Monday, December 29, 2008

The Republican War on Science Isn't Going Anywhere

By Jeremy Adam Smith, Greater Good. Posted December 29, 2008.

Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker discusses the lasting effect of the Bush administration's contempt for science.

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Americans' trust in the media, their government and each other has declined over the past four decades. And yet, according to many national surveys, such as the Harris and Gallup polls, trust in science and scientists remains high. In one Harris poll, for example, 68 percent of respondents said they trust scientists to tell the truth -- more than the number who trusted the president.

In recent years, however, several areas of scientific research -- from global warming to stem cell research to evolution -- have become highly politicized, in ways that threaten the credibility of prominent scientists and their findings.

In one notorious instance, the Bush administration fired cell biologist Elizabeth Blackburn and medical ethicist William May from the President's Council on Bioethics, a decision that many critics alleged was part of an effort to purge the council of dissenting scientific voices. Janet Rowley, professor of molecular genetics at the University of Chicago and a member of the council, later characterized the dismissals as "an important example of the absolutely destructive practices of the Bush administration" when it comes to science and scientific issues.

Cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker is no stranger to these debates. In a recent essay for the New Republic, for example, Pinker argues that the work of the President's Council on Bioethics "springs from a movement to impose a radical political agenda, fed by fervent religious impulses, onto American biomedicine."

Pinker is the Harvard College Professor and Johnstone Family Professor in Harvard University's psychology department. He is famed for his research on language acquisition, and has published extensively on the idea that both language and moral intuitions are biological adaptations that arose from a process of natural selection.

In addition to being a working scientist, Pinker is a leading public intellectual, consistently offering an informed perspective on the wide implications of scientific debates. As one of America's most popular science writers, his articles have appeared in the New York Times, Time and the Atlantic Monthly, and he is the author of seven books, two of which were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize. Pinker was named one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people in the world in 2004 and one of Foreign Policy's 100 top public intellectuals in 2005. His most recent book is The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature, a New York Times best-seller.

While on a 10-city tour to support the paperback publication of The Stuff of Thought, Pinker talked us about science, politics and trust.

Jeremy Adam Smith: Americans seem to hold science and scientists in high esteem. Do you think this trust is justified?

Steven Pinker: I think it is. Not because scientists are necessarily trustworthy people, any more so than anyone else, but because the institutions of science are set up to reward finding the truth and to punish hiding it. So, as a matter of self-interest, scientists are nudged toward the truth. They suffer a loss of prestige and esteem if someone else fails to replicate an experiment they have used to back up a claim.

Likewise, if there is some obvious flaw in an experiment or in an argument, the mechanisms of peer review will ensure that they don't get their next grant or don't get their next paper published. And they will be humiliated if the paper does come out and the flaw is exposed afterward. If they say something patently false during a public meeting, there will be consequences.

In contrast, I think politicians have low credibility because our institutions at present don't reward truth-telling among them. Quite the contrary. It's easy to get away with blatant lies and misleading euphemism and doublespeak. So the incentive structure favors bending the truth among politicians, more so than one finds in the institutions of science.

JAS: Quite a few people argue that the Bush administration has been especially misleading and meddlesome in distorting the truth about scientific research, suppressing evidence in favor of a political agenda. Do you think it's true that the Bush administration is more anti-science than previous administrations, or do some of these problems stretch back even farther?

SP: To some extent they go back further. To be honest, I was skeptical of claims that the Bush administration is worse than previous ones. But I have now been turned around, and I see that the accusations are correct, that there is a Republican war on science, and that it does seem unprecedented. I see that in the areas with which I have firsthand familiarity. For issues like sex education and climate, I have had to take the word of the scientists who have been directly involved.


See more stories tagged with: politics, religion, republicans, gop, science, dogma

Jeremy Adam Smith is the senior editor of Greater Good magazine and author of The Daddy Shift, forthcoming from Beacon Press in Spring 2009.

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