Science is about findings and facts

Posted in Culture of Lickspittle at 4:34 pm by George Smith

What is the national cancer that has eaten up reason? It is the Republican Party, the extreme right, and its media. Almost single-handedly, it is they who have damaged the American public’s perceptions of science. We endure this bad time, one of government paralysis, stagnation and the flaunting of ignorant beliefs of no substance as righteous virtue, hoping that something might change. But hope is not a strategy.

Yesterday, the New York Times published an opinion entitled “Welcome to the Age of Denial,” by Adam Frank.

An astrophysicist, Frank discussed the ignorance of the American populace with regards to science, and how it has — discouragingly — steadily increased.

He writes:

IN 1982, polls showed that 44 percent of Americans believed God had created human beings in their present form. Thirty years later, the fraction of the population who are creationists is 46 percent.

In 1989, when “climate change??? had just entered the public lexicon, 63 percent of Americans understood it was a problem. Almost 25 years later, that proportion is actually a bit lower, at 58 percent …

Today, however, it is politically effective, and socially acceptable, to deny scientific fact. Narrowly defined, “creationism??? was a minor current in American thinking for much of the 20th century. But in the years since I was a student, a well-funded effort has skillfully rebranded that ideology as “creation science??? and pushed it into classrooms across the country. Though transparently unscientific, denying evolution has become a litmus test for some conservative politicians, even at the highest levels.

Meanwhile, climate deniers, taking pages from the creationists’ PR playbook, have manufactured doubt about fundamental issues in climate science that were decided scientifically decades ago. And anti-vaccine campaigners brandish a few long-discredited studies to make unproven claims about links between autism and vaccination.

One of the things scientists do is to accurately describe observables. Frank sort of does it when he mentions “conservative politicians.”

Perhaps there is a reason for this tip-toeing. Diplomacy. He wants laymen to read what he’s written and not close their minds immediately because he mentions the GOP directly.

But this, in and of itself, is a concession to how much harm the right has done to the ability to issue public statements of science fact. It has made, as Frank notes, the statement of what is scientifically true into a process in which laymen now believe it is all politically motivated from the left.

Almost exclusively, science denial is the property of the right. Science did not leave the GOP. The GOP threw down science.

As I’ve written before on this blog, I was at Lehigh University when Michael Behe was hired into the biochemistry floor where I was a Ph.D. student.

Behe was the man who renamed creationism into “intelligent design.” He was cagey, kept his mouth shut about his beliefs and plans until he had tenure and Lehigh’s scientists were asleep at the wheel. Initially, they paid little attention to what his best-selling books on intelligent design, Of Pandas and People and Darwin’s Black Box, actually said.

Behe subsequently transferred to the biology department and that’s when his hiring blew up in the university’s face. Today the biology department must run a disclaimer about Behe on its webpage.

Michale Behe was discredited in the Dover school district of Pennsylvania trial that pitted the teaching of evolution versus creationism in public school. The school district had changed its policy in 2004 to one in which Behe’s intelligent design was to be taught as an alternative to evolution theory, with his book, Of Pandas and People, as reference material.

It took a judge, not scientists at Lehigh or anywhere else, to dismantle Michael Behe and call intelligent design exactly what it was, weasel wording for creationism.

But the the damage had been done and it was grievous.

For years Behe had been embraced and used by the right to convince Americans there was legitimate scientific doubt about evolution.

“My professors’ generation could respond to silliness like creationism with head-scratching bemusement,” writes Adam Frank for the Times.

Yes, some would.

Some played dead, though, and it was at my school and elsewhere. And now we have what we do.

It is also worth noting that it was the self-same opinion pages of the New York Times that published Michael Behe’s opinions on “intelligent design” creationism in 1999 and 2005. This, like many New York Times editorial disasters (think Iraq and WMDs) was harmful to public knowledge.

And this is also at the heart of why science denial is the property of the right in the United States.

Science is about standards. Standards are achieved or called for by the evaluation of facts determined by experimentation following the rigor of the scientific method. And argument ceases when facts are established by carefully gathered data. Research moves on.

The right despises standards, facts and science because to believe in such things means you must discard your opinions, fairy tales, or impeding personal philosophies when results discredit them or require the making of rational policy.

And the right does not stomach that in the US.

With regards to evolution, the right was successful at propagandizing people with the canard that science was attacking their religious beliefs. Science and evolution do nothing of the sort. Science makes no determination about God. The existence of God is not experimentally testable.

But back to the New York Times and its old relationship with Michael Behe. The cachet the opinion pieces on its pages afforded him did much in subsequent years to twist the average American’s understanding of evolution and the actual role of science. And this was because Americans cannot distinguish between crackpots who may have a tenured position at a respected university and scientists as a whole.

The right in this country plays this well. It finds one scientist, one who is on the fringe, isolated by colleagues but still present in the academy, and uses the weird or wrong in arguments to laymen, alleging there is actual professional debate on a matter concerning well-established science. This, when there is none.

With the case of climate change, funded by fossil fuel energy companies, the right simply created some websites, phony organizations and position papers that looked like serious science to laymen. Consider that one again. With money
backing you, to cast doubt on established science, it is now only
necessary to gin up something phony that looks like science to people unfamiliar with the real thing.

And American scientists have had one hell of time fighting it.

The result has been disaster. The Republican Party and its belligerent and now dangerous dunces, on the pages of the country’s newspapers, in videos in front of their constituents, on television, on radio, spewing compounded nonsense on everything from reproductive biology to the environment.

Sure, they can be defeated at the national level when the ludicrous statements become too alienating to overlook. But at home, at the root level, they’re always rushing to enact law and policy that preserves ignorance in states where they control the legislature.

In February 2005, Behe wrote in the Times, 10 months before the Dover decision crushed the idea that intelligent design was respected science:

In the wake of the recent lawsuits over the teaching of Darwinian evolution, there has been a rush to debate the merits of the rival theory of intelligent design. As one of the scientists who have proposed design as an explanation for biological systems, I have found widespread confusion about what intelligent design is and what it is not.

First, what it isn’t: the theory of intelligent design is not a religiously based idea, even though devout people opposed to the teaching of evolution cite it in their arguments …

You’ll have noticed in the lead paragraph, Behe calling “intelligent design” a “rival theory” to evolution. And the Times let him get away with it.

Again, the problem here is duplicity and bears repeating: There was never any accepted published science backing up anything with regards to creationism.

In 1999 Behe had written for the Times:

Teach Darwin’s elegant theory. But also discuss where it has real problems accounting for the data, where data are severely limited, where scientists might be engaged in wishful thinking, and where alternative–even ‘heretical’–explanations are possible.

This was part of an opinion piece in which Behe set himself up as an arbiter of reason, arguing that the state of Kansas should not have abolished the requirement of teaching evolution but, instead, taken the more rational approach of teaching allegedly competing theories.

Frank concluded “Welcome to the Age of Denial” by saying, ‘[As] we know from history’s darkest moments, even the most enlightened traditions can be broken and lost.”

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