Getting science right matters. We live in a wondrous age in which a breathtaking understanding of our universe is possible. We understand the nature of life though DNA and how structures arise through protein construction during embryonic development. We are discovering possibly inhabitable worlds at distances measured in light years. We are discovering what makes forest ecosystems tick. We have mapped the interior of our own planet and explored its oceans from deep under its waters and scanned them from above with orbiting satellites.
This is not to say that science will answer all our questions, or provide all sources of value in all areas of meaning. But ignore it at your peril. It is typically ignored when its findings grate against deeply entrenched beliefs that people have refused to update in light of more recent and more well-grounded information. It is ignored when its findings chafe against political, religious, or economic dogma. For example, climate change. The science on climate change is as strong as any science we have, although the active obfuscation campaign by special interests makes this less than apparent to those not reading the science literature and getting their information from other sources. At BYU this semester we have a special seminar lecture series on the environment trying to educate the public on the science behind the claims of climate change and its implications for the humanities and other disciplines. But this post is not about climate change.
Recently, President Trump issued a media blackout to the EPA, this after nominating notable climate change deniers to head the agency. This has had a chilling effect on scientists around the world. I worked on an EPA project during my graduate studies at NC State on a project called EMAP in which we were trying to look at the health of the nation’s ecosystems. I was part of the Agroecosystem team. The science being done there was first rate, and the men and women I worked with were exciting examples of how the government can support and engage in good science. These recent actions however send a clear message of how the government aims to control the message of this institution, even if the ban is temporary as is claimed. But this post is not about the EPA.
This post is about American leadership in science. In order for science to flourish it requires transparency. Science strives to be non-political and to explore the world as we find it. Of course individual scientists have the same weakness, political and otherwise, that define what it means to be human, but it works very hard to find and control those biases. It has procedures in place to expose and illuminate those things to the extent that is humanly possible. I’ve written elsewhere about the power of its tools. One of those tools, one of its critical tools, is transparency. When science becomes politicized and transparency goes it will fail.
Take the case of Trofim Denisovich Lysenko. Lysenko was a Russian agriculturist. He became a superstar in the Communist Party and rose quickly to positions of power and authority. He became a favorite of Joseph Stalin, and scientists who thought Lysenko might be leading things in the wrong direction were reprimanded and criticized. He became the powerful leader of the Academy of Agricultural Sciences and actively pursued ‘correcting’ those scientists who were buying into Western ideas about genetics (and by correcting I mean, purging, imprisoning, and killing those who would not come around). And what were those ideas? Mendelian genetics. Lysenko was a Lamarckian. He held the long discredited idea that organisms could acquire the characteristics they obtained in life and pass them on to their offspring. And why did he hold this view? Was he was convinced after carefully weighing the evidence? No. Were genuine scientific debates at stake? No. He held these views because they fit in with theories and prejudices that he thought more compatible with Lenin’s version of Marxism; and there was no fact, no kind, nor weight of evidence that he would have accepted to displace those views.
As a result, Soviet genetics was fifty years behind Western science. Key aspects of the green revolution, without the perspectives of the Darwinian and Mendelian synthesis, were missed under Lysenko’s watch.
America is poised to end up the same way if we do not tell let science tell the best story it can of how the material world works. This science includes climate change and other sciences that some groups are trying to politicize and deny. All political parties have a vested interest in letting scientists do their job. If climate change is wrong it will not be the politicians who figure it out (although politicians of all parties will be critical in designing policies to handle the effects of climate change), it will be through the careful gathering and exploration of the data by people best trained to look at it. All in a climate of transparency.
Why Science Transparency Matters
January 25, 2017 by 42 Comments