Art Hobson, email@example.com
NWA Times, 1 Apr 2012
We are children of the universe
Nina Federoff is an accomplished woman. A pioneering researcher in plant genetics, she holds an honored professorial chair at Pennsylvania State University, is a member of the Santa Fe Institute on complex systems research, and was Science and Technology Adviser to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice from 2007 to 2010. In 2011 she assumed the Presidency of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), perhaps the largest and most prestigious scientific organization in the world.
It must have been a big moment for her when she presented her retiring presidential lecture at the 2012 AAAS conference. Although the conference theme was "Building a global knowledge society," her remarks were anything but reassuring on this score. "We are sliding back into a dark era," she said, "and there seems little we can do about it. I am profoundly depressed at just how difficult it has become merely to get a realistic conversation started on issues such as climate change or genetically modified organisms." She confess to being "scared to death" by the anti-science movement spreading across the US and the world.
This scientific era has given us much, but it's also presented us with new dangers and the need to change if we are to live with the power that we have created. But it's difficult for people to change and, as Federoff points out, we're not doing a good job of it. Instructive examples are the refusal of many to recognize the dangers of human-caused global warming, and to recognize one of science's primary truths: humans and all other animals are connected by a four-billion-year web of evolution. We are children of the universe, subject to the universe's laws, but we have a hard time admitting this truth or living with it.
Reporters describe a "palpable chill" among the 8,000 scientists at the 2012 AAAS meeting, reflecting a fear that science is under sustained attack from an unholy alliance of religious fundamentalists, business interests, and mostly-conservative politicians. The problem with fundamentalism is pretty obvious: global warming denial and creationism, for example, not to mention fundamentalist terrorism here and worldwide.
For insight into the problems with business, read Naomi Oreskes book The Merchants of Doubt, which details how corporate America has used big money and a gullible public to obscure the truth about tobacco smoke, acid rain, the ozone hole, secondhand smoke, and global warming. Also see (on the web) the recent Union of Concerned Scientists report "Heads they win, tails we lose: How corporations corrupt science at the public's expense," presenting many examples of manipulation of science and attacks on scientists.
And for anti-science attitudes from politicians, see the Republican primary election. Kerry Emanuel, an atmospheric scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a registered Republican, is one of a number of prominent climate scientists who identify themselves as Republican who say their attempts in recent years to educate the GOP leadership on the scientific evidence of human-made climate change has been futile. Many have given up trying and the few who continue notice little change after speaking with politicians. According to Emanuel, "No GOP candidates or policymakers want to touch the issue, and those of us trying to educate them are left frustrated. Climate change has become a third rail in politics."
During a February speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Rick Santorum castigated his rival Mitt Romney for buying into global warming and supporting a cap-and-trade solution. Santorum, like many conservatives, labels global warming "a hoax." These attacks have caused Romney to flip to professing he is uncertain about the issue and wouldn't take action on it. Santorum's attacks have similarly reversed Newt Gingrich's 2007 view that "the evidence is sufficient that we should move towards the most effective possible steps to reduce carbon-loading of the atmosphere." He now proposes abolishing the Environmental Protection Agency because of its "attempts to regulate greenhouse gases," and, like Romney, professes uncertainty about the issue.
Science is defined by the scientific process--a refined form of the common-sense advice to look around at the actual evidence, and to apply one's rational brain to that evidence. Whether we're talking about religious fundamentalists, self-interested business people, or political ideologues, the fundamental contradiction of the modern age is that we do not let evidence and reason be our guides, yet science is based on evidence and reason. This contradiction is getting us into big trouble. We've got to begin thinking for ourselves, with the emphasis on "thinking."