Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Science and Politics

Dan Graur, a molecular biologist at the University of Houston, wrote a tongue-in-cheek, hand-wringy letter to Nature recently (12/20/2007) in which he pretended to be worried that, if "the public were consulted and actively engaged in practical scientific matters" we would be faced with a (literally) nightmarish situation in the United States, where "73% believe in miracles, 68% in angels, 61% in the devil and 70% in the survival of the soul after death". What would be so nightmarish about letting these poor, benighted folks in on "practical scientific matters"? Well, you see, if they had any say in the matter, "the dos and don'ts of science and research" would be dictated by these simpletons, and they would force scientists to "deal with virgin birth, the thermodynamics of hell, the aerodynamics of angel wings, and the physiology and haematology of resurrection."

Although one must assume that Danny boy is just fooling around (though the editors of Nature appear to have taken his letter rather more seriously than he intended it), his letter does not prompt one to admire his intellectual depth or honesty. He surely isn't ignorant of the fact that what most serious religious intellectuals (including religious scientists, a category that appears to be outside Dan's imaginative capacity) worry about on the part of many scientists is not their research programs per se but the concomitant ethical dilemmas that impinge upon many scientific issues, especially in the life sciences. To pretend that the majority who believe in something as ludicrous as "the survival of the soul after death" are going to direct all their effort towards getting scientists to investigate "the aerodynamics of angel wings" is either sheer demagoguery, pure ignorance, or mere ad hominem. In either case it does not reflect well on Dan Graur. It may be mere name-calling, of course, but if so it is in rather spectacularly poor taste and makes the author look irredeemably puerile. On the other hand, if one were to suppose, per impossibile, that Dan Graur really does fear the bizarre scenarios he outlines in his letter, one can only pity the poor students and administration of the University of Houston who have been saddled with such a moron. A more eloquent case against the institution of academic tenure can hardly be imagined.

It is, of course, far more likely that the man intended his letter as a kind of bogey-man threat, intended to highlight his fears about letting non-scientists have anything to do with any kind of dialectic regarding "practical scientific matters" (whatever those are supposed to be--one shudders at the thought of asking such imaginative folks as Dan Graur for anything like a precise definition). On this reading he is acting as the demagogue, stirring up his fellow scientists in a manner that is ironically similar to the very thing that he is worried will happen on a larger scale if "practical scientific matters" were to be subjected to public scrutiny. Does he really think that his fellow scientists are such idiots that they will be swayed by this kind of rhetoric? If not, to whom is his letter really addressed? Surely he doesn't think that Bible-totin' Bubba reads the Correspondence section of Nature? I suspect that what we really have here is a rather embarrassing attempt at the sort of chest-thumping that is not really aimed at anybody in particular but designed instead only to draw attention to the dominant male ape, rather like the cat-calls and epithets one hears being shouted from the crowd when itinerant preachers stand on college campuses proclaiming that sinners are going to burn in hell. On this reading, his letter to Nature is like E. O. Wilson's pathetic letter, allegedly addressed to religious believers but really aimed at fellow atheists, that he published in The New Republic in August of 2006 (and that I assessed here).

The broader issue, though sadly handled in an amateurish and, indeed, anti-intellectual and deeply unhelpful way by folks like Dan Graur, is nevertheless one of serious political import. No thoughtful person really believes that science ought to take place in a political vacuum, because no genuinely intelligent person thinks that such a thing is possible. Fewer, perhaps, understand that scientists themselves are not, as a matter of fact, competent to decide such things for themselves (though their input is obviously necessary), but I suspect that justified worries about such genuine possibilities as the teaching of creationism in the public schools will always be exploited by some crackpots to subvert the scientific process itself by driving a wedge (or attempting to) between the "scientific community" and the "broader public", as though those things were two separate entities. There is no rationally compelling reason why a person with religious beliefs--even apparently wacky ones--ought to be prevented from having any say either in how public funding is distributed in the "scientific community" or in how public policy ought to deal with public issues created by the activities of the "scientific community". Indeed, if the "scientific community" were to repeat some of its past moral clarity and come to the aid of a government seeking reasons to exterminate the Jewish "race", I would hope that Jews everywhere would try to prevent such a thing, even if their only reason for doing so were their peculiar religious beliefs about being God's chosen people. The fear that such a thing may be possible in this day and age may be less warranted than it was in the 1930s, but given that it has, in fact, happened and may very well happen again, it is a far more rational fear than the ones outlined in Graur's letter, which represent things that have never happened anywhere and are not likely to happen any time. That it was the poor benighted religious ignoramuses that opposed Nazi eugenics is a rather delicious irony, though it hardly serves to lessen the contempt one must feel for mentalities such as the one on display in the Correspondence section of Nature this week.

1 comment:

Roland said...

From my PoV as an economist who specializes in the subfield of public choice, it is clear what Graur is up to: He is trying to insulate his own profession from outside oversight in determining funding constraints and priorities. By belittling the scientific understanding of non-scientists, he creates a rationalization for letting scientists police themselves while legislatures write them a blank check for unrestricted research. This, of course, is the dream of all of us in the research professions.

But it remains the job of governments, foundations, and other funders to weigh the demands of researchers against other considerations - competing research projects, as well as social programs and possible socio-cultural consequences of any funded programs. These funders should not abdicate their oversight responsibilities to the interest groups feeding at their troughs.