Monday, November 01, 2004

Dishonesty in Science


Dishonesty in Science

By Richard C. Lewontin

"The founders of the American state understood that the proper functioning of a
democracy required an educated electorate. It is this understanding that
justifies a system of public education and that led slaveholders to resist the
spread of literacy among thier chattels. But the meaning of "educated" has
changed beyond recognition in two hundred years. Reading, writing, and
arithmetic are no longer sufficient to decide on public policy. Now we need
quantum mechanics and molecular biology. The knowledge required for political
rationality, once available to the masses, is now in the possession of a
specially educated elite, a situation that creates a series of tensions and
contradictions in the operation of representative democracy.

The problem
of the role of elite knowledge in a democracy is an old one. A version of a
story in the Babylonian Talmud tells of four rabbis walking in a field, engaged
in a dispute over whether an oven of a particular design can be purified. Three
hold one opinion, while the fourth has the opposite view. The lone holdout
appeals to God, asking that He send first thunder, then lightning, and then that
the lightning strike a lone tree in the field. Although each request is granted,
the others are not convinced. After all, thunder and lightning are usual natural
phenomena and in a lightning storm what is more natural than that a tree
standing in the middle of a field should be struck? In desperation the dissenter
calls on God to speak directly to them. Sure enough, a voice from above is heard
proclaiming "IT IS AS HE SAYS." "So," asks the dissenter, "what do you three
have to say now?" "All right," they answer, "that makes it three to two."

Science has replaced Jehovah as the source of privileged knowledge, but
the problems remain. How is the knowledge in the possession of the scientific
elites to be factored into a process of decision in which considerations of
economy, ideology, and political power also enter? Is elite knowledge to be
given absolute priority? Why should we trust scientists, who, after all, have
their own political and economic agendas? On the other hand how can we decide by
vote when the voters and their representatives have no understanding of the
facts of nature?"....

Interestingly, Chris Mooney, got stuck on one particular paragraph that I barely noticed:

Scientists for Nader?

"Though he's usually an extremely perceptive writer, I didn't find Richard
Lewontin's essay about science politicization and fraud, in the latest New
Review of Books, particularly illuminating. However, this passage was
if not downright alarming:

Most scientists are, at a minimum, liberals,
although it is by no means
obvious why this should be so. Despite the fact that
all of the
biologists of my acquaintance are shareholders in or
biotechnology firms, the chief political controversy in
community seems to be whether it is wise to vote for
Nader this

I find this tough to believe. It sounds like Lewontin is hanging
out with
some pretty left wing scientists in Cambridge, no?"

Chris is arguably the best critic of the Bush Administration's abuse of science. Why is he so suprised that most scientists are liberals? Polls have suggested it was so years before everyone got incensed by Bush. The tone of Chris' blog suggests he believes it to be true - just check out this post:

Scientists for Bush

"They've been hiding under a rock until now, but finally The Scientist has
outed three of them: Princeton physicist William Happer, U.C.-Irvine physicist
David Casper, and Arizona State University infectious diseases researcher
Charles Arntzen. You've got to respect these folks for their courage, if nothing

I have written a couple of posts before about the conservative mindset hidden behind genocentrism, but I never implied that genocentrists (thus closet Bushies) are a very common species. Au contraire, I believe they are a slowly dying breed, at least in the USA (Brits are a bit more prone to it). Even most geneticists nowadays are not strict genocentrists. I have yet to meet a Bush-voter among the Life Science faculty at my institution. I have no idea how theory would predict the political ideology of scientists in other disciplines, but biologists should be overwhelmingly liberal - they study complex interactionists systems every day and are much less likely to subscribe to a top-down hierarchical worldview needed for becoming a conservative.

Or did I misread Chris? Perhaps he is appalled that scientists would still consider Nader as an option?

posted by Bora Zivkovic @ 2:52 PM | permalink | (2 comments) | Post a Comment | permalink