Foundation (NSF) report of attitudes and practices around science education in America. The change was made at the last minute, after the White House had approved a draft containing the sections that were later eliminated. Science broke the story about the controversy in its news section.
The unedited version of the sections in question is available online. The data show that the US remains well behind other developed countries in its populace’s acceptance of the theories of evolution and the Big Bang. Only 45% of Americans accept that humans evolved from other animals, and only 33% accept the Big Bang as the origin of the universe.
The rationale offered by those defending the decision to excise these trending facts is flimsy to the extreme. Louis Lanzerotti, an astrophysicist at the New Jersey Institute of Technology who chairs NSB’s Science and Engineering Indicators Committee, defended the 11th-hour edit because the data were:
. . . flawed indicators of scientific knowledge because responses conflated knowledge and beliefs.
Ponder that a moment — the point of science is largely to test beliefs by demanding evidence before accepting them as knowledge. Here, a scientist on the NSB is claiming that a survey (evidence) describing the shift from belief to knowledge in the US is “flawed” and that the questions were “conflated.” It’s a maddening obfuscation.
The NSB member responsible for deleting the text was John T. Bruer, head of the James S. McDonnell Foundation in St. Louis. He supposedly had reservations about the questions before, claiming they are “very blunt instruments not designed to capture public understanding,” but they survived his red pen in prior surveys.
In a shift from the prior Administration, the Obama White House reacted with stern displeasure at the post-hoc edit.
Jon Miller, a science literacy researcher at Michigan State University, and author of the same survey 30 years ago, has no sympathies for Bruer’s rationale:
I think that is a nonsensical response [that reflects] the religious right’s point of view. Evolution and the big bang are not a matter of opinion. If a person says that the earth really is at the center of the universe, even if scientists think it is not, how in the world would you call that person scientifically literate? Part of being literate is to both understand and accept scientific constructs.
I’ll quibble with Miller on one point — not all scientific constructs should be accepted. Skepticism remains a healthy part of scientific literacy. But skepticism should lead to more and better science, not the suppression of facts.
The denial of science has a related aspect, I think — the blind belief in American supremacy. Despite the fact that we’re behind many countries in areas such as health policies, technologies, transportation, and education, many Americans continue to believe or assert we’re ahead. And there’s obviously a lot of political mileage to squeeze from these assertions. Suppressing facts like this might spring from religious beliefs or political cowardice, but might be reinforced by latent jingoism.
It’s hard to tell what motivates these people, but their tactics — suppression, donning the garb of science to confuse science, bombast, and pure misinformation — are antithetical to the scientific endeavor to describe the world as it is. And to have such attitudes in the halls of science, especially in positions of power and influence, reveals how insidious ideas can be, even when they’re medieval and discredited.
10 Thoughts on "The Trouble with the Truth: Politics Squelches Science Again"
As someone who does the science of science I have long been fascinated by these figures. But in this case the issue seems to be one of statistical validity. The survey is designed to measure literacy, that is, understanding of the science. Instead it is measuring acceptance, which is very different in these two cases.
Many people who reject the theory of human evolution understand biological evolution very well.
As for the big bang, my understanding has always been that the creationists like it, while many scientists are skeptical. In any case the basic questions are what are we trying to measure and do these rejected questions do it? Probably not.
Despite being a ‘militant atheist’, I agree with the rationale given for removing these questions from the report.
If, for example, you ask ‘What does science say about X?’, that’s different from asking ‘What is the truth about X?’ or ‘What do you believe about X?’
Since the survey is about scientific literacy, i.e. how much science do the the respondents know, asking questions which make them hide their scientific knowledge in order to protect their religious views is not helpful.
I think there’s more here than the intellectual decision to strike the questions from the report. If that were the case, the proper way to accomplish that would have been to first strike the questions from the survey. Failing that, an argument to strike the results from the report is much weaker, but still possible. To give the White House the assurance that the material is destined for the report and yank it at the 11th hour is very problematic, and speaks to intellectual cowardice, I think.
Who is the coward and what are they afraid of? Your rant does not make this clear.
Also curious is why these survey results would go to the White House for approval? I can see OMB/OIRA or OSTP, but not the WH.
It’s obvious who I’m referring to: John Bruer and Louis Lanzerotti. I don’t know what they’re afraid of, but they’re apparently scared of confrontation.
I can’t answer your last question. I could speculate that it’s because the Executive Branch is worried about science being manipulated and wanted to prevent just these kinds of things. That would be a departure from the past administration.
Making personal attacks without understanding or evidence is a bad plan, especially for a business blog. Perhaps you should stick to beating the drum for new technologies and castigating your industry for not adopting them. It is far more amusing.
I can see that the creationists might object to classifying human evolution as settled science, but they should also love the low numbers. As for the big bang, like I said I think you have the demographics wrong. I could see NSB dropping these numbers because they are embarrassing. The point is that this is not a simple issue.
By the way, “religious right” is not a pejorative term, it is a segment of the electorate.
I agree, personal attacks without understanding or evidence is a bad plan. I was attacking the actions, not the people. They did the actions, but I see the difference between “bad person” and “bad action” as quite clear.
“Religious right” is a segment of the electorate, but in the realm of science, politics should be viewed for what it is. Their politics are quite often anti-scientific.
Since you insist on pressing the issue I will press back. (BTW I am not a member of the religious right.) Give me your best example or two of such anti-scientific politics (never mind your “quite often” claim for now).
Bear in mind that there is nothing anti-scientific about regulating scientific activity, based on ethical and moral principles. Human subject experimentation, for example, is heavily regulated. Perhaps you just disagree with the religious right on these principles.
I see Kent’s point about the rationale being valid but perhaps not telling the whole story. We can’t know whether they just decided the way the question was asked was flawed or if they bowed to pressure from somewhere, but I think it’s kinda pointless to speculate. The best thing would be to conduct the survey again, correcting the flaws from the initial version.
I can certainly give examples of anti-scientific politics. Laws attempting to regulate abortion or stem cell research immediately come to mind. Also, the federal education standards in the US seem to be politically-derived, with what the children actually need to be taught to be successful in the world being much lower on the priority list.
Abortion and stem cell restrictions are merely examples of what I described before, namely restrictions based on specific moral principles. The fact that you do not share those principles does not make them anti-scientific.
As for education, content standards are set by the states, not the Feds. Science standards happen to be my present project (http://www.stemed.info). My team has cataloged all the science concepts taught in K-12. It works out to about one major concept every half hour so it is quite rigorous, too much in my view. The popular notion that something important is not being taught is a fallacy.