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.