Smoko: Demonising the innocent endeavours of science

The word "science" come from the Latin root scientia, which means knowledge.

Further, knowledge is generally considered to be the accumulation and organisation of observable or predictable phenomena which are testable and which can be rationally and logically explained.

This is the orthodoxy on which, through the Renaissance and, especially, into the Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries and thereafter, much of modern Western civilisation has been built.

Of course, alongside it and interconnected with this, there have been equally critical developments in art, literature, philosophy, law and civics, but there is little doubt that the growth of science has played a profound role. The essential core of this has been the contestability of ideas, of hypotheses, of theorems and proofs - pursued out of a genuine, and generally "innocent", quest for knowledge and "truth".

There are signs, however, that this tradition is seriously under threat and, if this is indeed the case, the very nature of our civilisation, the freedoms we take for granted, may be too.

A week or so ago at the annual gathering of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Vancouver - some aspects of which were attended by up to 8000 practitioners - warnings were issued, some of them unusually explicit, about the dark clouds gathering over science. The president of the association, distinguished agricultural scientist Nina Federoff, told an audience she was "scared to death" by the anti-science movement that was rapidly spreading across the United States and the rest of the Western world.

"We are sliding back into a dark era," she said.

"And there seems little we can do about it. I am profoundly depressed at how difficult it has become merely to get a conversation started on issues such as climate change or genetically modified organisms."

Alluding to an entire discipline under attack, she spoke of university and government researchers being hounded for arguing that rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are changing the climate; of emails being hacked and Facebook campaigns being mounted calling for researchers to be dismissed from their posts - calls often as not backed by right-wing politicians.

Her concerns, published in an article in Britain's Observer, were echoed by Prof Naomi Oreskes, of the University of California in San Diego. Naomi Oreskes is a professor of history and science studies and, with Erik M. Conway, author of Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming.

"Those of us who grew up in the '60s, when we put men on the moon, now have to watch as every Republican candidate for this year's presidential election denies the science behind climate change and evolution. This is a staggering state of affairs," Prof Oreskes said, while the article noted that, at the Republican Party debate in Florida, candidate Rick Santorum argued he should be the nominee because he had "cottoned on earlier than his rivals Newt Gingrich or Mitt Romney to the 'hoax' of global warming".

How did it come to this?

Prof Oreskes and Dr Conway set out a compelling thesis arguing that a small, loosely affiliated group of right-wing scientists allied to corporate and industrial interests, propelled in large part by free-market enthusiasms - and latterly at least aided and abetted by some fundamentalist Christian organisations - set out to sap the credibility of science they did not like, or which was potentially detrimental to the interests of the organisations and industries with which they were associated and which underpinned them financially.

At its core seemed to be the idea that government regulation - of the tobacco industry, of indiscriminate pesticide use, of industrial pollution associated with acid rain and ozone layer depletion, of greenhouse gas emissions - was akin to socialism by stealth, inimical to the very tenets of capitalism and to be resisted at every turn.

And so at every turn in the United States, organisations and "think-tanks" - supported by industry and devoted to the virtues of free markets and the vices of government intervention - such as the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, the Heartland Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute and myriad other smaller entities, have set out to spread the word, confuse the public and demonise the honest endeavour of "innocent" science.

Couldn't happen here? Don't you believe it.

 - Simon Cunliffe is deputy editor (news) at the Otago Daily Times.




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