Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The decline of basic research

The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.
- Oscar Wilde

The "global warming" hysteria has contributed to and been enhanced by a worrisome and strengthening trend of the last 20 years, the decline in interest and support for basic research. Behind this trend, among other causes, is the feeling that hard and deep scientific questions are already answered or are unimportant.

Climate hysteria as a major culprit. Neither is true, certainly not in the case of weather and climate. But if conclusions about climate and "global warming" already predetermined, then why bother with fundamental research about the question? And with so much of the political and media establishment already with settled and closed minds on the issue - not on any rational basis, mind you, but with the righteous assurance that "something must be done!" - open-ended, curiosity-driven research suffers. After the 1992 Climate Summit at Rio de Janeiro, scientists, even ones with long-standing careers and impressive track records in climate research, suddenly found themselves having to couch their research grant pitches in language reminiscent of medieval theology: the conclusions were foreordained, and research questions had to take a back seat to "something must be done!" The demand certainly came from, not scientists, but politicians and later the media: from the point of view of scientists, it was top-down, not bottom-up, and outside-in, not inside-out.

Distinct but related is the redirection of educational resources - talent, time, and money - away from scientifically sound disciplines like climatology, meteorology, and geosciences, toward poorly-defined and overtly politicized programs in "environmental studies," ones with - again - poorly grounded but preordained conclusions narrowing the scope of what can be asked or investigated.

Stem cells: Another case. "Global warming" isn't the only instance of politicians and journalists doing more than prejudging scientific outcomes and actually attempting politicized science made-to-order. Another is stem-cell research, upon which subject the conventional news media can be safely assumed to misreport or outright lie about. Most of what they say about the subject is done in the service of - again - predetermined political "narratives" with only the most tenuous connection to reality.

Embryonic stem cell research has produced and continues to produce important basic research results. However, it has produced nothing of therapeutic value so far, a fact apparently lost in all the bruhaha. Therapies are coming out of adult and placental stem cell research.

The stem cell research episode did highlight a disturbing trend, the "porkification" of public science funding - the conversion of government research support into patronage and pet projects of politicians and their followers. There are many examples. Apart from its fanaticism, the "global warming" cult fits this pattern in many ways. The trend started in the late 1980s, but did not become fully evident until the late 1990s.

Climate scientists have, to a large extent, been similarly abused as dummies by powerful groups "throwing their voices." This is not to say that certain scientists haven't been in on the cause themselves. But the most important of them are not climate scientists, and their scientific arguments are often a joke: sloppy and demagogic, violating much of what's been learned about climate in the last two centuries, and sometimes violating basic physical principles. Furthermore, there is no conspiracy by the Bush administration to suppress good science, and its approach to the "global warming" cult has been inconsistent and confused rather than just negative. There are serious disagreements about policy, no doubt - stem cells was the most significant, not climate - but these are not disagreements about science proper, but rather about what's ethical and deserving of government funding.

What's worrisome here is the lack of recognition of the need for embryonic stem cell research as a basic research priority - understanding reproduction, genetics, and so on. Instead, the "hard sell" is nonexistent applications and therapies based on embryonic stem cells, often in pathetic language better fit to a revival meeting.

Knowledge versus authority. The long-term cost of all this is subtle but no less devastating for all that. It means we've entered an era in which, thanks to the pervasiveness of politicized news media chatter, scientific questions increasingly can no longer be investigated and debated scientifically. Instead, the authorities (politicians) and pseudo-authorities (journalists) will pre-decide the conclusions, and scientists will just have to "go along to get along" if they want public research funding and publication in reputable journals.* That's what did in Galileo: he thought he was debating science ("natural philosophy" in those days); unwittingly, he had been sucked into an authority struggle.

Science will never be fully cut-and-dried, a cookbook. It requires a certain level of taste and a good intuition for good problems, ones that are interesting, exciting, and solvable. That's what distinguishes it from empty speculation. But a political culture unheedful of the non-authoritarian nature of science, its open-endedness, can't help but create a crisis of science once politically-determined conclusions are used as clubs to beat the non-compliant into submission. Meanwhile, policies are increasingly built on things known to be wrong or still unanswered, all because people don't want to look at hard questions or don't like the answers.

The essential conflict here is one between knowledge and political authority. Knowledge is not about political authority; the two are hard to reconcile with one another. Politicians, who carry political authority in our society, are in conflict with knowledge. Appointed bodies of "official" and "consensus" science - mostly not scientists, and not at all acting scientifically - establish the conclusions, then not-too-subtly hint to the news media that, with "consensus" science already pre-established, it's okay to vilify and smear dissenters and to spread the lie that there is a "consensus" of scientists on the issue. This Big Lie is then used as another club to keep dissenters quiet. Facts are turned into decontextualized factoids, misleading half-truths, or ignored altogether - when they don't fit the "narrative" the media is desperate to push, all so "something can be done." When the basis for the hysteria fizzles, the subject is changed and the lies, mistakes, and half-truths forgotten.

It's not all just about the money. The entire fake crusade of "global warming" is built on the falsehood that we have a climate theory that can answer the relevant questions. But, really, we don't. Spending more money for "climate change" research will actually make things worse if it's misdirected into "research" that takes such answers as known and given, instead of as unknowns. It will drown us in more thinly-disguised special pleading and propaganda, distracting everyone from important issues and pushing scientists into dead-ends.

Support for basic research doesn't necessarily mean an increase in total science funding. When one considers the money squandered on the Space Shuttle or the International Space Station, it's clear that total dollars is not the best metric. The real problem is the creation of political bodies specially empowered to decree pre-ordained conclusions that are are then relentlessly repeated by the media and start to shape scientific and educational agendas.**

People at large can believe whatever they want to, although they also have to accept whatever the consequences of those beliefs are. But the political dictation of science itself is a distressing and potentially catastrophic trend. It's happened before: in the 17th century, it nearly destroyed astronomy and related sciences in Italy during the Inquisition. Early modern natural science survived in certain Protestant countries and in Catholic countries (like France) where the Inquisition was barred from entering. It destroyed genetics and biology in the Soviet Union during the Lysenko episode. Biology survived in the West. Hitler and his allies among academic faculty and students destroyed what had been the leading scientific culture in the world. It took Italian science two centuries to recover. Russian science still hasn't recovered, and in many ways, neither has the German.

Will this fate overtake climate and geosciences in the West? In our case, it won't be a powerful Church or Party that will do the deed. It will be fanatical activist groups, demagogic politicians, and cynical ex-scientists, all under the spell of a sanctimonious crusade - with opportunists of all types and lackey scribblers tagging along, trying to ride a tiger they should never have gotten on in the first place.
* A striking case is the decline of Scientific American, once a highly literate and superbly written venue for the popularization of science. The articles were largely written by scientists or writers trained and practicing in science. But when it passed from Greatest Generation to Worst Generation (in the late 1980s, at the same time as America's universities), it entered an era of turmoil, sale and resale, and ultimately conversion into something like People magazine - and I don't mean that to insult People.

Now Scientific American is just another tiresome rag screaming misleading B.S. about, say, string theory, and (it practically doesn't need to be said) fully on-board with the "global warming" hysteria, smearing critics and misleading and brainwashing its readership. Of course, in our post-modern, post-literate age, does "readership" even make sense? Its writers consist of few scientists any more. That era seems to be gone for good.

** The 1986 Challenger Space Shuttle explosion was a very telling episode illustrating the difference between what the engineers knew from first-hand experience and what the higher, non-technical management at NASA found expedient to believe about their spaceship.

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