Thursday, March 24, 2005

Science Under Attack

Americans have played a crucial and profound role in much of the scientific and medical progress of the last century. During that time, Americans have won 242 Nobel prizes, more than the combined number won by the next four countries on the list (the United Kingdom, Germany, France and Sweden), according to Obviously, the sheer size of the country is a factor here, but the number is, nevertheless, remarkable. One of the factors behind these impressive achievements is the importance placed on the public funding of science. This dedication to American excellence does not only yield fancy Swedish prizes though. It lies behind the technology and information fields on which an increasing portion of our economy relies; it lies behind the increasing longevity of Americans; it lies behind our quality of life, particularly for the elderly, the infirm and the disabled; it lies behind our partial ability to predict and protect ourselves from natural disasters; it lies behind our national security, and, like it or not, it lies behind the dominance of our military. A comprehensive list would be much longer than this.

Equally important, particularly to those of us who devote our working lives to science, is that progress in science adds to our knowledge of our world, of our universe and of what it means to be humans exploring them. To paraphrase Robert Wilson, first director of what would become the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, when asked by Congress whether the laboratory would contribute to the national defense; the primary contribution of science is not to the defense of the nation but rather to what makes the nation worth defending.

These days, the tremendous American legacy in science and medicine is under attack and faces a crisis that, if not overcome, will result in us ceding leadership in these fields to other nations for generations to come. Decreased funding for basic science, the misguided direction of NASA, the suppression of scientific information involving contraception, abortion and sexual practices, and the denial of evolution and cosmology are but a fraction of the obstacles to progress that have sprung up in recent years.

This attack on the leading role the United States plays in science and medicine is happening because our value systems are being hijacked by a small number of well-organized and well-funded extremists on the far religious right. If you have a child and you want that child to grow up and succeed in the modern world, you need to take action now to prevent the education she so badly needs from being corrupted.

As Frank Rich, writing in the New York Times, describes, as part of a much longer article that I encourage you to read:

"...polls consistently show that at most a fifth of the country subscribes to the religious views of those in the Republican base whom even George Will, speaking last Sunday on ABC's "This Week," acknowledged may be considered "extremists." In that famous Election Day exit poll, "moral values" voters amounted to only 22 percent. Similarly, an ABC News survey last weekend found that only 27 percent of Americans thought it was "appropriate" for Congress to "get involved" in the Schiavo case and only 16 percent said it would want to be kept alive in her condition. But a majority of American colonists didn't believe in witches during the Salem trials either - any more than the Taliban reflected the views of a majority of Afghans. At a certain point - and we seem to be at that point - fear takes over, allowing a mob to bully the majority over the short term. (Of course, if you believe the end is near, there is no long term.)

That bullying, stoked by politicians in power, has become omnipresent, leading television stations to practice self-censorship and high school teachers to avoid mentioning "the E word," evolution, in their classrooms, lest they arouse fundamentalist rancor. The president is on record as saying that the jury is still out on evolution, so perhaps it's no surprise that The Los Angeles Times has uncovered a three-year-old "religious rights" unit in the Justice Department that investigated a biology professor at Texas Tech because he refused to write letters of recommendation for students who do not accept evolution as "the central, unifying principle of biology." Cornelia Dean of The New York Times broke the story last weekend that some Imax theaters, even those in science centers, are now refusing to show documentaries like "Galápagos" or "Volcanoes of the Deep Sea" because their references to Darwin and the Big Bang theory might antagonize some audiences. Soon such films will disappear along with biology textbooks that don't give equal time to creationism."

This is a crisis for all of us, and every day we ignore it and hope it will go away, more ground is lost in the battle for facts against fiction. This is not about science versus religion – that is a different story. Indeed, when our elected officials replace scientific facts and analysis by theology, they not only devalue science, but also devalue religion, by using it to cast doubt on the beauty and wonder of the natural world. Rather, this is about the right of Americans to have free access to the wealth of well-established facts about this world that their hard-earned dollars have helped to discover. The scientific legacy of great American scientists belongs to all Americans and we should be outraged about any attempts to suppress it, to corrupt it or to undermine its future.
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