Wednesday, February 08, 2006

"Good Science" and the Religious Right

I have a thought experiment.

Get a piece of paper and write upon it a set of, say, 100 random numbers.

Hand that piece of paper to an average 7th-grade student.

Tell him to get his math book out and to work the problems in each chapter until he gets the answers that you put down on that piece of paper.

Once he has done this, ask him to design a skyscraper.

My question is: Would you feel comfortable moving into the top floor of that building?

This experiment describes the status of science under the Bush Administration.

In his State of the Union address, President Bush announced an "American Competitiveness Initiative . . .to give our nation's children a firm grounding in math and science."

Given the Bush Administration's disdain for science, it seems a bit contradictory for him to claim that our children need a firm grounding in this subject.

This week's cover story in Time Magazine examines the relationship that the Bush Administration has had with the science community. It includes charges that government scientists have been pressured into providing the administration with "science" that corresponds to the administration's policies, and the degree to which scientists who do not comply fear the consequences this will have on their employment and advancement.

[I]n in the past two years, the Union of Concerned Scientists has collected the signatures of more than 8,000 scientists--including 49 Nobel laureates, 63 National Medal of Science recipients and 171 members of the National Academies--who accuse the Administration of an unprecedented level of political intrusion into their world.

It would be easy to believe that Bush's message in the State of the Union was a lie. I could suggest that he despises science, but he wanted to put something in the State of the Union that would appease those who respect science.

However, I think that there is a way of looking at the Bush Administration's attitude towards science that actually makes sense of this apparent contradiction.

By the way, I use the word "Bush Administration" deliberately. This model describes not only Bush, but a substantial portion of the Christian fundamentalist/evangelicals that make up the bulk of his political machine.

These people are intersted in promoting good science.

In other words, Bush’s science advisor, John Marburger, was stating the literal truth when he said, "The President wants us to do it right, and doesn't want us to do things that contradict the laws of nature." Only, to the Religious Right, these “laws of nature” state that the homosexuality and abortion are violations of natural law and that it is best that wives devote their lives to serving their husbands. These laws of nature state that the earth is 10,000 years old and that life wass intelligently designed. They state that there is a God who answers prayers and that "it's a miracle" is a valid scientific hypothesis that deserves equal consideration not only in science classes but in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

Those laws of nature state that God would not create a world that we humans could destroy through global warming without giving us some sort of warning – a commandment somewhere that says, “Thou shalt not increase the atmospheric concentration of CO2 above 550 parts per million by volume.” No such commandment exists. Therefore, those heretic atheist liberal scientists who suggest that we should not raise the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere above 550 ppmv are clearly working for the devil.

On this model, a good scientist practices his craft the way that a good 7th grade algebra student learns algebra. The scientist goes into the lab and he does his work, as the student goes to his room to do his homework. When the scientist or the student gets an answer, he compares it to the result printed in the “answer book.” If he gets an answer that contradicts the “answer book”, this means he did something wrong. He has to go back and redo his work until he gets the right answer.

These people object that when these arrogant scientists get answers that contradict what it says in the "answer book", they are too proud to admit that they made a mistake. They assert the blasphemy that the "answer book" is mistaken.

The answer book is wrong?

The bible is wrong!



There is no way that the answer book can be wrong!

The only reasonable answer would be to insist that the scientist who comes up with a wrong answer must not be a very good scientist. He needs to be disciplined, held back, put into some remedial science education program that would allow him to improve his skills. In the mean time, scientists who do get the right answers – the good scientists who get the answers that can be found in "the answer book", get the promotions and recognitions they deserve.

We can easily paraphrase Bush’s comment about the courts and judicial appointees and apply it to science boards and appointees.

“We need commonsense scientists who understand that our reality was created by God. Those are the kind of scientists I intend to put at the head of the nation's laboratories.”

Now, let’s go back to the analogy to our 7th grader with a set of 100 randomly selected "right answers."

The Bible is nothing more than a set of answers invented by primitive men who had little or no understanding of the world around them. Treating their answers as the “answer book” for scientific problems is no better than treating the sheet of random numbers as the “answer book” for a 7th grade math text.

If we give scientists this “answer book” and tell them to keep working the problem until they come up with same answers that are in "the answer book", we are not going to come up with any good science. They are going to come up with error.

If we then tell them to take what they have learned in completing this exercise and to apply it to the construction of a government policy, those policies will be as shaky as the sky scraper built by our 7th-grader.

What would happen if people actually moved into the building that this 7th grader built? In all likelihood, there will be some significant structural failure, and people are going to die.

What is going to happen as we base more and more of our social policies on the "good science" that matches the answers that we find in "the answer book?" We will see significant policy failure.

And people are going to die.


Anonymous said...

I am a sophomore at the university of Wyoming majoring in molecular biology, this is the very kind of thing that made me want to go into science, the supression of ideas is terrible. Even here in the university setting I get into debates every day, even walking throught the student union, over evolution and the improtance of science to our society. We need to focus on accepting the "good" and "bad" science regardless of how it might affect us

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Greetings anonymous sophomore. I may have a freshman niece floating around your university next year.

I wish you luck in your debates . . . and do not be timid.

I am serious when I say that the types of mistakes that are bound to happen when people ignore reality are the types of mistakes that get people killed.

Anonymous said...

I get into "discussions" with my father all the time about this sort of thing. He's fundamentalist and I'm athiest. I have a scientific education and he's a trades person with little education. He seems to completely discount that my education means something when I comment on science problems like global warming. He says there's all sorts of information out there to support any position you might want to take. He says people believe what they want to. He has no respect for the ideas of epistemology. I only talk to him because he's my father, but really, I have no hope that he will ever actually listen to me and maybe question his approach. He doesn't see the irony in claiming to think for himself, when he throws around labels, ad hominems, and ignores the facts.

I just don't understand how people can respect the expertise of, say, their mechanic or doctor, and then discount the consensus of the scientific community as "just a theory" or "just people's opinion".

Anonymous said...

Reality is often very subtle and is often lost on those of us without the proper scientific pedigree...bear with us!

"Raffiniert ist der Herr Gott, aber boshaft ist er nicht." - Albert Einstein