The dangerous trend of moralizing and politicizing science

Here’s some quotes from the Guardian’s article on the dangerous trend of moralizing and politicizing science. It covers Michael Dini, Intelligent Design, and has some good quotes from both sides, such as this one from Professor Michael Behe of Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, the Intelligent Design movement’s foremost academic advocate. When asked how he accounts for the very visible evolution of, say, viruses, he remarks, “It’s just that I don’t think [evolution] can explain everything. Bacterial resistance to antibiotics, for example, is one of the things it can explain.”

I’ve blogged about this in the past: the principle scientific criteria for a theory is falsifiability. It’s taken for granted that there may be some things any theory can’t explain. Note that this expert does not really answer the most obvious question, “What things can’t it explain?” Evolution is currently the best available scientific theory that fits the available facts. When it’s shown that a theory cannot be true by positive evidence, most good scientists drop that theory like last weeks news, or adapt it to fit the new data. Absence of evidence, however, isn’t sufficient to discount a theory because it’s absence of evidence – it proves nothing. It’s pretty hard to state an observation that the theory of evolution cannot explain, in terms of a question that can be positively answered. That’s why it’s such a good theory. Think about it. Science in some ways is fundamentally opposed to responding to religiously based theories, because science doesn’t disprove things – we only show that something is more likely than something else. Currently our theory fits the facts better than, “God did it because he felt like it.” or to restate it as an ID argument, “God or his agent may have done it, because he felt like it, and you can’t prove he didn’t.”

99% of the time we’re working on curing disease and improving the human condition, but since the general public doesn’t have the level of scientific understanding necessary to resist the advance of religion into places it shouldn’t be on their own, we have to do it.

Here’s the quotes:

Some other signs: if you were contemplating an abortion and were worried about the rumour that it might increase your risk of breast cancer, you might visit the website of the government-funded National Cancer Institute to read their factsheet, which noted that most scientists doubt a link. Or, at least, you might have done so until June last year, when the page, criticised by some Republicans in Congress, simply vanished. (A replacement page was posted last month.) Or maybe you were an Aids activist, elated by the president’s unexpected (and genuinely revolutionary) announcement in the State of the Union address of $15bn ($9.7bn) in funding for fighting the epidemic worldwide – and then surprised to find that only around 10% was destined for the Global Aids Fund, while the rest would be funnelled through US agencies, where it is more likely to be accessible to American abstinence-only groups campaigning against condoms.

“It’s not that I don’t think Darwinian evolution can’t explain anything,” says Professor Michael Behe of Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, the movement’s foremost academic advocate, when asked how he accounts for the very visible evolution of, say, viruses. “It’s just that I don’t think it can explain everything. Bacterial resistance to antibiotics, for example, is one of the things it can explain.”

Similarly, the White House’s strategy on global warming is not to scoff at the scientific establishment’s warnings on climate change. Rather, it trumpets the importance of their research activities and calls for even more research – years more, in fact – before any action is taken. In the same fashion, one of the most popular arguments currently circulating on anti-condom websites claims not that they encourage promiscuity but that they can’t protect against HIV. The reason, it argues, is because the virus is 0.1 microns in diameter, while there are tiny pores in latex measuring 10 microns. (There is no evidence for this.)

The two men inside the Bush administration who have had the most to do with this: One is Karl Rove, the president’s senior political aide, a master tactician who has been Bush’s main strategist since his earliest days campaigning for the governorship of Texas. (He does not seem overly bothered by scruples: in one campaign, for another politician, he claimed to have discovered a bug in his office on the day of a major debate. The opponent, tarnished by the insinuation of dirty tricks, lost the race, but the ensuing police investigation found nothing.)

Some saw Rove’s influence at play when John Marburger, Bush’s new science advisor, was informed that the role would no longer be a cabinet position. The White House had decided that “they don’t need that level of scientific input,” Allan Bromley, the first President Bush’s science advisor, said glumly at the time. The other man is Leon Kass, chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics. The occupant of that role was always going to be a central figure in an administration as morality-driven as Bush’s.

[Of course, this evil-doer has to be involved:] John Ashcroft’s Department of Justice has proved active: when Michael Dini, a Catholic biology professor at Texas Tech University, announced that he would not write academic recommendations for students who did not “affirm” that there is a scientific explanation of the origin of the species, a creationist student launched a lawsuit. Such lawsuits aren’t uncommon. What was uncommon was that Dini soon received a call from government lawyers … threatening to make a minor local dispute into a high-profile federal case.

A good bit of the article concerns the Intelligent Design movement. Kenneth Miller, a professor at Brown University says ID is “stealth creationism…which is a quasi-political theory.” The new trend for creationists is for them to say they simply want fair consideration for their rival scientific theories.

“It’s a very good rhetorical strategy, because it appeals to the very American sense of openness and fair play,” says Miller. “But there’s something called the scientific process, you know – involving open publication, criticism, and rejection of things that aren’t convincing. We don’t teach both sides of the germ theory of disease and faith-healing. Evolution isn’t in the classroom because of political action or court decisions. It’s in the classroom because it made it through, it stood up to scrutiny and became the scientific consensus. It fought the battle and won.”

“They keep pounding their fists on reality, hoping it will break.” Ani Difranco – Lost Woman Song.