Friday, November 5, 2010

Science Takes a Drubbing Too

It wasn't merely liberalism or more accurately, a desire to advance the United States into the ranks of other nations that promote their general welfare (as opposed to only military or corporate welfare), that took a drubbing in Tuesday's election, but science too - or more specifically, federal science funding. This means in all probability that until the pendulum in the House swings back again, we will either be treading water in terms of scientific advances, or going backwards. (Not very appetizing when the U.S. scores 22nd in the world in its math education and 29th in physics.)

We know already that the GOP platform, in its ill-named "Pledge to America", vows to cut discretionary nonmilitary spending to 2008 levels. Under that plan, research and development at nonmilitary agencies — including NASA, NSF, NIH and others — would fall 12.3 percent, to $57.8 billion, from President Obama’s request of $65.9 billion for fiscal year 2011.

An analysis by The American Association for the Advancement of Science looked at what would happen if all of the agencies were cut to the 2008 amounts. The National Institutes of Health would lose $2.9 billion, or 9 percent, of its research money. The National Science Foundation (NSF) would lose more than $1 billion, or almost 19 percent, of its budget, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would lose $324 million, or 34 percent.

This is absolutely devastating, especially that it was science funding specifically that in the 1960s, set the U.S. on the path to technological dominance even as it mastered space travel in beating the Russians to the Moon.

Perhaps the biggest setback apart from health and space, physics funding, will be in terms of environmental science. We already know, for example, the Republican party has been moving at a rapid clip into the denial camp on global climate change - fueled by disdain for government interference with business mandates and tanker loads of cash from the energy industry and its allies. And we won't even begin to list all the false fronts that masquerade as scientific clearing houses (such as the "Global Warming Coalition") but which are in fact propaganda outfits designed to sow enough doubt to gut climate funding.

When I worked as a research assistant at the Geophysical Institute one of the biggest fears of climate researcher Gunther Weller (in the Atmospheric Science and Aeronomy group) was that his monumental discovery of Arctic warming would be buried by skeptics and the dire consequences unappreciated. This is exactly what we've seen since Prof. Weller documented his findings using ice cores nearly 25 years ago.

Now, we have the wholesale removal of genuine science in the interests of agnotology. Stanford historian of science Robert Proctor has defined agnotology as inventing a skeptic science sown exclusively for political or economic ends - accomplished by imparting ignorance and faux skepticism. It is achieved primarily by sowing the teeniest nugget of doubt in whatever claim is made (and as we know NO scientific theory is free of these 100%, even such rich theories as quantum mechanics and special relativity).

Agnotology is derived from the Greek 'agnosis' and hence the study of culturally constructed ignorance'. Proctor notes that when a society doesn't know something it is often because special (often paid) interests have worked hard to sow immense confusion on the issue. People read 'A' then see 'B' ostensibly refuting it, and without a hard science background themselves (at least two years of university physics or chemistry plus calculus), are "lost at sea".

We know this shtick is working, especially amongst the less learned segments of society, or those who insist economics trumps science (as one finds in the pro-Business, Republican Part). . A recent survey from the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press showed a yawning gap between Democrats and Republicans over the issue, with just 38 percent of Republicans believing that the earth is getting warmer -- a belief that drops to 23 percent among tea party Republicans.

By every account, the Republican takeover of the House (since it initiates most federal funding)is likely to derail any possibility of serious action on climate change during at least the next two years, longer if President Obama is defeated for reelection in 2012. Meanwhile, Republicans in the House have vowed to go to war against the Obama administration's environmental policies, including its (already too tepid) approach to climate change. Republicans have proclaimed their intention to use their new investigatory powers --the majority party controls congressional investigations -- to go after climate scientists. This would, make no mistake, have the rest of the world recoiling in stark horror at a spectacle not dissimilar to the Salem Witch trials of old.

It is already bad enough the nation, based on its large scale rejection of evolution and now man-made climate change, is acquiring a reputation as anti-intellectuals and flat Earthers. The spectacle "trials" proposed by these Repukes will now make us the laughing stock of the planet.

Of course, the Republican attack on science is nothing new. The Bush administration made an art of it, not merely on climate but by supporting such anti-science initiatives as creationism and "intelligent design". At one point during his presidency Bush said he thought intelligent design should be taught in class as the other side of the issue, implying two roughly equal sides to an issue. In fact, essentially all the scientific evidence supports evolution and virtually none supports creationism, or its ID makeover. (Neither of which proposes even one single test for its falsification as evolution does)

Worse yet, the slow creep into U.S. classrooms threatens to render our students as clueless and lame in biology and environmental science as they are in math and physics. Even the The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which spent so freely to elect the Republican House, has ginned up a "climate science teaching guide" in collaboration with a textbook publisher (that should know better) to persuade kids that we can't afford to save the planet, and it's better to allow the polar ice caps to melt and sea levels to rise.

Anyone doing science can only hope the nation can survive the next two years of short funding and hostile "investigations", and that at the end of it, enough voters wake up sufficiently to realize that we haven't the luxury to allow the anti-intellectual Right to gain a foothold.

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