Galileo’s legacy

An irony about scientists’ traditional lack of interest in politics is that science is profoundly socially disturbing—especially for ideologues with a conservative point of view. Science refines our understanding of the world, leading to revolutions in thinking, and overturning convention.

Think of the problems Galileo caused when he proposed that the Earth was not the centre of God’s universe. And there are still many in that social Darwinist country, the USA, for whom Darwin’s concept of evolution is anathema.

The neo-cons of the Bush administration are well aware of the disruptive power of science, even if they are not always sure how science works. They want to use the results of research to their own ends—but don’t want it upsetting their ideological view of a world of free enterprise, consumption, competition, American domination, and so forth. This is deeply worrying to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), an organisation of more than 100,000 scientists and citizens which was founded in 1969 by staff at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to act as a lobby group to use science ‘to build a cleaner, healthier environment and a safer world’.

Last February, the UCS released a report entitled Scientific Integrity in Policymaking about what it sees as the politicisation and abuse of science by the Bush administration. It claims that under President Bush, the US Government ‘has suppressed or distorted the scientific analyses of federal agencies’ and has stacked advisory bodies with political allies. It provided examples from areas such as forest management, countering HIV/AIDS, and particularly climate change research. In July, an updated report included more examples. An accompanying statement, decrying the government’s actions and calling for greater openness, integrity and administrative reform has been signed by more than 6,000 scientists, including at least 48 Nobel Laureates.

UCS chairman, Kurt Gottfried was quoted in New Scientist as saying: ‘The Founding Fathers [of the US] were children of the Enlightenment, of the Age of Reason. Today we are governed by people who do not believe in evolution. They have few qualms about distorting scientific knowledge when it does not conform to their political agenda. They speak as if they are entitled not only to their own opinions, but also to their own facts’.

Because of the way scientific inquiry works, it is easy for an ideologue to cast doubt on the knowledge it provides. Science is a perpetual debate. Everything is questioned, even (sometimes especially) the views of the majority. Every so often the dissenters, like Galileo, turn out to be right. So, you can almost always find scientific researchers who will back your particular point of view. The church did it with Galileo, the Germans did it with the Jews, President Mbeki of South Africa has done it with the viral cause of AIDS, and the Bush administration is doing it with climate change.

Greenhouse is a classic example. Despite the fact that well over 95 per cent of climate scientists support the idea that the human use of fossil fuels is responsible for global warming, plenty of scientists think that the current climatic oddities are part of a natural cycle. So, it is easy for conservative politicians, governments and business people to find ‘experts’ to support their case against climate change. They believe the kinds of changes demanded as a response to global warming are going to disrupt their society, be hugely expensive and bad for business, particularly the oil business. They are helped by a media which thinks that being ‘fair’ demands giving even weight to both sides in a lopsided argument.

Consequently, many people think the human cause of greenhouse is still in dispute.

In Australia, things do not seem quite as bad. The Australian Government likes to paint itself as less idealistic and more pragmatic. For instance, it acknowledges the significance of climate change in its recent White Paper on energy, even if its methods of dealing with the problem appear lightweight and self-serving.

As a pragmatic administration which pays attention to science, it should know better than to slavishly follow the American line on some things. Ask Australia’s stem cell scientists who were recently confronted by what they see as contradictory policy on the regulation of their field. Although there is a government-supported national stem cell research institute—the Australian Stem Cell Centre—at Monash University, Australia has joined an unusual alliance with the US, Costa Rica, and some Latin American and European countries to support a motion at the UN which would ban therapeutic cloning—producing embryonic tissues for the purposes of research and the potential treatment of degenerative diseases. Whether or not you believe therapeutic cloning to be ethical, banning it would put a huge roadblock in the way of stem cell research, an area in which Australia likes to regard itself a leader and which the government has chosen to support.

It seems clear that the nation’s scientists need to get their political act together. Come next July, they may end up as one of the few effective oppositions to a rampantly conservative Australian government. 

Tim Thwaites is a freelance science writer.

 

 

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