Thursday, June 23, 2005

The Reality Gap between Bush and Science

In Europe, I spoke about what I call "The Reality Gap" - the difference between what the government says and what is actually true. Yesterday, the ACLU released a report describing how science has been under siege ever since September 11. Many stories came out yesterday and today with examples about how the White House is applying political pressure to literally alter the truth in scientific matters.

This is simply unconscionable. A society that does not value truth is doomed to failure. It's a pattern throughout history. Fundamentalist societies always fall to the enlightened ones. Peter Watson, in his commentary “The wages of fundamentalism” in yesterday’s International Herald Tribune, explained this well:
Look back at the four great eras of fundamentalism in world history. Under the influence of the Israelite zealots in the centuries before Christ, ancient Israel dropped behind the surrounding civilizations both politically and materially, and provoked the Romans, who annihilated them, sparking a diaspora which lasted 2,000 years. Christianity in the Roman Empire led to half a millennium of dark ages, ending only with the rediscovery of Aristotle in the 12th century. Ascetic Buddhist fundamentalism in China from the fourth century to the ninth century resulted in 4,600 monasteries being destroyed, before the Song renaissance released the finest flowering of Chinese civilization. And Islamic fundamentalism beginning in Baghdad around 1067 led to a millennium of backwardness, which still afflicts the Islamic world.

By contrast, the very history of modern Europe - the scientific revolution, the Enlightenment, the modernist battles of the 19th century - may be characterized as the victory of rationalism and science over religious dogmatism. Europe is the birthplace of science. It was in the universities of Europe, in the 12th and 13th centuries, that the experiment was conceived and the testing of hypotheses became a rival form of authority to that of the church, creating the accuracy, efficiency and prosperity on which the modern world is founded.
So what exactly is the Bush team doing to undermine science? The Executive Summary of the ACLU's report lists these key points:
  1. Restrictions on information. Since 9/11, more information has been classified, and in some cases reclassified (i.e., locking away information previously declassified), than any other time in our history. The administration has banned American publishers from consulting for or helping researchers in places like Cuba and Iran, where great strides are being made in certain scientific areas, due to political concerns. As the report states, “The designation of whole areas of research or knowledge as ‘sensitive’ based only on the vaguest criteria is especially ominous and a recipe for runaway secrecy.”
  2. Restrictions on foreign scholars. Due to increased difficulties getting visas here, some of the best and brightest are precluded from continuing their work.
  3. Restrictions on Scientific Materials and Technology. Certain materials that occur in nature and may have other uses are considered restricted materials now, due to fears of bioterrorism. And the government wants to tell universities who they can and can’t share data with, meaning we could be isolated from sharing with foreign students and professors, cutting us off from their potentially vital insights.

The report’s conclusion is worth repeating verbatim:

The government is seeking to graft the values of security agencies - secrecy, control and confinement of information - onto the world of science, where information must be uncontrolled, open to all and distributed as broadly as possible. This is a mistake for three reasons: it is bad for science, it is bad for freedom, and it is not an effective way of protecting against terrorism.
The report unleashed a new spate of articles around the world on the subject of the Bush administration’s disrespect for science.

In the Washington Post, Rick Weiss wrote:

The ACLU report echoed concerns expressed by others in recent years over an alleged pattern of sacrificing science for political goals, including the editing of scientific reports at odds with White House policies on global warming, mercury emissions, contraceptives and other topics. A letter expressing alarm about such practices, circulated by the Union of Concerned Scientists, has accumulated signatures from thousands of scientists, including 49 Nobel laureates.
In the Miami Herald, Ellen Goodman used the Terry Schiavo case to illustrate the problems with the politicization of science.

The New York Times recently reported how the White House Council on Environmental Quality – the same group who edited EPA warnings re the NYC air after 9/11 – edited reports from government agencies that discussed the causes of global warning, altering the reports to downplay not only concerns but possible remedies. The person doing the editing worked for the American Petroleum Institute.

When even Bush’s strongest ally internationally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, says the President has his head in the sand re global warming, something is terribly amiss. As the American International Auto Dealers group stated, “The Bush administration has its own take on science, however. If you don't agree with a scientific report, just change the wording.”

Bush and Science just don’t mix. Pick your poison, or your salvation.


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