Political correctness and the decline of science

Here’s quick pop quiz for you… which US political party is “The Party of Science” today? I’d be willing to bet that nearly everyone had an answer at the ready and half of you disagreed with the other half. (Assuming a readership which matches the generic national political profile.) Rather than the usual finger pointing, perhaps this is an opportunity to ask ourselves if politics is simply ruining science. And if so, that’s a disastrous shame because we used to be really good at science in the United States.

Alex Berezow at the American Council on Science and Health has a great essay for your Friday reading on precisely this subject. Rather then getting bogged down on who is right and who is wrong on political debate stages – particularly on climate change – he focuses on how much we may be poisoning the well of learning through political maneuvering.

[Nathan Cofnas of the journal Foundations of Science] begins the paper with the story of Socrates, who was executed for “corrupting the youth” of Greece. Forebodingly, he adds, “[T]he philosophy of his prosecutors — that morality-threatening scientific investigation should be prohibited — flourishes even today.”

To support his case, Mr. Cofnas focuses on the taboo subject of group differences in intelligence, which he says is suppressed by those who believe that even discussing the topic is “morally wrong or morally dangerous.”

Those who embrace such a viewpoint obviously do so with the honorable intention of preventing discrimination. However, the proverbial road to hell is paved with good intentions. Such misguided efforts to maintain perfect equality can hamper the advancement of knowledge…

Not only do intellectuals refuse to abandon politically correct beliefs in the face of contradictory evidence, but simply questioning them can ruin a person’s career. Lawrence Summers’ tenure as president of Harvard was cut short because he suggested that there are intellectual differences between men and women. As a result of such punitive pushback, some researchers are afraid to investigate differences between male and female brains, which certainly exist. Without a doubt, this reticence is holding back the field of neuroscience.

The discussion of whether or not there are differences between the brains of men and women (spoiler alert: there are) is nearly as toxic as attempting to study any possible differences between racial groups. Even asking a question can begin an ideological war and end your career. By shutting off the flow of research and frank scientific debate we arrive at all sorts of dead ends which range from the hilarious to the disastrous. We now have large segments of society where people apparently feel that DNA research is all hokum and your X and Y chromosomes are irrelevant. When does human life begin? Don’t ask that one unless you’re ready for a fight. Why is there so much methane in the atmosphere and is it “too much” for the planet? (We actually know the answer to the first part of that one, but if you ask half the politicians in Washington you’d think it was a mystery on par with the question of alien life in the universe.)

Do you really want to argue whether or not politics is impacting science at this stage of the game? Just look around. How long have people been smoking marijuana now… thousands of years? Yet if you ask not only politicians, but scientists, you’ll find muddled answers and looks of confusion when you ask about its potential medical benefits. Don’t you suppose we should have figured that out by now? Are eggs good for you or not? That one depends on which year you ask the question.

If you manage to find something without much political value we’re making new advances all the time. Did you know that some sharks live to be 400 years old and they’re pretty much entirely immune to cancer? Seems like we could learn something useful from them if we applied our efforts, and there are actually some woefully underfunded scientists working on precisely those questions.

So yes, we should challenge everything when it comes to science. Heck, I’m still pretty sure that Neil Tyson is full of it and there’s no such thing as dark matter. It’s just a mathematical dodge to cover the fact that we really don’t know how gravity works. But I could be totally wrong! We won’t know unless we do the research, leave the politics out of it and keep on slugging away until we get reliable results. And in cases where the scientists are divided on immensely complex questions we can have fun debating it all day long, but let’s keep on digging and admit that we don’t have all the answers yet. That’s the heart of the scientific method and we should probably get back to our roots on that score.